Subscribe Today
Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Critical Geography in Preschool: Evidence of Early Childhood Civic Action and Ideas About Justice

by Katherina A. Payne, Anna Falkner & Jennifer Keys Adair - 2020

Background: U.S. preschool children from Latinx immigrant and Black communities often experience schooling rooted in compliance and overdiscipline. In these contexts, schools do not recognize the rich lived experiences of Children of Color as suitable for civic learning. This article explores how, when schools value young Children of Color as capable and their work as important, classrooms become sites of children’s daily embodied civic action.

Purpose: Our study sought to better understand how children conceptualize and enact their ideas about community and to document the kinds of civic action present in early childhood classrooms. Applying theoretical tools of critical geography, we specifically analyzed how children used space and materials to enact their vision of a just community.

Participants: Three classrooms—an inclusion classroom, a bilingual classroom, and an English-only general education classroom—located within a Head Start center in South Texas participated in this study. The campus is roughly 65% Latinx, 33% Black, and 2% White, serving 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children.

Research Design: This study used a multisited, comparative ethnographic methodology. Multisited ethnography allows researchers to locate patterns and contextual differences that impact people’s lived experiences. Initially, researchers conducted ethnographic observations through field notes, photographs, and short videos documenting children’s action on behalf of or with the classroom community. Next, we used video-cued ethnographic methods, filming for three days in each classroom and editing the footage into a 20-minute film. We showed that film to teachers, families, and children in focus groups. Analysis occurred in multiple phases, during which we refined codes through individual, partner, participant, and team-level work.

Findings: Children used physical space and materials to assert community membership and to strengthen community ties. They adapted space and classroom materials to include other community members in shared activities. Finally, children advocated for space for their own purposes.

Conclusions: When teachers and administrators approach the classroom as a civic space where children representing racial, linguistic, and ability diversity can access embodied experiences with civic action, children can use their space to act on behalf of the community. Rather than offering lesson-based social-emotional learning, schools can reflect on how children might build a just, caring community through authentic embodied experiences that include having some control over space and materials. Doing so may allow a shift toward class environments that support shared endeavors and opportunities for children to care for community members.

Between 3 and 8 years of age, young children start developing an identity in relation to their communities and the larger society (Martínez, 2018). In schools, as in churches, community organizations, and other early childhood settings, students begin extending their own ideas about the world beyond those of their own family. This period is also when young children begin school. They spend 410 hours a day away from their homes with a group that is not their immediate family. In the United States, preschool or prekindergarten is often the first time young children experience everyday life with people outside their families or close communities (Tobin et al., 2013). Yet, young childrens schooling spaces are rarely considered in civic education. How do young children come to think of themselves as civic beings who are willing and able to think about justice and act on behalf of other people, their larger communities, and even their nation? And how can early childhood education spaces support young children in this civic process, particularly in their ideas about justice?

In this article, we draw on data from the Civic Action and Young Children study, a multisited, video-cued ethnographic study of three Head Start Classroomsinclusion, bilingual, and general educationwith 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children. The purpose of Civic Action and Young Children has been to describe and understand the ways in which young children act civicallywhich we define as acting with and on behalf of each otherin preschool classroom spaces, particularly when it comes to childrens ideas about public justice. We specifically sought to learn from children from Latinx immigrant and Black communitiesthe children most likely to be heavily monitored and controlled in U.S. schools (e.g., Kozol, 2012) in public preschool spaces. During preschool, this control comes in the form of overdisciplining (U.S. Department of Education, 2014), walking in single-file lines in hallways and classrooms with closed mouths and arms behind their backs, and rigid exercises that require much more obedience than creative or sophisticated thinking (Adair, 2015). The level of control and submission that young Children of Color face in school often obfuscates their sophisticated civic work. Instead of spending time with their classmates, working through conflict or experiencing the sensation of helping and being helped by one another, most early childhood programs ask them to comply with expensive teacher-directed social-emotional curriculum (Schonert-Reichl & OBrien, 2012). Schools often do not recognize the rich lived experiences of Children of Color as ready spaces for social and civic learning, and almost never as sites where young children embody their views of justice (Adair et al., 2018).

The classrooms we documented did not have a specific social studies curriculum, nor was social studies a subject that teachers officially included in the daily schedule. Still, we collected hundreds of examples from 460 hours of observation over 101 days of children acting civically over the course of one school year. This article details types of civic action that we observed children enact. Then, using Schutz and Sandys (2011) concept of the civic realm and the work of critical geographers concerned with spatial justice and right to the city (Harvey, 1996; Lefebvre, 1991; Mitchell, 2003; Soja, 2010), we reconceptualized the preschool classroom as a civic space where, rather than be taught about it, children embodied civic action as they interacted with one another and the classroom environment. The lens of critical geography draws attention to how children used space and materials to act for and with their community. We argue that civic action for young children is an embodied process that occurs through their interactions with people and spaces. Children readily engage their classroom spaces in ways that support civic action when classroom and school spaces value childrens agency and community membership.


Schooling has long been seen as an essential space for the development of civic skills, knowledge, and dispositions (e.g., Cooper, 1930/2000; Dewey, 1916) because it is the first sustained public experience for children (Parker, 2003, p. xviii). School spaces provide opportunities for children to work through many of the same issues that older adults struggle with, including getting along with those different from yourself, acting in response to injustice and oppression, and creating rules and ways of behaving that help communities function. When children arrive to preschool, they are entering what Schutz and Sandy (2011) describe as a civic realm. The civic realm is a space in which people can practice the shift between private and public, where members learn to interact around a common purpose.

For young children, preschool is one of the first major civic realms that have the potential for them to engage as active participants in the public. While children are practicing civic action in ways that may support them as they age and prepare them to engage further with the broader public, they are also acting civically in these moments. For young children, these civic acts are real; they are not practice, preparation, or rehearsal. The civic realm of a preschool classroom and their experiences learning to care for and consider one another are real life to young children. How the preschoolor any other space in which people can act civically before entering the larger public societal spacecan be a productive civic realm depends at least in part on how the space operates and allows for civic acts of justice.


Space is increasingly recognized as a factor in whether civic development happens. Schmidt (2011) argued that citizenship education tends to focus on the type of citizen (e.g., Westheimer & Kahne, 2004) instead of the where of citizenship. She noted, Citizenship is situated in places and students actions as citizens reinscribe the meaning of these places (Schmidt, 2011, p. 107). Young citizens shape and are shaped by the geographies they live in. They engage in place-making as a form of civic action. They reshape and even transform spaces to reinscribe what it means to them to be a citizen. Although Schmidts (2011) work focused on older youth engaged in public realms, we see young children engaging their own classroom spaces as civic realms and argue that engagement in these civic realms is a critical way in which young children are civic actors.

In early schooling spaces, as demonstrated in work across the fields of social studies, educational psychology, geography, and early childhood education, children use materials, furniture, and even mundane objects toward their own creative self-expression and exploration (Alleman et al., 2003; Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007). Children construct and negotiate spaces as they navigate relationships with peers and teachers, build community, and cultivate child-only spaces (Langhout, 2003; Lash, 2008; Rasmussen, 2004). Environments influence students identity and community belonging through interactions, relationships, and cultural reflection (Angell, 1991; OMahony & Siegel, 2008; Tarr, 2004). Children use environments in classrooms as spaces to work together and form peer relationships (Corsaro, 2018; Carr et al., 2010; Peters, 2003). Materials within a schooling environment can help young children act out, negotiate, and make sense of what they see in their daily lives. These practices are most noticeable, perhaps, in classrooms where teachers draw on the Reggio Emilia tenet of seeing the environment as the third teacher. Reggio Emilia and Reggio Emiliainspired teachers are trained to recognize the impact that an environment has on childrens learning and participation. As Strong-Wilson and Ellis (2007) argued, From a childs point of view, an environment is what the child can make of it (p. 43). Space and how children use it are both components of positioning children as civic actors.


