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Parent blog: Hooking kids on civic engagement

Suzita Cochran, a Boulder psychologist, tries out some of the latest ideas on the home front with her three school-aged children. She writes about her successes and failures.

A couple years ago, my kids had a memorable day at our neighborhood playground. They met our mayor. My daughter, 7, was so proud she could hardly speak. It came out later that she assumed our mayor worked daily with Barack Obama.


It wasn’t entirely random that the kids met their mayor that day because it was actually the ribbon-cutting ceremony for our new park.

A year and a half prior, enough neighbors had sent enough email and made sufficient numbers of phone calls to our parks department that a critical mass was reached. The city decided to renovate our broken-down playground. Our park featured  one of those tall metal slides that burned kids’ bottoms on sweltering days. And, it was the only park in Boulder that still had a 1960s metal merry-go-round. It looked like a huge Lazy Susan, which little kids clung to as big kids spun it faster and faster. The parks folks made it clear: They would not be replacing it.

Half of me knew the merry-go-round was dangerous. I recalled stories from my childhood of kids flying off the edge at top speed or getting their heads stuck between the metal disk and the ground. But my kids LOVED it. Of all the hours we spent on it, we only had one bad experience – when my then 6-year-old son, who’d been lying on his tummy watching the ground blur by, suddenly flew off the side like a human lawn dart. Luckily, he landed in some actual grass.

Then, one day the merry-go-round had vanished, leaving nothing but a small hole in the playground sand. Most likely it broke in some minor way, and under cover of darkness, the parks department hauled it away.

Meeting with the grown-ups

At last, we were getting a new playground. Fliers were pinned and taped everywhere, inviting neighbors to come to a community meeting to discuss their desires for the new park. I brought my sons to the meeting because they had definite ideas about what should be there.

The room was full of adults seated in fold-out chairs facing a parks department moderator. The meeting became intense. People had distinct visions of what they did and didn’t want.

My sons asked me to voice their top choice, an 8-foot basketball hoop on a half court. A number of neighbors became concerned about the noise this would generate and the folks who might gather playing basketball at all hours. My sons’ eyes were wide as they watched and listened to the impassioned discussion.

In the end, the basketball hoop was voted down. My youngest son, then 8, had tears in his eyes and his 10-year-old brother looked like he was replaying the conversation in his head.  The community group moved on to other park-related topics.

As the meeting wound to a close, I noticed my youngest son raising his thin arm as high as he could. I had no idea what he planned to say.  When the moderator called on him, the room became quiet. He said in a determined voice, “I’d like to recommend a tire swing.  I’ve noticed at other parks that kids of all ages play on them. And plus they’re really fun.”

Everyone smiled, and nodded.

The best civics lesson

We couldn’t attend the next community playground meeting and, therefore, didn’t know what came of his suggestion. But about a year later when they were installing the actual playground equipment, my son came running home to tell us there was a tire swing at our playground.


The day he met our mayor, my son walked her to the tire swing and retold this story. It made a big impression on him: He proposed a good idea and grown-ups listened.

I used this experience to talk to the kids about how our government makes decisions. The next time I was writing a letter to our congressional representatives, I showed them. After describing the issue I was supporting, I asked if they wanted to add something.

This year for his “Green New Year’s Resolution,” my eldest son decided he wanted to write our congressional reps about a climate change topic. One day last year, he came home from school regaling me with news of a Texas freight train that is partially fueled by beef fat. After telling him I thought this was an urban legend, we googled it. Sure enough, it was true.

My son decided to write our congressman, senators and new governor to suggest that Colorado should have one of these trains – only ours shouldn’t be fueled by beef, but by locally-grown sugar beets.  He told them we could call it the Beet Train.

My eldest looked as proud mailing his congressional letters as his younger brother had telling us about the tire swing. And you know what? My green train-loving son received a personally-signed letter from our governor.

Through these experiences, my sons learned they can be heard. They can make change. Yes, my husband and I nudged them toward involvement, but once they realized the stakes – they took the playground ball and ran with it.

If you’re looking to boost involvement in civic issues by your kids, here’s a great book:

Guerilla Learning: How to Give Your Kids a Real Education With or Without School, by Grace Llewellyn and Amy Silver. This book offers some creative ideas, and gave me support and motivation for things I’ve already been working on with my kids. It lists numerous resources for guidance with this type of parenting/schooling.

And please leave a comment about how your kids saw a problem and tackled it.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.