Civic engagement is one of the building blocks of a healthy democracy, and this is something that needs to be encouraged if we want to make the world a better place. Of course, that is easier said than done, and many experts and concerned citizens alike have long wondered exactly how this type of engagement can be boosted and how they can convince more people to “get involved”. Researchers have now discovered that the impetus to participate in extracurricular and civic activities later in life can actually be traced back to people’s classroom-based play experiences and cognitive skills in kindergarten.
NYU Steinhardt’s Research Assistant Professor of Applied Psychology Jennifer Astuto, the study’s author, said her pioneering study found the first empirical evidence that the skills and experiences of kindergartners shape their societal engagement when they get older.
She added: “The developmental skill, executive function, and engagement in classroom-based play are not only important for being ‘school-ready,’ but also may be unique pathways to becoming ‘civic ready’ for children growing up in the context of poverty in America.”
There has long been a gap in civic engagement between low-income communities and those with higher incomes. Until now, however, research has not focused much on the development of civic engagement in early life, with much of the focus being on adolescence and adulthood.
Core executive functions the foundation of societal engagement
The core executive functions of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control are believed to be the foundation for productive societal engagement, and classroom-based play allows children to develop these functions. For example, they learn to become members of social groups, follow rules, and become active listeners to others’ social needs. All of these behaviors are the hallmarks of civically engaged adults.
“When young children are engaged in play they have the opportunity to create and develop ideas – as well as a sense of community – with other children. Sharing and encouraging each other’s curiosity and imagination through play can build a sense of appreciation for the value of working together toward a common goal, even when differences exist,” Astuto stated.
The study looked at the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class that followed 22,782 children from kindergarten through eighth grade. In particular, they looked at 7,675 students who lived in poverty when they were in kindergarten.
They considered two main factors: the executive function of the children and their exposure to classroom play and how they affected their participation in extracurricular activities when they reached eighth grade. Previous research has shown that children who take part in extracurricular activities are more likely to participate in civic behaviors as adults, such as voting, volunteering, and talking to public officials.
The researchers discovered that those with greater executive function participated more in sports, musical activities, and drama clubs, and they notched up more hours of extracurricular activities overall. Classroom-based play engagement was also found to be a significant predictor of club and activity participation in middle school. Their study was published in Applied Developmental Science.
Raising children to be more involved
Early childhood classrooms in low-income communities can benefit from this knowledge by nurturing executive function and promoting classroom-based play. After all, a child’s kindergarten classroom is typically their first social blueprint, setting the stage for all of their future interactions. With poverty reaching alarming levels in our nation and as many as one in six Americans going to bed hungry, teachers in low-income schools need to cultivate these skills in their students if they want to help these children avoid oppression and give them the best chance of a fruitful life.