Developmental psychology and early childhood education offer substantial evidence that young children are embodied learners (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2009; Kamii, 1984). Young children learn through experience with and discovering via multiple entry points into knowledge, rather than simply being taught a lesson or shown a model (Hyson, 2008). Gopnik et al. (2000) found that babies, toddlers, and young children navigate new knowledge much like scientists who field test and work through multiple hypotheses to figure out which one is predictive and most accurate. This field testing and working toward knowledge happen through trial and error, experience and interaction as early as infancy (Gopnik, 2009). In addition to embodied learning that leads to physical skills, children learn through experience about how to think about themselves in relation to the larger world. Perhaps more important, young children also begin to conceptualize through their experience how the larger world thinks about them.

Embodied learning is also part of how children form relationships and learn what is expected of them as a family or a community member. Studies at the intersection of anthropology and child development have demonstrated that young children learn values, routines, functions, and relationships in their communities through participation (or a lack of participation) in everyday life. This developmental stage of first experiencing and thinking about the expectations from the larger society occurs through what children are able to do, not so much by what they are told (Rogoff et al., 2003). Urrieta (2013) argued that learning through participation or side-by-side learning, as described by Rogoffs work in Indigenous communities in Mexico and Central America, is not a characteristic that should be ascribed to any one group or people; rather, it is a reflection of organizing daily community life so that work is not segregated. Community life in which children and adults share space simultaneously encourages children to watch and help out and allows for embodied learning; this does not require direct, didactic or factory-oriented (Freire, 1970) learning that is isolated from the real activities of everyday life. Children learn this community value by living it, not through explicit instruction. Urrieta (2013) argued that space embedded with certain values and beliefs allows embodied learning for children who are daily participants within it. Through an ethnographic study in San Miguel Nocutzepo, a community in Central Mexico, Urrieta (2015) observed that children and youths learning in family and community life was not artificially created (p. 372). Instead, children learned through participation in and contribution to everyday community life. Urrieta (2015) wrote, Nocutzepo ways of organizing learning, unlike the suburban child who sells lemonade in the summertime to learn a lesson on capitalist entrepreneurship, were real, purposeful, and encompassed a totality of shared, lived experience (pp. 372373). Children were not segregated from adults, nor were they doing made-up activities. They watched and then helped out with necessary, daily activities.

Embodied learning necessitates children learning through real-time, authentic, and necessary daily practices instead of hypotheticals or made-up activities. This means that children learn most effectively about community membership, for example, through experiencing community as a member. They learn to be a community member as they contribute to actual, real community life through participation, observation, and consistent, ongoing experience. This type of embodied learning requires spaces and community orientations that accommodate childrens agency (Adair, 2014) and allows for meaningful movement, action, initiative, and noise so that children can act on their ideas and follow their interests that contribute to collective endeavors. Thus, the Civic Action and Young Children study paid particular attention to how and where children engaged in their educational spaces as a civic realm. To think about the where of childrens embodied civic learning and their civic acts, we have turned to theorists and literature from critical geography. Although critical geography focuses on adults and youth, we see the theories of spatial (in)justice (Soja, 2010) and the notion of the right to the city (Harvey, 1996; Lefebvre, 1991; Mitchell, 2003) as a way to reconceptualize civic education in order to center young childrens capacity for civic work and the need for them to learn and develop through participation in actual, everyday civic experiences.


Although historically, both spatial justice and right-to-the-city approaches to civic space have been used to understand large, public, urban spaces, as well as older people, we see these theoretical frames as a way to make sense of young children using the smaller (yet still public) spaces of preschool classrooms for civic work. Sojas (2010) theory of spatial (in)justice examines the distribution of space, valued resources, and opportunities to use both space and resources in equitable ways. He argued for a shift toward centering spatiality in approaches to justice and countering injustices. Soja (2010) recognized an ontological spatiality of being. He saw people as social, temporal, and spatial beings who interact, change, and produce spaces imbued with social meaning. Spatiality is socially produced and can be changed through social means. This interaction through space is intersected by power. Lefebvres (1991) notion of the right to the city (see also Harvey, 1996; Mitchell, 2003) positions citizens as having the right to strive to shape their civic or public space, not only to reflect their current beliefs about justice but also to generate processes that promote justice going forward.

If we approach early childhood classrooms as initial civic spaces in young childrens lives, we can extend these critical geographers claims of right to the city to young childrens right to the classroomthat is, their right to shape the classroom and school spaces in which they operate daily. And in turn, we can see young childrens interactions with space and materials as endemic of their growing sense of community. Children engage in their preschool classrooms as civic realms, as their own public space where they are constructing community. Children are both shaped by and actively shaping the spaces that affect opportunities to expand civic capabilities. While sociologists and critical geographers examine larger geographic spaces of cities to find phenomena that shape social life, particularly injustices embedded in structures, we wondered how these theories of space might support a reconceptualization of preschool classrooms as civic realms.


Consider the following scenario. One day, Ms. Luz, a Latina preschool teacher from our study, asked Sierra, a gregarious, observant Latina 4-year-old about the work of art that she had created and was sharing proudly. Did Sierra want to take the art home or hang it up in the classroom? Ms. Luzs seemingly benign question introduced days and then weeks during which students placed artwork around the room. Students finished artwork and then cut small pieces of tape to hang it on the walls and on the sides of furniture. The students took Ms. Luzs question as an idea, which they took up by hanging artwork around the room without any further prompting. Where they hung the artwork and how much they put up for communal display were the childrens doing.

Within civic education, teachers or scholars might treat this act as insignificant. The childrens artwork largely consisted of pieces of creative expression, unrelated to any formal school curricula. It was not created as part of a multicultural curriculum, nor was it an explicit form of protest or other traditional civic action. However, in U.S. schools, teachers usually control which student work is hung up on bulletin boards or in hallways. Walls and the work exhibited on them usually relate to the formal school curriculum. Giving Sierra a choice was already unusual compared with what we often see in Head Start and other public preschool and prekindergarten classrooms. When we first saw the artwork, we asked about it and noticed the importance of childrens agency in the classroom. However, as we learned to treat the classroom space as a civic one and to see children as embodying civic acts, we were able to acknowledge that children in this moment not only felt comfortable hanging up their art in the community space without prompting, but also expanded the artwork hanging practice to take up space not typically relegated to art. Over the course of a few weeks, we noticed art pieces hung up in the dramatic play center, along the air conditioning units, and tucked into the corners of the classroom. The artwork phenomenon early in our research timeline was important for two reasons. First, we could see that these young students used the physical space as means to demonstrate their community membership. Children claimed and revised space as they engaged in embodied civic practices. Second, childrens engagement in civic spaces was evident not through the products they created, nor through lesson objectives, but through observing how they used the classroom and school as a community space. Their demonstrations of civic action, and their acting notions of citizenship, were best recognized by observing how they used their bodies and made decisions within and across their classrooms.


