Goldfish vs. Animal Crackers: How to teach young children about elections

The 2020 United States Presidential election is looming a mere three months away. And when I say looming, this is probably one of the most controversial and historical elections in U.S. history. As the 2016 election taught us, surprises can happen, and polls can’t always be believed. Regardless if you vote red or blue, teaching children the importance of elections and how the government works is key to creating generations of future voters. In all the years I taught preschool and pre-kindergarten, if there was a major election, I held a class election.

Now before you gasp and wonder, did she really polarize the children into two political camps? Yes, I did, sorta, but they weren’t democrat vs. republican; they were Goldfish vs. Animal Cracker. The only way for children to understand something is for it to be relevant to them. While I encourage reading children books about presidential and governmental figures, elections, and who can forget School House Rock videos, most of it will go over their heads, especially in preschool. Planning, implementing and carrying through on a classroom election, or if you are a parent reading this, a home election is a guaranteed way to educate children on politics without getting into the controversial nitty-gritty.

The concept of an election is actually quite simple to teach to children. You let them know there are two choices and each person gets to vote for one of those choices. The one with the most votes wins. Of course, as adults we know it is much more complex than that, but this is how you start. Teaching about elections not only gives young children a chance to learn about something some adults might consider beyond their scope, but it incorporates math, logic, and social emotional development. How does it feel if your choice won vs. if your choice lost? It teaches children we can hold different opinions but still remain friends and work together.

Each time I taught this unit I divided the class in half. One half was team Goldfish and the other was team Animal Cracker. The children had campaign meetings, created posters for their candidate, designed the election box and the ballot. Then, the children would “campaign” by visiting other classes and asking them to come and vote on election day. You can scale this activity down within your household and invite your relatives or close friends to vote via email.

Providing children with the opportunity to have a choice empowers them. And while the selection of snack may seem minor to you, it can be major to a preschooler! You can also extend this concept into voting about what toys to put out in a center, voting on the theme for a class party or voting about what book to read. For parents, you can host family votes on what movie to watch, what to order for take-out night and what board game to play! Once the concept of voting is introduced it can be used over and over again. Children will also learn about disappointment because no matter how much you want it, your choice will not always be the winner.

Engaging children in heavy political discussions and discourse is useless and not developmentally appropriate, although if you discuss politics at home, they are sure to overhear some of your opinions. This is not the time to preach and convert them, but you can use it as a way to say, “Mommy and Daddy don’t like “X” because of “ABC” or vice versus, “I like “Y” because she believes in “ABC” and so do I. It is important to explain to children why you feel a certain way, this will help build their cognitive development as well as a social and moral understanding of what it is important to you and your family.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

No matter what happens in the November election and how uncomfortable your Thanksgiving dinner, virtual or otherwise may be, there is nothing wrong with teaching young children the importance of voting and how the political system works. Remember, one day soon they will have a voice and they will be making the decisions so why not start the preparations now?

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