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Listen to Children: An excerpt from Trust Kids!—

Stories on Youth Autonomy and Confronting Adult Supremacy


by Sara Zacuto

Ever since shifting my title from being a classroom teacher to becoming the parent educator here at my school, my role in facilitating project work with the children has diminished. It’s something I truly miss, because learning alongside four and five year olds is lively, engaging, enlightening, and challenging, to say the least. But a while back I was inspired to begin a project all on my own. It started with a simple desire to share meaningful quotes with our community of parents and educators who would tour our school occasionally. I wanted to post these quotes in our classroom environment as provocations for dialogue, and also to provide accessible talking points that promote critical thinking about child development and the importance of trusting play as the primary vehicle for learning. I printed candid photos of all the children and included a relevant thought or idea from the wealth of great thinkers I know of and admire. People like Janet Lansbury, Bev Bos, Alfie Kohn, Heather Shumaker, Loris

Malaguzzi, John Holt, Fred Rogers, and many, many more.

After I’d made and hung a few upon our walls, it became evident that this was a powerful way to frame the learning that was going on every day in our school. It became a simple way to document the children and show people the purposeful, productive, and enriching play and work that was happening in every corner of our school. I wanted people to look with new eyes at pictures of the kids running, digging, pouring water, or climbing, and gain a deeper understanding of what was really happening for them in every photo.

They weren’t “just playing.” They were putting in the impactful social work of forming new relationships, taking physical and emotional risks, solving problems, testing boundaries, imagining, hypothesizing, figuring out how things operated, building, deconstructing, creating, moving their bodies in novel ways, engaging their senses, thinking,feeling, 

constructing meaningful knowledge, and a million, million other things. There are always going to be people who doubt that children are capable of learning without being “taught.” There are always going to be people who look for proof, or some sort of product to take home at the end of a day that ensures something was learned. This, I think, is the

result of varying factors, including fear-based societal and cultural pressures, a deep and systemic flaw that promotes testing kids relentlessly (because knowledge must be measured or it doesn’t exist!), well intentioned competitive parents who unwittingly pit their children against others (even though I believe they simply feel like they want their child to “succeed”). These are just a few examples of the common misunderstandings of what children really need.

Kids Playing Tug of War

What they really need is trust. It is hard to step back and trust young children because it requires relinquishing control. It requires us to let go of our desired outcomes, of the idea that our expectations should be met, and instead that we focus on the child’s expectations. It feels nearly impossible. This boils down to trusting children, and not just their capabilities. It’s easier to trust that a child is learning when they are active, motivated, and busy, but trusting them even when they appear to be doing nothing? That’s hard! Trusting that they might be in a

period of reflection, taking things in, thinking, observing, or really needing to be accepted as an introvert is something we are not socially conditioned to do.

Trusting children became the message that was ringing loudest in all the quotes I was drawn to. The more quotes I gathered, the more it became clear that they needed to be compiled into a book, which would feature a photo of every child in our school. It would carry the strong message to trust their learning. After a couple months, I had completed it. It is a collection of pictures and ideas that promote an image of children as capable, trustworthy, self-driven learners. It’s what I absolutely believe about them, and want to shout from the mountaintops. As with every project I’ve worked on, I wanted to get input from the children, hear their ideas, and include their voices. I decided that because our annual art auction was coming up, creating a canvas with the children featuring a relevant quote would be a perfect contribution. I grappled with which excerpt to choose. I thought it had to be simple, eloquent, and profound. I wanted it to encapsulate the very essence of childhood…a tall order. I figured I would present a few to the kids and let them choose which one stood out to them. A few quotes resonated

with me, until (ding! and duh!) TRUST CHILDREN! Even I forget sometimes, or need to challenge myself to trust even more.


What would they put on a canvas?

What do they have to say?

What is the idea they want to put across?


I came up with the right question to present to them: “What do you want grown-ups to know about children?” The conversation was actually quite brief. The very first idea came about when a child said, “You should listen to kids, and do the stuff they want to do,” and another chimed in with “Listen to them when they talk to you.” So, after reflecting their words back to them, it became simply, “Listen to children.” The next idea came just as quickly, when I felt a tug on my shirt and bent down to the child who was not feeling brave enough to announce her idea to everyone. When I heard the secret that was being whispered in my ear— “Let them laugh and play”—I don’t know if it was the whispering, or the idea itself, but shivers went down my spine when I heard it.




It was perfect.


We got right to work on the large canvas, drawing intersecting lines, and a bubble in the center to contain the children’s words. I knew that I wanted them to print out their idea themselves with me only helping them to spell. Besides being utterly charming, I find children’s early writing to be especially poignant and powerful, and I also wanted this piece to belong to them as much as possible. Once the words were written out, we began filling the canvas with a lovely palette of forest green, blushy pink, pale yellow, and shimmery bronze. Everyone in our classroom contributed to it, and over the course of a week it was finished.


Due to time constraints, I felt that the question I originally posed to them wasn’t entirely answered. I wanted to revisit the conversation and give them the opportunity to explore their thoughts on the subject even more. So, I brought the question to our afternoon gathering to continue reflecting as a group and hear about what all the children believed about their rights in our world. And since there were so many more ideas and no more room on our big canvas, we decided to make another little one expanding on the topic about what grown-ups should “let” kids do. The kids, of course, had lots to say. Listen up grown-ups! This is what our children want us to know! This is what they want for themselves. They want to dance, jump, climb, and skip! They want to draw and play, kick soccer balls and make books! To put on their own shoes and say poop! Paint, sew, get messy, dig, and hug!


They want to run free, and do nothing…to solve problems and smell roses! They want to know they can do anything. They want to be heard.


And they want to be trusted.



1 Sara Zacuto, 'Listen to Children'; Little Owl School Blog (Little Owl School, 26 Mar 2018) Adapted with permission.

Purchase Trust Kids! through AK Press!

Read a conversation with Gabriel Zacuto and Just Kids! editor carla joy bergman and another excerpt from the book by Gabriel Zacuto!


Sara Zacuto is a former preschool teacher and parent educator who specializes in the Reggio approach. She cares deeply about the rights of children, and wants to see the world become a place where children's voices and ideas are lifted up and respected. She loves writing, thrifting, and collecting books. She lives in Orange, California, with her husband Gabe, two children, and four cats.

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