To see how young children used their classroom space as a civic realm, we have drawn from data from the Civic Action and Young Children study, an international ethnographic study (Tobin et al., 1989, 2013) of early childhood learning centers in three countries: the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. In each classroom, researchers spent one to two school years documenting childrens civic action, which we collectively defined as their actions with, and on behalf of, others within and even beyond their classroom community (see Adair et al., 2017). The operating methodology for our study was a multisited, comparative ethnography, which aims to understand the classrooms in relation to one another and as embodied and interpreted by our participants. Multisited, comparative ethnography has a long history in anthropology and sociology as a means to understand groups of people as they live out their lives constrained by different geographical factors, and the variety of political, natural, social, and cultural forces that accompany different places. An example of this type of research is the Children Crossing Borders study, which looked at early childhood education and compared immigrant communities ideas about early childhood across multiple cities within the United States as a way to understand the immigrant parent experience across geographical space. In this study, researchers found that Latinx immigrant parents had drastically different experiences and ideas about what early childhood education should look like, depending on where they lived in the United States. If they lived in communities with a long history of immigration from Mexico and Central America, their desire for bilingual education was less urgent. They believed that they would be able to pass on Spanish in the childs worlds outside of school because their worlds were full of people speaking and living their lives in Spanish. Parents who lived in small towns were deeply concerned about not having bilingual education because English dominated most of their and their childrens everyday life. In Iowa, for example, parents worried that their children would lose their Spanish because the community of Spanish speakers was so small, and school was conducted in only English. Multisited ethnography aims to locate patterns and contextual differences that impact the lives of people, depending on where they live and the spaces they occupy.

Our goal for the Civic Action and Young Children study was to document the kinds of civic action that were present in each classroom, particularly those that were initiated without direct adult instruction. We wanted to better understand the ways in which children made sense of what it means to be part of a community and how they enacted their ideas about community. We wanted to know how environments and spaces (both pedagogic and geographic) impacted how children acted civically.

In this article, we focus on a data analysis of civic action examples from the U.S. site, the Cielo Early Childhood Center.1 We approached Cielo as a possible site for research because the principal, Dr. Canales, had been a former student and colleague of ours. She had participated in a previous study with us and knew the burden that research can be on sites and participants. To her, the study seemed like a good opportunity to see how the children were responding to the changes she had made as school leader. She also told us that she wanted this research to center on the civic action of children from marginalized communities, who were often absent from studies where children have agency (personal communication, November 2, 2015). She hoped that the children at her school could demonstrate the rich knowledge and potential of children whose families are struggling economically but who should be still offered positive, rich, and meaningful learning experiences.


Cielo Early Childhood Center is part of a large citywide school district in South Texas. Cielo resides in a former junior high school building in a predominately Latinx and  Black neighborhood. The school became a Head Start center in 2009 after an initiative by the city to offer Head Start services. The campus serves 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children. The campus is roughly 65% Latinx, 33%  Black, and 2% White. As a Head Start Center, the school serves low-income families, with nearly 100% of students receiving free lunch.

In 2013, Dr. Canales took over leadership at the school and made significant changes that included more teacher autonomy over the curriculum, schedule, and routine. Hallways transformed into spaces where children hopped and skipped and sang their way to the garden, gym, or outside playground. Each class served between 12 and 19 children, typically with one teaching assistant. The principal engaged the school community in multiple professional development sessions about alternative assessment models, including portfolios and learning stories from the New Zealand preschool curriculum model, Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, New Zealand, 2017; see also Nuttall, 2003).

Each morning when children walked up to the front doors of Cielo, there were adults waiting inside to greet them and their caretakers. The school was divided into four main wings with common garden spaces in the middle; one was used for a school vegetable garden, and another was a play garden that included large wooden building blocks, oversized outdoor instruments, and other outdoor toys. There was a large gymnasium with racks of balls, an area with a rug and a bin of giant Legos, a tricycle area, miniexercise machines, another area with pillows and a rack of books, and a section with musical instruments and items for dancing and movement. At the back of the school were two new playground structures with slides, bridges, climbing walls, tunnels, and seating areas. There was also a paved area to ride tricycles, and a large grassy area surrounded the two playgrounds. Classrooms lined both sides of three main hallways. Often there were stacks of floor pads for naptime or trays for meals lining the hallways.

We worked in three classroom communities, all with different spatial organizations and groups of children. Next, we describe the participants from each classroom and give a map of each overall classroom layout. All three classrooms featured large classroom rug areas where children and teachers gathered for group discussion, daily meetings, read-alouds, dancing, and various play activities. Classrooms also included tables for family-style mealtimes, small-group work, and different centers such as art, math, and literacy.

Ms. Luz & Ms. Louisas General Education Classroom

In the English-only general education classroom, Ms. Luz was the lead teacher, and Ms. Louisa was the assistant teacher. In Table 1, we describe the participant characteristics.

Table 1. Participants From Ms. Luz and Ms. Louisas General Education Class

Head Teacher: Ms. Luz (Latina)

Assistant Teacher: Ms. Louisa (Latina)

Number of Students: 18*

Special Education Designations




15** typical-developing

8 boys

8 Latinx

Three 3 turning 4

Five 4 turning 5

7 girls

5 Black

2 Latinx

Five 4 turning 5

Two 4 turning 5

3 special education accommodations

1 boy

1 White

One 3 turning 4

2 girls

2 Latinx

Two 4 turning 5

*Two students moved part way through data collection, and two new students joined the class during the study. The numbers here represent the total participants.

**The following year, an additional 3-year-old child (a Black girl) would go on to receive special education services and moved into the inclusion classroom.

Figure 1 shows the layout of Ms. Luz and Ms. Louisas classroom. On the walls hung posters with each childs name and pictures of their family that each child had created and brought in at the start of the year. There were Head Start-prescribed signs reflecting the High Scope curriculum adopted by the school and, as the year progressed, a growing collection of student artwork.

Figure 1. Map of Ms. Luz and Ms. Louisas general education classroom


Ms. Amaya & Ms. Gomezs Special Education Inclusion Classroom

Ms. Amaya and Ms. Gomez were the head teachers in the inclusion class. Two years before data collection, they collaborated to combine Ms. Gomezs (general education) class with Ms. Amayas (special education) class to make one inclusion community classroom. In Table 2, we describe the participant characteristics.

Table 2. Participants From Ms. Amaya and Ms. Gomezs Special Education Inclusion Class

Head Teacher: Ms. Amaya (special education teacher, Latina), Ms. Gomez (general education teacher, Latina)

Assistant Teachers: Ms. Duran (Latina), Ms. Trevino (Latina), Ms. Walker (Black)

Number of Students: 17

Special Education Designations


Race / Ethnicity


10 typical-developing

7 Boys

2 Black

4 Latinx

1 White

Three 3 turning 4

3 Girls

1 Black

2 Latinx

Three 3 turning 4

7 special education

6 Boys

1 Black

5 Latinx

Four 3 turning 4

Two 4 turning 5

1 Girl

1 Black

One 3 turning 4

Ms. Amaya and Ms. Gomezs inclusion classroom consisted of two actual classrooms and sets of children combined into one space and community. Children moved back and forth through a set of doors and a hallway bathroom that acted as a passing gate between the two spaces. Children in this dual-inclusion class model spent the whole day together as a group except for restroom time and nap time. Figure 2 illustrates the layout and major areas in the classroom. As in Ms. Luz and Ms. Louisas general education classroom, pictures of the children in the class and their families covered walls and one of the doors and were displayed in frames throughout the room.

Figure 2. Map of Ms. Amaya and Ms. Gomezs special education inclusion classroom


Ms. Lopez and Ms. Rodriguezs Spanish Bilingual Classroom

Ms. Lopez and Ms. Rodriguez taught seventeen 4- and 5-year-olds in a Spanish-English bilingual classroom, with Spanish as the dominant language.

