Dolli Einstein Haus in Pinneberg is run on a democratic basis, with votes on everything from food to nappy changes.
The results of a group conference are written on a board at the nursery in Schleswig-Holstein. Photograph: Selim Sudheimer/Bongarts/Getty Images
At the Dolli Einstein Haus, constitutional crises are usually solved before breakfast. When one delegate’s motion in favour of rice pudding with cherry compote was roundly defeated the delegates were left facing a hung vote over the choice of french toast or pancake with apple puree. Another council member then demanded sausages with spaghetti. But a second-round runoff broke the deadlock: 12:4 in favour of pancakes, an absolute majority that everyone could live with.
At most nurseries, parents worry that their child will pick up nits, a runny nose or bad language. At the Dolli Einstein Haus in Pinneberg, however, parents hope that their offspring catch a different kind of habit: a taste for democracy.
The nursery, which was certified as Germany’s first “democracy nursery” earlier this year, is run on a mission to test how far decision-making processes can be devolved to the under-sixes, by giving children a vote on anything from breakfast menus to nappy changing.
Three and a half years into their experiment, the brains behind the project are not only discovering that democratic ideas remain surprisingly contagious even in an era of populist revivals, but that the compromises required are often more challenging for adults than children.
Educators at the daycare centre in northern Germany tell the story of six-year-old Pia, who recently objected to her parents telling her to go to sleep by citing the kindergarten’s “constitution”, which is prominently displayed in each playroom: “I can decide when I go to bed. It’s my right.”
The centre’s charter lists seven basic rights: I have the right to 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; I decide who I want to cuddle with; and I decide who changes my nappies.
The kindergarten’s constitution. Photograph: Selim Sudheimer/Bongarts/Getty Images
Yet the nursery head, Ute Rodenwald, and her deputy, Heike Schlüter, are quick to reject being bracketed with the non-conformist educational models associated with Germany’s 1968 student movement – the word “anti-authoritarian” elicits howls of denial.
“Anti-authoritarian education assumes that any group of children will in mysterious ways learn to regulate and structure itself,” said Schlüter. “But since we’ve had our constitution and children have been involved in the decision-making, we have had more rules than before, not fewer.”
Children at the Dolli Einstein Haus may get a say on who changes their nappies, but after several amendments the small print of the centre’s founding document makes clear that the right to decide when a nappy needs changing rests exclusively with the educators.
Rodenwald sees her project’s mission less in empowering children than equipping them with the skills to cope with with a rapidly changing modern world: “Democracy is not just about elections. For us it is about people – or children – being taken seriously, and learning to make decisions in a way that doesn’t leave other people behind,” she said.
As more and more households are made up of two working parents, Rodenwald argues, the pressure has grown on on preschool establishments to take a more active role in educating young people.
Originally conceived by a group of educators in the state of Schleswig-Holstein in 2001, the project only truly clicked into gear after Angela Merkel’s first cabinet voted to triple the number of day care places for children in 2007. Most children at the Dolli Einstein Haus, which is run by the non-profit charity Workers Welfare Institution and named after a talking bird from a children’s book, are registered from age one and stay there from 8am until 4pm on weekdays.
Once a week, each group at the nursery meets for a session at which there are two rounds of votes: one on the topping of the afternoon cake, and one on the Friday morning breakfast menu. The former is essentially a referendum, with the educators for example offering a choice between lemon and chocolate cake, while for the latter the children can nominate four meal options.
The options are drawn on pieces of paper which are placed in the middle of a circle of children, each of whom sits down on a cushion after listening to the sound of a quiet gong, facing outwards to allow an anonymous vote. When their names are called, the children take turns placing coloured pebbles, known as Muckelsteine, underneath their preferred option.
A girl places her vote for cake. Photograph: Selim Sudheimer/Bongarts/Getty Images
In both votes, the result is strictly first past the post and constitutionally binding. The nursery chef has to act out the will of the voters even if it seems disgusting or unhealthy – a principle which has tested the resolve of parents and educators alike. In the past, the Dolli Einstein Haus has served up pizza and stewed beef with beetroot for breakfast.
Rodenwald and her team argue that the onus is on the adults to learn to accept the children’s decisions, rather than the other way around: “It’s about creating alternatives,” she said. “Our experience is that children will eventually eat spinach, salad or rye bread if you keep on offering it and they see other children eat it.”
Bigger decisions, such as investment in new toys or rule changes in the playground, are made at a monthly children’s council attended by pairs of boys and girls nominated as “passers on”. At one recent such meeting, delegates took their leaders to task after Rodenwald made the unilateral decision to buy a pair of new tricycles.
“It was such a good offer and we knew the kids liked tricycles, so I had just gone for it,” she said. “But the children told us in no uncertain terms that we had not been authorised to make that decision. That was one of those moments where we felt: yes, we are on the right path.
“I don’t know if children are the better democrats, but they are certainly less calculating. They don’t say things just in order to please people.”
In spite of the potential power struggles these democratically trained toddlers may cause at home, the head of the programme at the Workers Welfare Institution said she was not aware of any parents who had pulled out of a democracy nursery so far.
On the contrary: after seven nurseries were certified in February, a further 12 are to follow by the end of the year. By 2020, the charity wants all of its 58 nurseries in Schleswig-Holstein to be run on a democratic basis.