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Encouraging Civic Engagement at All Ages

It is the time of year when many of us display patriotic decorations, go to parades, and gather to celebrate the anniversary of our country’s independence. Along with enjoying the fireworks and barbeques, our children and youth are paying attention as we discuss freedom, its costs, and the state of our union. How do we teach our children about their rights and responsibilities, helping them to become the civic leaders of tomorrow?

Civic engagement activities are beneficial to the community, and they also enrich the lives of our children and youth through character building, community participation, and personal development. Volunteering, national service, and service-learning are all forms of civic engagement, and both nonpartisan and political efforts show benefits for kids. Much of the research on youth civic engagement focuses on civic learning, modeling civic behaviors, discussing civic values, having political discussions, and encouraging local, state, national, or global action.

According to a 2019 study published in the journal Child Development, civic engagement of all forms is associated with future income and education levels, while volunteering and voting show favorable mental health and physical health benefits. Research also shows that kids involved in community service grow into adults that typically have a stronger work ethic, continue to volunteer, and have higher voting rates. Community engagement also can help children and youth of all ages develop feelings of empathy for others.

Children of all ages can learn about democracy, our political system, and civic engagement. Like so many of the skills we teach our children, it’s important to start young and be intentional when fostering such participation. Here are a few tips for encouraging civic engagement at various stages of child development:


  • Adults can help children as young as three years old learn the behaviors and attitudes associated with community service – the ideas of caring and sharing.
  • Expose children of this age to the political process by taking them with you to vote, visiting history museums, and talking with them about issues important to their family.
  • Practice voting in small doses with your child. Vote on the type of snacks to get, books to read, or a game to play.

Elementary School

  • At this age, children are learning about the formation of our country and our structure of government. Highlighting the differing functions of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches helps them understand what they are beginning to hear through media outlets.
  • Elementary students often start basic giving and service projects through faith-based and afterschool programs, such as the Scouts.
  • Activities like donating food or outgrown clothing increase the ability of children under ten to understand the experiences and needs of others. 

Middle School

  • These kids understand abstract concepts such as freedom and democracy. They can also differentiate between political parties.
  • We should talk to middle school children about their place in their larger community, including direct paths for impact.
  • Students at this age can work independently, making it important that they are shown how to translate their interests or passions into productive action. 

High School

  • By high school, students have the capacity to understand complex problems, including ways they can contribute to solutions.
  • Help high schoolers research ways to learn about, engage with, and participate in various levels of government. Youth advisory boards and internships can be invaluable hands-on learning experiences.
  • As this group nears the voting age, it’s important to reinforce the responsibilities of a thriving democracy.

It is important to ensure that all young people have the opportunities and access to develop civic engagement skills. Investments in youth engagement need to be made across communities and schools. Kids need safe spaces to express developing and differing views, especially if those views differ from those of their families or communities of origin. All youth need to be heard, with their views and perspectives taken seriously by youth workers, educators, and members of their families.

We all want our children to grow up to be responsible, engaged citizens and good people. We want them to learn to feel, think and act with respect for themselves and for other people. We want them to pursue their own well-being, while also being considerate of the needs and feelings of others. We want them to recognize and honor the democratic principles upon which our country was founded. We want them, in short, to develop into both lifelong voters and contributors to our community.



About the Indiana Youth Institute For three decades, the Indiana Youth Institute has supported the youth services field through innovative trainings, critical data, and capacity-building resources, aiming every effort at increasing the well-being of all children. To learn more about the Indiana Youth Institute, visit www.iyi.org, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.