Table 3. Participants From Ms. Lopez and Ms. Rodriguezs Bilingual Education Classroom

Head Teacher: Ms. Lopez* (Latina)

Assistant Teacher: Ms. Rodriguez* (Latina)

Number of Students: 17

Special Education Designations




16 typical-developing

16 Latinx*

8 boys

8 girls

Twelve 3 turning 4

Four 4 turning 5

1 special education

1 Latinx*

1 boy

One 3 turning 4

*All children were from Latinx immigrant families and were native Spanish speakers, as were Ms. Lopez, the head teacher, and Ms. Rodriguez, the assistant teacher.

Figure 3 shows the general layout of Ms. Lopez and Ms. Rodriguezs classroom. Like the other classrooms, pictures of students and their families adorned the walls, along with Head Start and High Scope posters.

Figure 3. Map of Ms. Lopez and Ms. Rodriguezs bilingual education classroom



The data collection in all three classrooms followed the same process. First, teams of two researchers spent two to three days a week in each classroom. During the initial, ethnographic stage of the project, researchers took field notes by writing down the details of all moments that a child acted on behalf of or with someone else, even if it was subtle. After about two months of observation/documentation and when the children had normalized the researchers as members of the community, researchers used cameras to document children acting civically via photographs and short videos. These photographs and short videos supplemented our observational field notes.

The goal of the ethnographic part of our study was to collect all the ways children acted civicallyin the broadest sense of civicnesswith two main criteria: (1) children working together on a shared endeavor, and (2) children acting on behalf of each other or toward a larger group goal. Children working together on a shared endeavor included children cleaning up, building a ramp, talking on pretend phones, arguing over costumes, and trying to get the teachers attention to come see something. For example, in the general education classroom, one day, Nicholas and Diamond were working together at the art center. They noticed that the paint was sticky and began exploring it together. Diamond invited Nicholas to sit with her on the larger teacher chair so they could begin painting. They started painting on their own papers but soon commented on the others painting. They reached over their own painting to add marks to the others paper. They used the materials and the art space to turn an individual activity into a shared endeavor (Field note, March 3, 2016; Photograph, March 3, 2016). Children working on behalf of one another included children advocating, standing up for someone else, arguing for or against community rules, trying to welcome someone to a space, conversation, or activity, and helping someone with a project. For example, each day, children helped one another open milk cartons. Children who were skilled at it would seek out those who were struggling and help. (Field note, February 17, 2016; Photograph, February 17, 2016). Although there was no direct benefit to the child who helped to open the milk carton, we saw again and again childrens eagerness to help each other through these everyday actions.

As we collected observed examples in our field notes and visual artifacts from each classroom, we collectively created a table of civic action examples. This table included the date, a short description of the basic plot of the scene, and the data source (field note, short video, or photograph; see Appendix A). At weekly team meetings, we shared these examples. These team meetings honed our conceptualization of civic action. We also used these discussions to note preliminary themes emerging during data collection.

After the first phase of ethnographic data collection, we entered the second phase of video-cued ethnographic data collection. We filmed for three days in each classroom. We selected one day of footage, usually the second or third day, after children were used to the larger cameras, and edited that full-day footage into a 20-minute film. Teachers watched the films to give feedback that informed another round of editing the films. Families and children then watched the films in focus groups, where they discussed what they saw happening in the classrooms. In this article, we draw on data examples from both phases of data collection, including ethnographic field notes, photographs, short films, and full-day films.


After 460 hours and 101 days collecting data in the three classrooms, we began our first round of coding. Teams of two analyzed the table of examples at the classroom level, looking at the types of collective efforts to work on behalf of or with the community, and assigned open codes (Appendix A). We shared our example tables, initial code names, and videos of these examples with the teachers and asked for their feedback. Next, we merged the three classrooms sets of open codes. We focused on types of civic action that we characterized as collective. Any instance that involved two or more children in which they acted with or on behalf of each other qualified as collective civic action. Through this process, we developed an initial set of codes for collective civic action, which also served as a list of categories of civic action that we observed in preschool classrooms over a sustained period.

We applied this new comprehensive set of codes to our data to see if our categories covered all examples. This process allowed us to further refine codes. For example, one code was help out. Yet, as we looked at all our codes, we soon realized that help out could describe many of the actions. We looked carefully at examples we had marked help out and divided those into three separate codes: notice and respond to injustice; notice and respond to pain; and notice and respond to a need. In the final phase of coding, we applied 13 codes representing the range of collective civic action that we noted. The 13 codes nested under collective civic action were: advocate, care for the environment, collective resistance/reshaping/transforming, enforcing community rules, include others, indicate relationships, make ideas public, notice and respond to injustice, notice and respond to pain, notice and respond to a need, respond to a request for help, participate in shared activity, and work through conflict/problem solve (Appendix B). Researchers used this refined coding schema to code all field notes, photographs, short videos, and full-day films using the mixed-methods software Dedoose. Photographs and short videos were embedded within full-day field notes. To code the full-day films, we uploaded narrative documents that tracked every scene across the day. These scene-tracking documents aided in creating the full-day film and captured each scene from the day. At the start of this second round of coding, every team member coded a single field note to establish interrater reliability. Finally, each team member coded all field notes with embedded photos and short videos and the full-day film scene tracking documents. Appendix C includes an example of our refined coding process.

Throughout the project, we met for two to three hours weekly. Through these meetings, we refined our field observation skills and our coding schema. In lieu of analytic memos, we kept detailed meeting notes. We see these meetings and notes as the social construction of coding and collective ideas related to patterns and themes emerging in the data. During one meeting, we discussed examples of shared endeavors by children and considered what aspects of the pedagogical context supported this type of civic action. A member of our research team shared an example from her field notes in which several children were playing their own version of the Three Little Pigs story in some open cabinets, often referred to as cubbies, that were meant for storage. Throughout the play, the students invited nearby children to join and collectively build houses. In analyzing this moment, we talked about what enabled students shared endeavor to occur and what tools students employed to build community in that exact moment. The segmented arrangement of the cubbies lent students hiding spaces from the imagined wolf, and they easily built doors with blocks to enclose the open front. This area was not a regular part of the dramatic play area; it was normally used for storage. Students had moved into this area, which had prompted their play, and then used it to bring others into the community as they and another playmate filled each cubby. We saw this in line with our earlier observation of students hanging up artwork; childrens use of space expanded civic action opportunities. We added the additional code, space, to our 13 types of collective civic action.2 In our data analysis, we coded this incident as participating in a shared activity, including others, make ideas public, and space.


In all three preschool contexts, childrenin their embodied learningused the space and materials around them to build community. Critical geography argues that these acts of agency within space are important to equitable and justice-oriented civic environments. We found this to be true in preschool contexts, just as they are in cities. Children, when they were permittedand sometimes even when they were notused spaces and materials to engage collectively, shape their community, and enact their ideas of justice. How young children used space and materials communicated their core ideas of justice. Using aspects of critical geography, we will spend the remainder of this article looking carefully at three demonstrated dimensions of justice enacted through the ways young children used their space to build a just community (as they saw it). These dimensions of justice were (1) community membership, (2) inclusion, and (3) advocacy. Through detailed examples, we show how children revised their spaces and used available materials to extend the boundaries of their communities, transform individual activities into collective endeavors, and advocate for spaces that children control and use without adult interference.


