Centerville, Mass. — Second-grader Dawn grins proudly as she operates a tow truck lift. Nearby, amid giggles of delight from classmates, Jill puts on a helmet and safety glasses from an electric company truck. Across the street, Chris, a diminutive kindergartener, sits in the driver's seat of a large moving van and waves to his friends far below.
It is Vehicle Day for the students of Centerville elementary School. And as they climb about on the trucks, van, cars, and tractors, they learn a little a bit about careers in the adult world. A second grader wonders how the tow truck can lift up cars. A fifth grader examining a police car asks a policeman what he does when he arrests someone.
Career education for grade-school students? Isn't that a bit young to be pushing jobs? Not at all, say some career education experts who believe it is never too early to start a child thinking about work in the adult world. Job and career awareness shouldn't be cultivated in one course for high school seniors, they maintain. Activities such as Vehicle Day enable young children to imagine what it might be like to mow grass with a tractor, fix wires from an electric truck, or cover news live from a mobile radio van.
"Grade-school children eat this up," says Patricia Duffy, who runs the career education program for the Barnstable Public Schools, which includes Centerville elementary. "This is the real world. They begin to learn why they have to know how to multiply and read. Those lessons become a reality through career education."
Acquaintance with the working world is being promoted by schools and other child-oriented groups, such as Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of the USA. Jane Freeman, national president of Girl Scouts, says it is important for children to imagine a variety of careers.
"The earlier a girl or boy starts developing an interest, the better," says Mrs. Freeman. "we're not trying to force a decision at eight or nine, but to give the child exposure to different careers. It's a great age to try things -- dancing, biking, writing articles, or taking photographs."
But though schools or scout troops are important in teaching a child about careers, parents are the ones children turn to most often to learn about work.
"Children talk to their parents about careers six times more often that they do to teachers or counselors," says Kenneth B. Hoyt, director of the division on career education in the US Department of Education. "Career education is too important to be left to educators."
And so many school districts and organizations are involving parents and community members in career education. As a result, innovative things are happening.
"We have about 400 people [including many parents] we can call upon to come to the classroom or let us come to their work site," says Patricia Duffy. She has sent grade school students out to visit individual jobs.
"One fourth grader visited a community college professor, who let her run off papers and come to the classroom." The girl even doffed her blue jeans and dressed up for the day.
Community resources are keys to the success of many career education programs. When a parent comes in to talk, he or she can go beyond giving merely a textbook description of the job. And with outside resources, teachers also become more aware of various careers.
"Instead of teaching career education separately, teachers revise lessons to infuse career ideas into everyday work," says Dr. Hoyt. When students are working with words of more than one syllable, teachers will use examples such as "carpenter" or "engineer." In math, a teacher will ask how much change a postman will make if a customer uses a dollar bill to pay 27 cents in postage due.
Parents can also help make their grade-school children more aware of jobs, says Dr. Hoyt. They can talk about the work people are doing at a grocery store. When in the city, parents can point out office buildings and discuss the work that goes on inside. They should talk about their own work.
Career stereotypes are important to break when children are young.
"One second-grade teacher told her class that a male nurse was going to come visit, and the children all laughed," sighs Miss Duffy.
Not only should girls learn to imagine themselves in all kinds of jobs, but boys should see women as executive and scientists as well as mothers and teachers. Age stereotypes need to be broken also. Schools and youth organizations work to eliminate job stereotypes.
To encourage children to think more broadly about career opportunities, there has been a spate of books on nontraditional jobs for women. Dianne Maloney is president of Unica Inc., which produces coloring books with activity games on careers such as law, accounting, and banking.
"It helps the child project herself or himself into the field," says Ms. Maloney. "We explain what an accountant does in her daily life, and what she had to do to get there."
In the booklet on certified public accountants, for example, the authors give children a chance to do their own miniature review of a lemonade stand business. The vocabulary of the field is introduced, with such words as proprietor, expenses, and advertising revenues.
At the end there is an unfinished drawing of a CPA at a desk. Children of either gender can finish the drawing to make it look like themselves, and they can fill in their own name on the nameplate.
A similar coloring book called "Terry's Trip" is about a young girl visiting her aunt in the city. During her trip, she is interested in how things are built and why they work. Prepared and published by the Boston Section of the Society of Women Engineers, it is designed to interest children in engineering and to encourage them to study math, chemistry, and other sciences.
"Terry's Trip," the coloring book created by the Boston Section of the Society of Women Egnineers, introduces children age four to nine to careers in engineering. Copies are available for $1 plus postage from Judith Nitsch Donnellan, P.E., vice-president, Freeman Engineering Company, 178 North Main Street, Attleboro, Mass. 02703.
Unica Inc. offers four career books with pictures to color, drawings to complete, puzzles, and activities. They feature real women who are doctors, lawyers, bankers, and accountants. Each book is $2.95 (or all four for $10.95) from Unica Inc., PO Box 296, Plainfield, Ill. 60544.
Parents or teachers interested in the Barnstable Public Schools career education program can write Patricia Duffy, Project BICEP director, Career Education Resource Center, Barnstable High School, 744 West Main Street, Hyannis , Mass. 02601.