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Swiss preschoolers engage in ‘citizenship project’ to learn democracy

For Swiss preschoolers, democracy is child's play. Source: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Rather than playing house or building blocks, a few dozen Swiss preschoolers line up to cast their ballots in a vote that will shape lives in the make-believe village where they call the shots.

A “citizenship project” created by three private preschools in the western city of Lausanne aims to prepare children from a young age for participation in Switzerland’s famed direct democracy featuring referendums on a wide range of issues every few months.

“The idea is for the children to learn democracy,” Olivier Delamadeleine, head of the Educalis group that runs the preschools, told AFP.

“We feel it is important to learn the right reflexes from an early age.”

There has been a growing push in Switzerland for such efforts, but the Educalis project stands out because of the very young age of its participants.

Once a week, around 35 three- and four-year-olds drawn from the three preschools gather at the group’s “village” in a wooded area on the outskirts of the city.

Swiss preschoolers engage in roleplay to facilitate learning

Preschoolers and their teacher Eve move the ballot box for vote counting operations on January 18, 2021 in Lausanne during a referendum, organized by private preschools network Educalis, aimed to ease young children into participating in Switzerland’s famed direct democratic system. Source: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Some of the children play roles like village chief, nurse or police officer, wearing homemade uniforms.

“They take their roles very seriously,” Demadeleine says as one of the “nurses”, wearing a white T-shirt with a red cross over her snowsuit, rushes to the aid of a crying child who has fallen face-first into the snow.

Days in the village are spent outdoors, regardless of the weather.

Bundled up in colourful snowsuits, the children sit fidgeting on the steps awaiting the big event of the day: a referendum.

Eve L’Eplattenier, who heads two of the preschools, kneels in the snow behind a table bearing a metal ballot box, and points to a white flag with a crest adorned with a large “E” billowing in the wind behind her.

“This is your new flag,” she said, reminding the children of the first vote held in the village back in November, when they were asked to choose between two designs.

As then, the children recently received an envelope in the post with voting material identical to what adults receive before each popular vote in the country.

This time, the children were asked to decide how they would prefer to vote going forward: by placing an X next to drawings illustrating the current secret ballot vote system, or by a show of hands.

To help organise the voting, L’Eplattenier calls up two girls, Olivia and Layla, who are wearing hand-painted T-shirts on top of their snowsuits identifying them as the village chiefs.

They hand out the sealed envelopes with the ballots the children had filled out at home, and each child manoeuvres one of the secret votes into the ballot box with mittened hands.

Next up: Should we scrap naps?

Afterwards, five children and three adults go into a small shelter usually used for meals that now sports a poster declaring it the “vote-counting office”.

Seated around a large table, L’Eplattenier explains how to open each envelope and place the ballots in two piles.

Then they carefully count each pile together: 19 votes for hand-raising and 17 in favour of continuing with secret ballotting.

“Hand-raising won,” Layla tells the children gathered outside.

A few appeared a bit disappointed that their choice had not won the day, but L’Eplattenier said helping them work through that frustration is part of the exercise.

The next vote, set to take place in a few months, is expected to be on a recycling system for the village.

After that, the children could be called to vote on issues like “nap time, nap length and whether naps should be mandatory,” L’Eplattenier said.

The idea, she said, is to show these Swiss preschoolers how voting “can impact their daily life, and how they can become actors in their daily life.”