How to turn politics into a learning tool

Lean into what you don’t know and use this chance to take your kids seriously: invite your kids to lead your family in an exploration of those knowledge gaps.

Abigail Africa

Frame the election as a learning opportunity

It’s tough for adults to know what to think, say, or do about such a tight race. It may feel even harder to approach the subject with kids. Politics’ heavy bearing on personal issues of finance, religion, or race can make it seem like Pandora’s box, but we’ll explore in the article below why we actually think it’s a valuable educational resource.

It’s easy to assume that politics and young kids shouldn’t mix. But even if you’ve never discussed politics directly with your kids, they’ve probably caught onto tidbits here and there, either by overhearing their family members or by being in the room while the news plays quietly in the background. Before you go turn off the TV, pause to consider this: It’s likely that your kids have already begun to form independent conceptions of what’s happening in American governance.

It’s even more likely that they’ve picked up on your emotions about the election: excitement, optimism, fear, anger, anxiety. They might enjoy learning more about politics, and in particular, how politics affect their lives. Current events and politics are excellent material for new, exciting learning experiences. 

Teaching kids about civics might sound like a high-stakes balancing act, especially to parents who feel overwhelmed by the tornado of election news. This is a fair concern, but it’s also what distinguishes this learning experience from others: you can learn alongside your kids. You can even give them a chance to lead your household’s journey through civics.

Get started

To start, we recommend opening discourse with a simple question, originally suggested by NPR’s Life Kit earlier this year:

What have you heard [about the election] and how are you feeling about it? 

Try to help your kids fashion their gatherings into questions: They might have heard a handful of names or states without knowing their roles in the election. They might have heard that voting is important, but they might not understand why. 

If you don’t know the answers to your kids’ questions, don’t be discouraged! It’s healthy to show your kids when you need to build or refresh your own knowledge. Lean into what you don’t know and use this chance to take your kids seriously: invite your kids to lead your family in an exploration of those knowledge gaps.

Let your kids lead with curiosity

Politics can be an emotional, personal topic, so be mindful of your own emotions when introducing your kids to political discourse. It’s helpful to  them to reach their own conclusions. Making the home feel like a safe place to ask questions about politics is the first step to creating an inquisitive learning environment. 

As your family starts coming up with questions, list them all out at once. It can be fun to brainstorm all together, building on one another’s questions and sharing curiosities. 

You can sort general political questions into tiers:

  1. Level 1 Questions are foundational, fact-based questions that can probably be answered with a quick online search:

    Who is the Secretary of State? 
    Why does it take a long time to determine election results? 
    What do each of the Presidential campaigns promise?

  1. Level 2 Questions are simple inference-based questions that might take some broader historical and cultural learning to crack:

    What role do kids play in the election? 
    What are the effects of X Supreme Court case?
    Why is this election important?

  1. Level 3 Questions are complex reasoning questions that are best suited for kids who are comfortable thinking about abstract things, like power, representation, and wealth: 

    How much control should the government have over education? 
    How should local and federal governments work together?

  1. Level 4 Questions are very advanced analytical questions that work well for engaging for older kids who might be writing essays and blogs or learning American History:

    What are Democratic and Republican voting demographics like, and what do certain demographic groups gain from their majority party of choice? 
    What are the most successful campaigns for office in US History, and why?

Start by answering Level 1 Questions, which are good opportunities for creating history and civics lessons. These are also great training wheels for basic research skills. Your kids can practice entering questions into Google and you can help them identify the most trustworthy websites and videos. 

When identifying trustworthy sources, make sure to explain why you trust a resource, like a .gov or university website. Make sure to also note the kinds of resources that are unhelpful, like a blog post with no citations. 

You can also guide your kids through library research by helping them navigate resources at your local branch. Read alongside your kids to learn with them, or let them learn on their own and ask them to teach you their findings. Asking clarifying questions can help your kids crystalize their knowledge and feel confident about what they’ve learned.

From there, your family can work your way up through Levels 2, 3, and 4, as your kids become ready to move on and think about the concepts at each level.

Keep learning as your central goal

We recommend celebrating good questions rather than reaching conclusions – or for older learners, developing solid political analyses. Learn more about creating a healthy learning environment here.

Descending rabbit holes is natural to the delicate process of learning the complex geometry of American politics. Try not to react negatively if your kids’ questions seem to trend toward a conclusion that’s different from your own beliefs. If your kids disagree amongst themselves, encourage them to explain their differences and reasoning without insulting each other. Spirited debate is a wonderful, useful tool for learning. No matter what, show your kids that you take them seriously by letting them lead the conversation.

Wherever your beliefs lie, make an effort to show your kids around the multiple dimensions of politics. This will help them build and strengthen their own convictions while piecing together a comprehensive view of politics. Visual aids may be useful here – you can create diagrams of the US government together. Older kids may find it intriguing to learn about political data and journalism. 

Watch out for things that could impede the learning process, like making assumptions and generalizations or jumping to conclusions. Here are some tips to stifle those habits:

  • As your kids start to build a political understanding, help them detect any unfounded assumptions by encouraging them to cite well-reported evidence, examples, and sources to support their conclusions.
  • If your kids are old enough to engage in spirited debate, it can be good to push back on some of their conclusions by playing devil’s advocate, or by patiently showing them where you disagree and why.
  • Avoid and discourage vague or dismissive language, like “bad guys” when introducing a topic. There are of course good and bad actors and decisions throughout US history, so when your kids encounter those figures, encourage them to use specific language describing the impact that a person or a decision had on the country, with examples. Precision and nuance help kids build nuanced understandings of politics, especially when it comes to understanding leaders who have had a mixed impact on America.

Share your own civic engagement

Show your kids the kinds of civic actions that you take, like voting, organizing, staying informed, or registering in the US Census. Open up for questions and when you don’t know an answer, treat it as another opportunity to learn as a family. 

You can also encourage your kids to research and make their own civic efforts. They can make signs for candidates and causes they believe in or illustrate posters of their favorite movements, laws, and leaders. For inspiration, encourage your kids to research other politically active kids who are making a difference across the country.

Take it slow & use existing tools

You don’t need to teach all of American History to make a good civics education. The most effective way to make learning last is to make it personally meaningful. Connecting your family’s civics education to the passions your kids are developing with Primer is a great way to strengthen both efforts.

Connect your kids’ interests to Primer clubs 

If your kids are members of the Naturalist Club, you can encourage them to explore government policies that affect local wildlife and parks and design their own proposal.

If your kids are members of the Storytelling Club, you can emphasize the storytelling aspects of history and encourage them to write a mini history book describing a presidency or a movement that they care about. 

If your kids are members of the Inventors Club, you can encourage them to explore physical and digital technologies that the government uses in an election, like ballot counters and mail sorting machines.

If your kids are members of the Game-Makers Club, you can ask them what it would be like to design a game that teaches kids about the structure of the US Government, or create an interactive map of the 538 electoral votes.

Abigail Africa

Abigail Africa

Beez leads content at Primer. She helped design initial plans for a new XQ Institute school in South Central LA to focus on design, technology, and entrepreneurship. She also researched and developed Notion's free education plan.

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