Teaching Strategies

Teaching Young Children About Voting

Election activities that encourage children to cast a vote and abide by the choice of their group can foster a greater understanding of citizenship.

June 3, 2024
CSA Images / iStock

This fall, we will be surrounded by election references—and so will the children in our classrooms. Recognizing how children perceive the process of voting can help us integrate it into the classroom curriculum and make meaning of this social studies concept for our students.

Classroom voting can go beyond superficial sessions of “raise your hand if….” Designing election activities that encourage children to cast a vote and abide by the choice of their group can foster a greater understanding of citizenship, civics, and responsibility to their community.

Voting Activities for young Children

My colleagues and I developed five scaffolded levels that build understanding of the concept of voting. We can use these levels to gradually increase the complexity of children’s exposure to, and understanding of, voting.

Level 1. Different people have different ideas: The essence of a fair vote is that one person means one vote. Young children often do not have one-to-one correspondence, and consequently may, for instance, raise their hands to vote multiple times. So it’s important to make a vote count stationary and visual. 

Instead of raised hands or marks on the board, use concrete objects like chips or Unifix cubes to clearly designate the number of votes for each choice. Make sure that all the tokens are the same size to help preoperational children conserve quantity.

Remember to reinforce the one person, one vote concept by counting the children in the room and comparing the total to the vote count tokens.

Level 2. Learning to accept the outcome: Young children may not perceive that others make different choices, particularly in group environments. The option that wins the most votes may not be the one that they chose, but we can teach them to have respect for others’ choices, and respect for the majority vote.

Provide a simple “private” place for each student to cast a vote unobserved (a curtained “voting booth,” behind a door, etc.). You might use a “ballot box” to keep votes confidential and avoid the perception of disapproval.

Check for prior knowledge. Children may be able to re-enact “voting” in their play, but not have the vocabulary to explain the concept. Make sure to point out the “most” as well as the “least” and explain—young children often don’t know the word “least.” Discuss that the option with the most votes will determine the outcome of the question and what happens next.

Make initial voting activities about simple objects or ideas that directly affect the children but have no strong emotional or political attachment. For example, you might vote on the favorite of three shapes, or a book with multiple characters like The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt. Making the vote safe and nonpersonal ensures that the process does not disrupt any child’s feelings or standing in the classroom community when the child has not cast a vote with the majority.

Avoid using qualitative terms like “winner” and “loser” or concentrating on one being “better” than the other. Emphasize that the choice with the least number of votes is still a good, valid choice.

Level 3. Deliberation provides knowledge before we make a choice: After realizing that the majority vote will affect the classroom activities, children can scaffold up to the idea of preparing for the vote and that a vote represents a choice we make after gathering information. It is an informed decision.

Relate the voting to your curriculum and allow children time to experiment with their options. In earlier levels, children based their vote on any number of personal preferences, but scaffolding up means they start examining the value of each choice.

For example, in the article “Boss of the United States” (also linked above), children were challenged to vote on the best block shape for building towers, but only after they experimented with some blocks. They were able to vote based on their test towers and experience.

Level 4. Using persuasion to influence voting: After understanding that different votes are based on the quality of a choice, convincing others to see things their way shifts children to more considered choices and builds social skills. This moves the child from the objective test-based choices of Level 3 to a more subjective belief-based personal declaration.

After explaining the options, allow children time before the vote to influence their peers. Use the opportunity to have them practice “use your words,” “tell, not yell,” and basic civility and respect. 

Offer prescriptive starter words to assist in polite persuasion, such as, “Here is why you should vote for _____.”

For example, a vote on which play will be performed for the parents might be stretched over several days. Children can explore the pros and cons of options, draw pictures, discuss with peers, and even change their votes.

Level 5. Living with the outcome, but working for change: In Level 2 children first discover that their opinion may differ from that of others and that the majority rules. Level 5 sees them working together for the good of the whole and learning the consequences of the vote, and that it affects the whole classroom and them individually as well. If they did not vote with the majority, at this level they come to know that change is still possible.

Make the vote at this level clearly relatable to children’s lives and place-based within the child’s environment (concrete situations and choices, not abstractions such as countries on a map). It’s vital that children can remember alternative options. For example, children who have experienced the levels of voting participation might use persuasion to choose which new piece of playground equipment to purchase with donated funds. If their choice is not that of the majority, they can work on ways to raise money for the next purchase, and another chance at their choice being the selection.

There will always be someone unhappy with the result of the vote. Scaffolding for this level helps the children see the consequences of the vote and move forward. While the majority choice will be enacted, those who made another choice are still participating in events.

Guiding children to understant the meaning of voting allows you to contribute to meaningful civic engagement across disciplines, even in the early grades.

Sincere thanks and admiration for the development of the voting levels go to my colleagues of superb early childhood expertise, Dr. Betty Mulrey and Dr. Patricia Howson, and to the late social studies guru, Dr. Ann Ackerman.

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  • K-2 Primary

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