As children around the world gathered and spoke out today, demanding that adults take action to protect a future they will live to see, it was impossible not to think about the tremendous power of young voices and of how imperative it is that we listen to them. The meaning and significance of children's ideas, and their ability to act as true citizens of the world, is something we believe in deeply in the Nursery School. My hope this Shabbat is that the rest of the world, in hearing these children, will be moved to believe in the worth of their vision as profoundly as we do here on the second floor.
The Imagination of Children Can Save the World, If Only We Will Listen
A central tenet of progressive education is the strong belief that children are citizens, actively engaged in their world and capable of changing it. In the language of the Reggio Emilia approach, we view children as protagonists. They are the leaders and the heroes of their own learning and of their communities. As an educator, therefore, it has not been surprising to see children like Emma Gonzalez and Greta Thunberg so publicly take center stage over the past two years, demanding that we listen to their vision of the future and take action now to ensure that vision.
Revolutions are often led by society’s youth, because in some ways children are better equipped to conceive of bold changes. Though it is usually in adolescence when we see children take up a megaphone, the capacity to pose big ideas about the world is alive in preschool classrooms every day, as young children ask important questions and propose their own solutions. In one of our classrooms this week, for example, the children began to wonder: Who has the power and the tools to fix what is broken or damaged?—an essential question of democratic citizenship, and in many ways aligned with the challenge activists like Thunberg are posing to those in power today.
The psychologist Jamil Zaki recently explained, in a Washington Post editorial, that, while we evolved with strong instincts to empathize with individuals, and in particular with those who are close and familiar to us, these same empathetic instincts often impede our ability to “care about the future.” Zaki points out that it is hard for us to feel emotionally invested in abstractions, and this difficulty often prevents us from acting in the best interest of future generations, particularly on large issues like climate change that overwhelm our ability to feel a sense of immediate, personal impact.
For children, however, the future is inherently less abstract, because it will be theirs to live. Children are also less constrained in their thinking than adults. Their imagination is more expansive and more radical than our own, and the barrier between fantasy and reality is more permeable. Children bring their fantasies to life every day in their play, and so a world that is radically different from the present reality does not feel abstract to them; to a child anything that can be imagined is tangible and possible. The immediacy of their imagination is the reason for both their dreams and their nightmares. It is also this ability to see an imagined world come to life before their eyes that makes children powerful spokesman for change. Alison Gopnick says, “Very young children can use their causal maps of the world—their theories—to imagine different ways that the world might be...Eventually they enable even adults to imagine alternative ways the world could be and make those alternatives real.”
Greta Thunberg has called upon adults to take children’s voices seriously—not to placate them with platitudes and activities that don’t yield real change, but to truly listen and take meaningful steps to support children’s vision for their own future. Zaki says that, though we are not predisposed to empathize with the abstraction of the future, we can learn to do better. And he suggests that listening to children is one powerful strategy for improving our own moral capacities. Children are more able to feel the concrete impact of the future and to imagine a better world for themselves. They also have the ability to make the future feel less abstract to adults, because they are living, breathing emissaries about whom we care deeply.
Over a hundred years ago, Lucy Sprague Mitchell wrote in her credo for progressive education that one of the primary goals of school is to develop in children and in adults, “The courage to work, unafraid and efficiently, in a world of new needs, new problems, and new ideas.” Our children are showing us that they have this courage, and it is up to us to follow their lead. Mitchell concluded her credo with these words: “Our work is based in the faith that human beings can improve the society they have created.”
Let’s listen to our children and get to work. Their future is not abstract, but their vision is bold.