We usually don’t think of children as voters, but there are plenty of ways to teach the concept of “voting” to young children.  Voting is a method for a group such as a meeting or an electorate to make a decision or express an opinion, usually following discussions, debates…(Wikipedia).  Do young children have opinions?  How about babies?  Do you?  An opinion is really just a preference for someone, something, or some way something is being done.  So the answer is a resolute “YES”.  Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers have opinions. They exercise their opinions when they choose the toy they want to play with, or the person they hold their hands up to be picked up, or the peer they want to play with, or whether or not they eat the peas on their plate. There’s a choice…a decision to be made.   To really grasp what this “voting” option means, let’s consider the opposite of  “voting”:  to appoint, prearrange, select, or determine something; for example, to control what happens when, what we study, where and or with whom I play.  I cannot help but think of what over-control does to young children—control prevents the development of autonomous morality (making decisions based on logical thinking), with morality stalling out at the heteronymous level –doing things simply because we have been told to do them rather than thinking on our own and developing self-expression and problem-solving skills.  We rob children of developing self-regulatory and citizenship skills when we don’t offer choices.

So before you stop reading this post completely, let me say this: There are many things in our early childhood programs that we do and should control–things like providing a nutritional dietary plan, having classroom rules, setting a schedule or routine, or determining operational hours of our program.  But even within the things we control, there may be ways for young children to voice opinions.  Let’s look at some:

For Infants, it is about recognizing and accepting their preferences.  Before you can “vote”,  you have to learn that your preferences are valued–that someone cares about what you want or need!  Young babies prefer their mother’s voice to anyone else’s…and her scent. They have preferences for how they like to be held, what they like to look at, or which blankie or pacifier becomes the favored one.  Babies will look at both objects when given two items, but they will continue to gaze at the preferred item.  They tell us what they are interested in learning if we’ll only just observe. But more often than not, we tell them what they’ll be learning today or this week.  Take an infant who has discovered their hands or feet…they study them, play with them, kick them, put them in their mouth. Think of the sensorial richness of this “study” and really all we need to do is ensure that we “follow the child’s lead” by playing “This Little Piggy” with baby’s toes, counting toes, reading 10 Little Fingers and 10 Little Toes by Mem Fox, putting toes in sand or water, and so on!  Just look! We’ve done creativity, language and literacy, numeracy, social/emotional, and science.  The child tells us what their study topic is…we provide experiences to expand learning.  This individualized approach sends the message to the child that we value them and their preferences!

For Toddlers, we can also follow their interests…whether it’s cars and trucks, baby dolls, or potty training.  What we need to remember for both infants and toddlers is that the processes for learning are relationships, routines, and play!  Relationships, in which infants and toddlers feel secure, promote exploration.  Exploration leads to learning.  But we all know that toddlerhood can be fraught with tantrums and power struggles.   Their favorite word is “no” and so they are in their own way asserting their opinion, casting their vote if you will.  The problem here is that they think they know what they want and they haven’t been convinced otherwise, right?  Simple choices make life a lot easier for you and the toddlers in your life.  Two choices that are BOTH acceptable choices:  You want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?  Do you want to play with the truck or the blocks?  Would you like to wash your hands by yourself or would you like me to help you?  Once again, everything can’t be a choice, but offering choices when you can makes the times when there is no choice much easier!

In a democracy, your opinion matters.  In a dictatorship, your opinion doesn’t matter “one iota” (as my mother would say).  Babies and toddlers are people too and learn so much by how we respect their opinion!  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic!  Next post…Preschooler voting!

By the way, check out ELI’s online course about Individualized Lesson Planning for Infants and Toddlers!!!