The physical space and materials of the classrooms created possibilities for students to signify their place in the community and to strengthen community ties. As described earlier, Ms. Luzs classroom students taped up their artwork in various areas of the classroom. Children putting their artwork all over the walls at child height without adult assistance was something that happened when Ms. Luz asked the children whether they wanted to take their art home or hang it up. Although Ms. Luz initiated the idea, the students expanded her idea and continued over days and weeks without her prompting. The artwork started to adorn the walls, radiators, and cabinets. The art ended up in many places that did not occur to Ms. Luz as being places in the classroom to hang art. They tucked art into corners, hung it on the play furniture in the dramatic play area, and put it on the sides of the low shelving unitsrevising each space to be places to hang their work. Children also made decisions about when they were ready to take their art home, and by doing so, they often relegated the space back to a wall or play piece or shelf unit. We noticed a continuous rotation of artwork. We observed students finish their artwork and then select a space to hang their piece in the classroom (Photograph, April 27, 2016; Field notes, April 27, 2016).

These acts could be dismissed as children just hanging up their art, but the concept of spatiality pushes us to pay close attention to how people interact, change, and produce social meaning through use of shared space. We saw children often share their individual work with the larger group by using the various spaces in the classroom as their art gallery. All these spaces turned into shared reflections of what community members have done. Putting something on the wall of the classroom became a marker of membership, a way of shaping the classroom to reflect the students within it. And these markers of membership came from the childrens ability to have some power to shape and reshape spaceswhat critical geographers note is an important part of attention to power and voice in how places are shaped and used.

Children also used physical space and materials to strengthen their community relationships. One day, Nicholas and Adrian, both 3-year-old boys in Ms. Luz and Ms. Louisas class, were in the math center, which contained multiple containers of different math manipulatives. Nicholas and Adrian were both working with the magnet tiles in separate spaces until Nicholas took a triangle-shaped tile and smashed apart a set of tiles that Adrian had connected. At first, Adrian looked upset, but then Nicholas said they were at a bakery. The two boys accumulated tiles, links, and magnetic balls and sticks and pretended they were working in a bakery, cutting the pieces, lining them up, and putting them in baskets. They took the basket over to the chair at the computer center, where Nicholas slid the basket under the chair and said to Adrian, Now we wait. The researcher asked them, What are you guys making? Nicholas replied, A batch of cookies! Nicholas then took the basket out of the oven space underneath the chair. Enrique, who was playing with the Legos at the same center, noticed what they were doing and protested, No, you arent supposed to mix them [math manipulatives]! Enrique dumped out the basket. Nicholas furrowed his brow, pursed his lips, and said, No! Stop. Were making something. Adrian looked surprised. Enrique continued to protest and turned to Ms. Louisa to tell her. At this point, center time was ending, so the conflict also ended as the three boys cleaned up the center (Field note, January 13, 2016; Photograph, January 13, 2016).

In this scene, Nicholas used the materials available in the math center to construct his own play, invite Adrian into that play, and then continue co-constructing the bakery, all of which strengthened community ties. Sojas theory of spatial (in)justice asks us to attend to the distribution of space, valued resources, and opportunities to use both space and resources in equitable ways. Nicholass access to varied materials and agency to use them as he saw fitin this case, to create a bakerycreated the opportunity to interact with Adrian and establish community ties. This scene also highlights young childrens different interactions with materials. Enrique clearly thought there was a community rule to keep the materials separated; he attempted to enforce that rule, first on his own and then turning to get aid from a teacher. The scene ended at this point, with all the children cleaning up, so there was no resolution to this conflict over material use. Yet, the conflict highlights the complexity of childrens civic workthey were able not only to manipulate materials for their chosen purposes, but also to express and advocate for varied rules about the materials. Childrens use of materials and spaces supported relationship building and also created possible space for negotiation of rules and norms.

Noting the social production of human spatiality, Soja (2010) wrote, We make our geographies . . . under conditions not of our own choosing but in real-world contexts already shaped by socio-spatial processes in the past and the enveloping historically and socially constituted geographies of the present (p. 103). In these scenes, young children are negotiating the space of a public Head Start school, rife with its own socially produced history; this institutional history plays out in the structures and rules that govern how children can, or should, operate within school and classroom space. Instead of framing their acts as simplistic, we see how they have used the space and materials to act civically toward creating community. Schools are spaces that we force young children to inhabit; however, children can also negotiate the use of those spaces, which further expands their civic capabilities. Here, we note how young children claimed the space and the materials within it as a means to develop community membership.


Students accepted the general spatial structures imposed by the teachersthat is, the physical layout of the classroomyet, they also modified these structures to better include more community members. They took Play-Doh from the art center and used it for pretend food in the dramatic play center (Video footage, February, 2016), or, as noted earlier, dumped out all the math manipulatives and reorganized them to make a bakery (Field notes, January 13, 2016; Photograph, January 13, 2016). These daily manipulations of materials may seem insignificant as civic acts, but they indicate how students claimed the class community as their own through spatiality. In Ms. Lopez and Ms. Rodriguezs classroom, students regularly played at the intersection of the classroom centers (e.g., dramatic play area, art area, literacy area) that teachers had defined. In one scene from the time students spent in centers, three girls played alongside one another on the floor at the intersection of multiple centers. One girl played with Play-Doh, while another played with materials from dramatic play, and another used drawing materials (Full-day film, May 5, 2016). Reshaping the space where center play could happen allowed the three girls to include each other in their play.

In another example from center time in Ms. Luz and Ms. Louisas classroom, students would make a plan with one of the teachers about where they wanted go and what they planned to do at that center. Students then took their Velcro name tag and placed their name on the center sign located in the center. Each center sign had a maximum of five Velcro spaces for students. Usually students followed the rule about the maximum number of students allowed in one area. Sometimes, we saw students modify the signs to allow for another child to join the center. One day, Enrique and David wanted to play together in the toy area, but it was full. David placed their name tags on the one vacant piece of Velcro so that both children could play together (Field notes, April 20, 2016). David redefined the space not only to meet his needs but also to include Enrique in the play.

Mitchell (2003), drawing on Lefebvre, noted how a community can have opposing visions and ideologies about the purpose of a space. He noted that representations of space are planned, controlled, ordered, whereas representational space is appropriated, lived in, and in-use (Mitchell, 2003, pp. 128129). Like many teachers, Ms. Luz assumed a maximum number of children who could reasonably exist together in a space. She planned for center spaces. Yet, as children lived in the space, they redefined its usage to represent their values. In his use of the space, David concurrently rejected a structure that limited participation, and he embodied the value of inclusion by physically manipulating the space so more children could play together. Davids actions redefined the space, thereby allowing Enrique access to a space previously unavailable. Students revised how the space was socially produced in order to meet the needs of those who were disadvantaged by the system put in place by those in power (Soja, 2010).

Another example of revising classroom space to ensure inclusion of classroom members occurred one afternoon in Ms. Amaya and Ms. Gomezs class. The reading areaaway from the big carpet that served as a meeting and play spacecontained books and soft pillows. One day, however, a student fell asleep on the big carpet. Camden noticed, commenting, Sleep! Hes asleep. At first, Camden and Nicole yelled loudly at the boy to wake him up, but Emmi told them, Dont wake him up. They watched him sleep, then moved to the class library center. Nicole got a pillow and took it back to the carpet, where she lay down with the book, telling Emmi, Sleep with me! One by one, several students brought pillows, carpet squares, and books to lie down on the carpet near the sleeping child (Video footage, May 19, 2016). In moving the contents of the library center to the big carpet, students created a community space that was quieter, had less movement, and was less likely to wake the sleeping child. They continued to include the sleeping child in their construction of community. The value of inclusion became clear through childrens interaction with the classroom space.

