I will admit that for the past week, I’ve been googling articles on how to talk to kids about the presidential election. Because of my position at Minnesota Civic Youth, I’ve been asked by parents and teachers for suggestions on what to say. And as a parent to two middle schoolers, I’ve been seeking the right words to both answer their questions and encourage their ongoing interest in our democratic process.
What to say, what to say…
There is no shortage of answers online, and I have incorporated bits and pieces from several experts as I have follow up conversations with people, including my own family. But yesterday I came across a blog post by Jordan Shapiro in Forbes online. The headline was “This Video Game Can Help Kids Make Sense of Post-Election Chaos.” You can find the full blog here.
Since both my own children spend way too much time connected to electronic devices, I was intrigued. Upon reading further, I learned that he was recommending a game called Executive Command from iCivics.org, which is one of my favorite civic learning sites. In his blog he says:
“In the time since the election, adults have been watching the transition of executive power. Some do it with glee. Others are waiting to see whether or not the left’s anti-Trump talking points were valid reasons for serious concern or simply campaign fear mongering. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, our kids need support. Why not offer it in the form of a video game?”
Aren’t video games a waste of time?
It turns out that Executive Command is a free web-based game that teaches young people what the President actually does. It ignores all the political rhetoric that’s been the focus of the last many weeks and instead illustrates how the executive branch of our government actually works. Shapiro describes it using terms you might not associate with civic education:
“Think of it like a text book lesson in U.S. Government… but fun, playful and relevant for the 21st Century. You play as the president and you need to sign and/or veto bills, delegate tasks to government agencies, give speeches, and meet with various heads of state. It may not sound exciting but it’s a race against the clock. The demands come in quickly, and if you take too long to respond to pressing needs, your popularity dwindles… How do you prioritize tasks? How does legislation that supports your agenda actually get enacted?”
If you look at the “About Us” section on the Minnesota Civic Youth website, it describes our approach in this way: We believe that the best training for young people in their role as citizens and community leaders is through active participation in addressing the issues that affect their lives. In other words, we believe that young people learn civics by doing civics, and that includes doing civics as part of an online video game.
Teaching and learning and fun?
Beyond the goodwill you will generate with your students or children for actually suggesting that they play video games, Executive Command, as well as other games on iCivics.org, provides an extra bonus: the opportunity to engage in a productive conversation with your young people about the election and our democracy. Play with them. Or at least sit near them while they play. While they are schooling you on the technical aspects of the game, you can help them think through the civic themes and concepts they are being exposed to. Why are they making the choices they are? What are the consequences of the different choices? How do those choices affect the other branches of government? What surprises them about the choices they are facing? These kinds of questions will encourage young people to think critically about the decisions they are making and give you a chance to explore these topics together.
“The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool,” explained former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day o’Connor, who founded the nonprofit organization iCivics, which hosts the iCivics.org website. “It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.” As parents and educators, it is our job to teach our young people that our political structure is unique and exceptional, even when it produces outcomes that are different than we want or expect. There are clearly many ways to do this, and each of us needs to find the way that works best for us and our young people. But I think that Shapiro makes a compelling case for tapping into the interactive gaming world. He says:
“We all know that it’s not easy to teach kids how to reconcile big philosophical, moral, and ideological political questions. Traditionally, kids handle that kind of meaning-making best when it’s presented through play or narrative – scripture, fairy tales, parables, board games and bedtime stories. Nowadays, interactive digital play is yet another powerful mode of playful storytelling and role-playing that can help our children find comfort in a chaotic world.”
How did you talk with your young people about the election? Have you tried iCivics.org or other online game-based sites? Leave a comment below to tell us about your challenges and successes!