The childcare centre where kids make the decisions

Children vote for council delegates by placing pegs into jars.
Children vote for council delegates by placing pegs into jars. Photo: Jason South

Four-year-old Matilda's election pitch went straight to the point: "I would help children feel happy”.

Her classmate Annabel promised more books and music, while Anais vowed to help people stand up if they fell over.

For the past two years, boys and girls at Guardian Blyth Street Early Learning Centre in Brunswick have voted delegates onto a children’s council by weighing up these spiels and placing wooden pegs in jars.

Children at Blyth Street Early Learning Centre have set up their own council and are learning about democracy.
Children at Blyth Street Early Learning Centre have set up their own council and are learning about democracy. Photo: Jason South

It’s part of an experiment to teach our youngest citizens about democracy and decision-making.

The six members of the children’s council meet every week in centre manager Simone Myskiw’s office to discuss issues of concern, such as the controversial inclusion of zucchini on the summer lunch menu.

Disguising the vegetable by grating it into dishes was proposed as a solution. But then one delegate piped up and said, "you can’t do that because it’s my right to know if I’m eating it or not".

The council eventually reached a solution.

“We discussed it with the chef and decided that big pieces of zucchini were better," Ms Myskiw said.

"If you wanted to eat it you could and if you didn’t want to you could pick it out. We only had a debate about zucchini and no other vegetables, thank goodness.”

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The children have also discussed meatier issues, such as consenting to hugs from peers and staff, what qualities they’d like to see in early childhood educators and the cleanliness of the bathroom.

“It was very stinky one day,” four-year-old Mia said.

More recently, the children have shifted their focus to the heavy traffic outside the centre, which makes them feel unsafe when they have to cross the road.

Illustration: Matt Golding
Illustration: Matt Golding 

On Wednesday, they’ll meet with Moreland mayor Natalie Abboud and put forward the case for a new roundabout, traffic light or a pedestrian crossing.

They’ve letter-boxed residents with drawings of traffic lights, cars and stop signs and last week they compiled a list of questions to put to the mayor.

Matilda wants to know whether the mayor gets muddy and likes to throw leaves in the air, while Hunter wants to ask whether she wears a clown hat.

While student representative councils are a common fixture in secondary schools, and the latter years of primary school, they are less common in early learning centres.

But a growing interest in listening to what students have to say is likely to encourage more early learning centres to follow Blyth Street’s lead.

Roger Holdsworth, an honorary associate at the University of Melbourne, said children who were involved in key decisions about their education were more engaged and had better outcomes.

“It needs to be meaningful and not just tokenistic,” he said.

In recent years, he's noticed that primary schools are encouraging younger children to be involved in their student representative councils. Early learning centres are the obvious next step.

The idea of a children’s council came to Ms Myskiw while she was researching the student-centred Reggio Emilia educational philosophy, which the centre is inspired by.

“It spoke to me about the capabilities of children,” she said.

“While we were making decisions for children, we weren’t authentically capturing their thoughts or opinions.”

She said staff had taken on board many of the suggestions put forward by the children’s council.

These include tweaking the morning schedule so children of all ages aren’t grouped together. While staff thought this was a lovely bonding exercise, children found the set-up noisy and didn't like all the unfamiliar faces.

They've also incorporated more soft toys into the centre so children can hug them when they're upset.

But staff have had to put some requests on the backburner.

“They really wanted a karate teacher," Ms Myskiw said.

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