Students repurposed and revised classroom spaces and systems to accommodate the needs of community members. While teachers created spaces for their institutional purposes and with their community rules in mind, students actively engaged in reshaping those spaces to reflect their desire to include others. Childrens inclusion of others forwarded their vision of what community looks like, as well as what values that community reflects. Through their civic action to include community members, they perpetuated a definition of citizenship that included place-making as an aspect of their community (Schmidt, 2011). Like the citizens within urban spaces reclaiming parks (e.g., the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York City during the Occupy Wall Street movement), students asserted their right to the classroom by reappropriating classroom spaces to include others, particularly vulnerable classroom citizens. In each instance, students cared for the needs of others in embodied ways, acting on their knowledge and trying out civic strategies. Furthermore, as the example with David and Enrique illustrated, they applied their knowledge of how classroom space was produced to obtain access for students who otherwise might not have been included. We note that the teachers could easily have reminded students of the system they put in place for centers or asked students to keep materials in their designated spaces; instead, they observed children or joined in play, tacitly acknowledging their role as place-makers for the community.


Through their embodied actions, children also advocated for spaces for themselves. In small moments, children played in spaces, such as the underside of tables, or hid in classroom cubbies, claiming those spaces as only for the child members of the community. They also carried these civic practices into spaces outside the classroom, taking their ideas of citizenship into broader social and spatial contexts. For example, during time at the playground, a group of students initiated a game by crawling on top of a tube that was just below a walkway; the space in between was barely 2 feet in height, large enough for a 4-year old, but too small for an adult. Three students started this activity and then invited others until the space was full (Field note, February 17, 2016; Photograph, February 17, 2016). Civically, they initiated and invited others into a community. Additionally, they revised a planned playscape space to serve their child-centered and child-defined purpose.

Creating this space for children (and not adults) allowed students to advocate for themselves as full citizens of the school community, capable of defining the landscape for their purposes. The concept of right to the city is rooted in the fact that cities bring together people from different groups, and thus, these differing interests must struggle to shape the space and thereby create new modes of inhabiting and cohabiting (see Mitchell, 2003). In public school classrooms, children, teachers, and other adults come together from their varied private spheres. Adults maintain positions of power, in part through their implementation of rules about the use of space. However, in moments such as this, students actively engaged as civic members of their classroom, creating their own parameters for the use of space. In other words, their right to the classroom included place-making processes that many would assume were only available to adults.


Classrooms and schools as civic spaces are too often considered through the lens of curricula and instructional choices by the teacherfor example, developing the democratic skill of raising awareness about an issue through oral or written language development (e.g., Adams, 2015; Bickmore, 1999; Blevins & LeCompte, 2015; Levin-Goldberg, 2009; Montgomery et al., 2014). While we acknowledge the influences of politics and ideologies on classroom and school geographies (e.g., MacNaughton & Hughes, 2000), we also see evidence of young childrens place-making capabilities.

Reenvisioning civic education, particularly in support of young childrens civic desires and actions, must include the classroom and school space as a necessary component that expands young childrens civic action possibilities. These young children acted civically through the space. They worked on shared endeavors, a key to coming together as a community, and necessary to any kind of community organizing for the common good. They engaged in problem-solving to reform the space when it did not meet their community needs. They used materials afforded to further relationships among community members. They included members of the community when they were vulnerable by reshaping and repurposing spaces. Each of these actions, although seemingly small, carries heavy meaning, both symbolically and materially; their actions within the civic space of the classroom constitute purposeful civic action. Additionally, all these acts construct the idea of being a memberthat is, a citizenof a classroom.

Just as the broader public engages in civic action as part of their right to the city, advocating for the reallocation of space or materials to push back against injustices, childrens civic acts were an embodied form of their right to the classroom. Children reformed their environment to make the community reflect their vision of justice. Imagining other possibilities for classroom tools and spaces, these young children constructed new means of membership, inclusion, and advocacy. Young children demonstrated personal and group membership in their community within the space of the classroom. They added items such as pictures to the space, making it shared rather than merely received. Children often broadened their communities collectively by using materials together in the service of a common goal or desire. Young children extended the boundaries of their communities and defined community outside the purview of adults. Across all the classrooms, young children defined themselves and others as members (i.e. citizens) of their classroom community by engaging with the physical environment and the tools afforded within those environments toward shared, collective endeavors.

Young childrens engagement with their lived classroom environment highlights the role of spatiality in young childrens construction of community. Children did not just accept the construct of citizenship offered by the teachers and curriculum; rather, through their engagement with the spaces of schooling, they shaped and reshaped their own meanings of being a citizen within the civic space of school. Schmidt (2011), drawing on spatial theorists (Harvey, 1996; Lefebvre, 1991; Soja, 2010), argued that young people are working through space not merely existing in it (p. 269). She argued that while school makes subjects, we must also attend to how subjects are enabled/allowed/disavowed (p. 269). In this article, young children used the space and materials of the school both to resist ideas of citizenship that did not fit their apparent needs, and to construct citizenship through engagement with others via materials. Framing school as a civic space through critical geography offers a view of young children as agentic in their construction of citizenship, rather than as passive or oppressed recipients of dominant norms and narratives.


Classrooms can be expansive or constricting spaces that shape young childrens civic engagement and civic action. In these examples, children were able to practice and experiment with embodied civic strategies. An expansive approach to civic action means that young children are encouraged to engage in their embodied forms of learning as part of their everyday civic practice, rather than restricting civic learning to didactic or lesson-based opportunities. In an expansive environment, children are afforded opportunities to try out civic action, allowing them to revise and refine their approaches as they learn.

We have argued that when opportunities to reform, reshape, and revise the environment for childrens particular purposes exist, classrooms can provide expansive civic action opportunities for young children. Yet, classrooms and schools can also be spaces that narrow civic opportunities for young people, particularly young children from traditionally marginalized populations (e.g., Valenzuela, 2010). Because of the institutional culture of Cielo, the classrooms at this early childhood center primarily supported childrens agency and expansive civic action. However, we also acknowledge that these three classrooms were highlighted by the school leader as places where we might see the kinds of civic action we imagined young children doing.

Scholars of sociocultural theories of learning and development (Daniels, 2007; Rogoff, 2003; Vygotsky, 1978) have argued that people learn through participation in social practices that are situated in particular contexts. Additionally, Rogoff (2003) argued that this participation in our sociocultural communities, which change and shift, is the foundation for human cognition and development. Too often, civic education scholarship maintains a singular goal of acculturating children to replicate society as it currently stands (Hess, 2009; see also Kahne & Middaugh, 2008). For many children, society as it stands is an inherently inequitable spacewhether because of their gender, race, language, ability, or other marginalizing factors. Across all three classrooms, young children had opportunities to develop a range of civic tools necessary to engage with and challenge our inequitable society by first reforming and interpreting the civic space of school.


Deepening our understanding that young children think and act civically, we must interrogate the spaces that we provide for students to act and the ways in which those spaces support lived democratic experiences (Apple & Beane, 2007; Boyle-Baise et al., 2011). In broad terms, this means that we must ask how schools can embrace childrens right to construct and reconstruct the purpose and use of classroom space. We have seen that when they have the opportunity, young children use the space to act on behalf of the community.

