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Children in the future will rule the world, so why not let them run it now? That’s the theory behind Germany’s first certified ‘democratic’ nursery, which lets children sleep whenever they want, paint where they want and determine who changes their nappies.
At the Dolli Einstein Haus in Pinneberg, Germany, children have power. Recognised as the first democracy daycare center in Germany on 9 January, it has been certified according to the concept ‘The childhood of democracy’ by the Institute for Participation and Education in Kiel. The nursery aims to assess how much decision making can be devolved to early years children. A constitution, revised by staff every two to three years, helps calibrate the decision-making process.
The nursery's constitution lists the children's basic rights. On display in each room, these rights include: I have the right to sleep; I decide when I sleep; I decide what and how much I eat; I decide what I play with; I decide where I sit; I am allowed to voice my opinion any time and I decide who I want to cuddle with. These democratic rights are exercised “always under the watchful eye of staff”, says Heike Schlüter deputy nursery manager at Dolli Einstein Haus.
No nap times but bedtime revolts
When it comes to ‘nap times’ she says: “if they don’t want to sleep, they can play”. With the view that children will rub their eyes and nod off when they are sleepy, early years staff have found running a democratic setting is a real "learning process” for parents.
“Most parents say the children are getting more self-confident. But at night some parents are reporting children don’t want to go to bed.” The staff then advise families and children that parents set the rules and regulations at home. On the whole, staff found families have embraced the democratic model, which has been operating at Dolli Einstein Haus for almost three years.
We smell it, we change it
As indicated by the Spiderman quote: 'With great power comes great responsibility', one may wonder how do children, whose brains are still developing, learn about accountability which is surely tied to each decision?
One issue that has been known to cause a stink has been nappy changes. The right to decide when a nappy must be changed lies exclusively with staff. She explains: “We see it, we smell it, we change it [nappies]. But the child has the right to say ‘I don’t want them to change it. I want this person’.”
With leadership being distributed equally between the sexes and a boy and a girl from each nursery class elected by their peers to represent them, votes are cast on many issues such as party planning, which toys should be brought outdoors and what is on the menu.
Anonymous votes on pancakes vs spaghetti
Every week, each class meets to vote on issues, which can be a simple choice between pancakes or spaghetti for lunch. Voting styles vary. The choices are drawn out on paper which is placed in the middle of a circle of children, with each child sitting down facing outwards (to allow an anonymous vote). The children then take turns to place a coloured pebble, known as Muckelsteine, next to their prefered option.
Children can also vote by dropping a tennis ball down a clear tube next to the picture of a vegetable to show what they prefer to eat that day. In the interests of a child’s health and wellbeing, red lines drawn by the nursery that must not be crossed include: “When we go outside, when the weather is bad, we tell them they must wear a coat.” Ms Schlüter is also quick to state: “They are not allowed to decide who works here”.
’It’s in our control’
The children decide for themselves what they play in their group. If early years staff suggest an activity, “the children can decide if they want to participate but “this does not apply to the singing circle since the children must be there”, even if they won’t sing.
With 31 staff and 175 children registered, staff get together every week to talk about how the democratic system is working to make sure - as the deputy head says - ‘it’s in our control’.
With lots of freedom to choose at the setting, staff monitor each child’s development by offering many different activities involving language development, numeracy etc. Two staff members are assigned to 20 children, with their development “under observation all the time”. Staff write an annual report about every child for parents.
'More independent, more outspoken'
Dolli Einstein Haus, open from 8am to 4pm, is run by the charity Workers Welfare Institution which plans to have all 58 nurseries operating democratically in Schleswig-Holstein by 2020. Following in Dolli Einstein Haus’ footsteps, eight nurseries became certified as democratic last February and 12 more are expected to get the accreditation by the end of 2017.
Ms Schlüter says: “We are very innovative and we are open to modern, different styles of working and what we can do better for the children.”
The deputy manager says parents, as well as staff, have seen positive changes in the children at Dolli Einstein Haus.
She says: “The children are more self-confident, independent, outspoken, more keen to share their views, make decisions.
“We are pleased to have got the ‘democratic’ certification this year. We have been working on this idea since 2001. We would encourage more nurseries to go ahead and try it for themselves.”