To create space in which young citizens can respond to and care for one another, teachers and schools must account for, and possibly revise the purpose behind, rules and expectations around space and materials. First, teachers and administrators can assess childrens access to and free use of materials. They may consider how easily children can manipulate the space. By allowing open-ended use of materials, teachers in our study cultivated a class environment that supported shared endeavors. Teachers can reflect on their own responses when children manipulate the space in nonprescribed ways. Second, teachers and schools can reconsider the underlying aim of rules around space. They can ask questions such as, What is the purpose of limiting the number of children in centers? What is the purpose of assigning seats at the rug? What is the purpose of playground rules? Further, teachers could ask, What negotiations with space and each other are children missing out on with this rule in place? Because Ms. Amaya and Ms. Gomez allowed for and encouraged movement between classrooms and centers, the classroom community, with its inherent negotiation of relationships, was continuously being restructured and reformed in multiple ways. Ms. Luz and Ms. Louisa reconsidered classroom rules when a new child entered the classroom or when there were protests from children. Teachers can reflect on how the rules around space afford and constrain community development and civic action. Third, teachers and schools can develop nonintervention strategies when children are mildly distressed, hurt, or uncomfortable to allow children to use the space and take the opportunity to respond. Learning how to help other members of the community is key to civic action; however, this cannot happen when teachers are always positioned as the primary helper. Students need to be able to manipulate the environment or have access to materials to help (e.g., an ice pack, cup of water) without severe punishment, hovering, or control. We are not suggesting that adults ignore or neglect an injured child. Instead, we believe that many times, children are capable of caring for a fellow community member in important ways but are too often stopped from doing so by well-meaning adults.

Approaching the classroom as a civic space where children representing racial, linguistic, and ability diversity can access embodied experiences with civic action is imperative for an engaged citizenry. When afforded the opportunities to manipulate their spaces, young children engage in expansive civic action. They create opportunities to work on a shared endeavor when the constructed space would not allow for it. They work toward claiming the classroom space as their own community through use of materials. And they claim spaces outside the purview of adults. While these enactments of civic action may seem minor, when we consider them through a frame that intersects critical geography and civic action, they become acts of reformation and creation. We hope that childrens civic acts may be better recognized, appreciated, and cultivated in early childhood classrooms. Conceptualizing the early childhood classroom as a civically constructed and reconstructed space may enable greater opportunities to engage young children as civic actors in ways that can lead to actualized learning and continued adult engagement with, and on behalf of, their communities.



All names of places and people have been changed.


Beyond the 13 codes nested under collective civic action and space, the only other codes included were teacher/school-mediated civic action; individual civic action; and classroom management.


Adair, J. K. (2014). Agency and expanding capabilities in early grade classrooms: What it could mean for young children. Harvard Educational Review, 84(2), 217241.


Adair, J. K. (2015). The impact of discrimination on the early schooling experiences of children from immigrant families. Migration Policy Institute.


Adair, J. K., Colegrove, K. S.-S., & McManus, M. E. (2018). How the word gap argument negatively impacts young children of Latinx immigrants conceptualizations of learning. Harvard Educational Review, 87(3), 309334.


Adair, J. K., Phillips, L., Ritchie, J., & Sachdeva, S. (2017). Civic action and play: Examples from Maori, Aboriginal Australian and Latino communities. Early Child Development and Care, 187(56), 798811.


Adams, E. (2015). Civics in the grocery store. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 27(4), 1618.


Alleman, J., Brophy, J., & Knighton, B. (2003). Co-constructing classroom resources. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 16(2), 58.


Angell, A. V. (1991). Democratic climates in elementary classrooms: A review of theory and research. Theory & Research in Social Education, 19(3), 241263.


Apple, M. W., & Beane, J. A. (2007). Democratic schools: Lessons in powerful education (2nd ed.). Heinemann.


Bickmore, K. (1999). Elementary curriculum about conflict resolution: Can children handle global politics? Theory & Research in Social Education, 27(1), 4569.


Blevins, B., & LeCompte, K. (2015). I am engaged: Action civics in four steps. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 27(4), 2326.


Boyle-Baise, M., Bernens-Kinkead, D., Coake, W., Loudermilk, L., Lukasik, D., & Podany, W. (2011). Citizenship as a verb: Teaching students to become informed, think it through, and take action. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 24(1), 59.


Carr, M., Jones, C., Lee, W., Smith, A. B., Marshall, K., & Duncan, J. (2010). Learning in the making: Disposition and design in early education. Brill Sense.


Cooper, A. J. (2000). On Education. In A. J. Cooper, The voice of Anna Julia Cooper: Including A Voice From the South and other important essays, papers, and letters (pp. 248258). Rowman & Littlefield. (Original work published c. 1930)


Corsaro, W. A. (2018). The sociology of childhood. SAGE.


Daniels, H. (2007). Pedagogy. In H. M. Daniels, M. Cole, & J. V. Wertsch (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Vygotsky (pp. 307331). Cambridge University Press.


Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. The Echo Library.


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum.


Gopnik, A. (2009). Your baby is smarter than you think. The New York Times, p. 16.


Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (2000). The scientist in the crib: What early learning tells us about the mind. William Morrow Paperbacks.


Harvey, D. (1996). Justice, nature and the geography of difference. Blackwell.


Hess, D. E. (2009). Controversy in the classroom: The democratic power of discussion. Routledge.


Hirsh-Pasek, K., Berk, L. E., & Singer, D. (2009). A mandate for playful learning in preschool: Applying the scientific evidence. Oxford University Press.


Hyson, M. (2008). Enthusiastic and engaged learners: Approaches to learning in the early childhood classroom. Teachers College Press.


Kahne, J., & Middaugh, E. (2008). High quality civic education: What is it and who gets it? Social Education, 72(1), 3439.


Kamii, C. (1984). Autonomy: The aim of education envisioned by Piaget. Phi Delta Kappan, 65(6), 410415.


Kozol, J. (2012). Savage inequalities: Children in Americas schools. Broadway Books.


Langhout, R. D. (2003). Reconceptualizing quantitative and qualitative methods: A case study dealing with place as an exemplar. American Journal of Community Psychology, 32(34), 229244.


Lash, M. (2008). Classroom community and peer culture in kindergarten. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36(1), 3338.


Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space (D. Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). Blackwell.


Levin-Goldberg, J. (2009). Five ways to increase civic engagement. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 22(1), 1518.


MacNaughton, G., & Hughes, P. (2000). Take the money and run? Toys, consumerism, and capitalism in early childhood conferences. In L. D. Soto (Ed.), The politics of early childhood education (pp. 8598). Peter Lang.


Martínez, R. A. (2018). Intersectionality and possibility in the lives of Latina/o/x children of immigrants: Imagining pedagogies beyond the politics of hate. Bank Street Occasional Paper Series, 2018(39), 3.


Ministry of Education, New Zealand. (2017). Te Whāriki He whāriki mātauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa: Early childhood curriculum. Ministry of Education, New Zealand, Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga.


Mitchell, D. (2003). The right to the city: Social justice and the fight for public space. Guilford Press.


Montgomery, S., Christie, E., & Staudt, J. (2014). Rethinking Women’s History Month to inspire civic action. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 26(3), 10–14.


Nuttall, J. G. (Ed.). (2003). Weaving Te Whāriki: Aotearoa New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum document in theory and practice. New Zealand Council for Educational Research.


OMahony, C., & Siegel, S. (2008). Designing classroom spaces to maximize social studies learning. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 21(2), 2024.


Parker, W. (2003). Teaching democracy: Unity and diversity in public life (Vol. 14). Teachers College Press.


Peters, S. (2003). I didnt expect that I would get tons of friends more each day: Childrens experiences of friendship during the transition to school. Early Years, 23(1), 4553.


Rasmussen, K. (2004). Places for childrenChildrens places. Childhood, 11(2), 155173.


Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. Oxford University Press.


Rogoff, B., Paradise, R., Arauz, R. M., Correa-Chávez, M., & Angelillo, C. (2003). Firsthand learning through intent participation. Annual Review of Psychology, 54(1), 175203.


Schmidt, S. J. (2011). Making space for the citizen in geographic education. Journal of Geography, 110(3), 107119.


Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & OBrien, M. U. (2012). Social and emotional learning and prosocial

education: Theory, research, and programs. In P. M. Brown, M. Corrigan, & A. Higgins-DAlessandro (Eds.), Handbook of prosocial education (pp. 311345). Rowman & Littlefield.


Schutz, A., & Sandy, M. (2011). Collective action for social change: An introduction to community organizing. Springer.


Soja, E. W. (2010). Seeking spatial justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Strong-Wilson, T. & Ellis, J. (2007). Children and place: Reggio Emilias environment as third teacher. Theory Into Practice, 46(1), 4047.


Tarr, P. (2004). Consider the walls. Young Children, 59(3), 8892.


Tobin, J., Adair, J. K., & Arzubiaga, A. (2013). Children crossing borders: Immigrant parent and teacher perspectives on preschool for children of immigrants. Russell Sage Foundation.


Tobin, J., Wu, D., & Davidson, D. (1989). Preschool in three cultures: China, Japan, and the United States. Yale University Press.


Urrieta, L. (2013). Familia and comunidad-based saberes: Learning in an indigenous heritage community. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 44(3), 320335.


Urrieta, L. (2015). Learning by observing and pitching in and the connections to native and indigenous knowledge systems. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 49, 357 379.


U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. (2014, March). Data snapshot: School discipline (Issue Brief No. 1). U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-discipline-snapshot.pdf


Valenzuela, A. (2010). Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. SUNY Press.


Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.). Harvard University Press.


Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2004). What kind of citizen? The politics of educating for democracy. American Educational Research Journal, 41(2), 237269.




Following is an excerpt from the example list created from data collected in Ms. Luz and Ms. Louisas general education class:



Description (names & basic plot)

Individual open-coding themes

Data Source



Field Notes



Nicholas and Adrian playing with the magnet tiles - smash and then bakery; Enrique gets upset over mixing of materials in the basket

Working on a shared endeavor; classroom rules versus expanding use of tools


IMG_Luz_160113_Nicholas and Adrian play bakery



In the table that follows, we give our operational definition for each code that fell under the broad category of collective civic action. These were the codes used at the time of the analysis.

Collective Civic ActionChildrens actions that benefit, maintain, contribute to, or extend community




1. Promote (stand up for) someone elses needs, wants, or well-being.

2. Publicize shared concern

*Can be on behalf of another individual or group.

Notice (and respond to) pain

See paineither physical or emotionaland make an attempt to alleviate it.

Notice (and respond to) injustice

See something that is considered unfair and act to rectify it.

Notice (and respond to) need

See a needeither acknowledged or perceivedand act to fill the need.

Participate in shared activities

Act/work together on a project or activity led by children.

Include others

Allow or make it (more) possible for others to be a part of a group or activity.

Indicate relationships

Show, either verbally or nonverbally, that you know a person or community of people.

Care for environment

Show concern for and/or relationships with nonhuman living and nonliving parts of the environment.

Work through conflict/problems

Attempt to acknowledge and bring about a solution to a problem.

Make ideas public

Share ideas with other people.

Collective resistance/reshaping/transformation

Respond in some kind of opposition or transformation to rules prescribed by adults.

Enforcing community rules in service for all

Name a classroom rule/norm to support the community.

Respond to request for help

When another community member asks for help, child responds to request.




Drawing from the same data represented in the example list (Appendix A), we give an excerpt of the field note with refined codes applied.

Field note as uploaded to Dedoose:

Nicholas and Adrian are putting together the magnet tiles. Nicholas then takes a triangle-shaped one and smashes a set of tiles that Adrian has. At first, Adrian looks almost upset, then Nicholas says something to him (couldnt hear), and then Adrian picks up a triangle and also smashes the pile. Adrian and Nicholas then begin accumulating tiles and smashing them with the triangle tiles. At one point, Nicholas very carefully lines up the square ones in a line and then uses the triangle to cut pieces of the long line of squares. He puts the squares in a basket that had links. They now are using the links and the tiles and putting them in a basket. They are also putting together and chopping apart the magnet balls and sticks. They put these in the basket too. They then take the basket over to the chair at the computer center. Nicholas slides the basket under the chair and says to Adrian, Now we wait. I asked them, What are you guys making? Nicholas replied, A batch of cookies! Nicholas takes the basket out of the oven space underneath the chair. Enrique, who is playing with the Legos, sees what they are doing and protests, No, you arent supposed to mix them! Enrique dumps out the basket Nicholas looks angry, he furrows his brow and purses his lips, and says, No! Stop. Were making something. Adrian looks surprised. Enrique protests and says, no, youre not supposed to mix them. He looks to Ms. Louisa and says, theyre mixing them and youre not supposed to. At this point, it is clean-up time (9:20) because they have a bus drill today. IMG_Luz_160113_Nicholas and Adrian play bakery Codes applied to excerpt: Collective Action - Child Only; Space; Participate in Shared Activity; Working Through Conflict/Problem Solving; Enforce Community Rules in Service of All

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 7, 2020, p. 1-34
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23324, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:37:09 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Katherina Payne
    The University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    KATHERINA A. PAYNE, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of curriculum and instruction at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research considers the intersections of civic education, elementary/early childhood schooling, and teacher education, and examines the role of relationships, community, and justice to transform classrooms into child-centered, democratic, and more equitable spaces. Recent publications include: Payne, K. A., & Journell, W. (2019). “We have those kinds of conversations here. . .”: Addressing contentious politics with elementary students. Teaching and Teacher Education, 79, 73–82; and Payne, K. A. (2018). Democratic teachers mentoring novice teachers: Enacting democratic practices and pedagogy in teacher education. Action in Teacher Education, 40(2), 133–150.
  • Anna Falkner
    University of Memphis
    E-mail Author
    ANNA FALKNER, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of instruction and curriculum leadership at the University of Memphis. Her research examines how young children learn about critical social issues such as race/racism, and intersects with critical civics education. Recent publications include: Falkner, A. (2019). “They need to say sorry”: Anti-racism in first graders’ racial learning. Journal of Curriculum, Teaching, Learning and Leadership in Education, 4(2), 37; and Falkner, A. (2018). Racialized space and discourse in the picture books of Ezra Jack Keats. The Journal of Social Studies Research, 42(2), 171–184.
  • Jennifer Adair
    The University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER KEYS ADAIR, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of curriculum and instruction at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research examines the role of race, culture(s), and cross-cultural experiences in early childhood education, particularly the experiences of teachers, parents, and children from immigrant communities. Recent publications include: Adair, J. K., Colegrove, K. S. S., & McManus, M. E. (2017). How the word gap argument negatively impacts young children of Latinx immigrants’ conceptualizations of learning. Harvard Educational Review, 87(3), 309–334; and Adair, J. K., Colegrove, K. S. S., & McManus, M. (2018). Troubling messages: Agency and learning in the early schooling experiences of children of Latina/o immigrants. Teachers College Record, 120(6).
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue