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Local Students Learn & Play at Kids Congress

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Freehold students show off their official legislative citations with Assembly Members Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey.

Freehold students show off their official legislative citations with Assembly Members Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey.

​FREEHOLD - If kids could vote, every Saturday would be Ice Cream Day.

But the state would only have to pay for half the ice cream.

That was the determination of the local elementary schoolers attending Kids Congress in the Freehold Public Library, a summer civics event hosted this Monday by state Assembly Members Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey. Here, kids had an opportunity to learn how their government works, why legislators pass laws, and how a law is made - and had the chance to put it into action themselves with games and activities that let them see just how the process worked.

“You can see that they get it when you ask them to make up a bill for something they care about,” said Houghtaling. “The process of coming up with an idea, discussing it with others, and turning it into a real plan seemed natural to them. It honestly wasn’t too different from watching the State Legislature deliberate in Trenton - though this group of young legislators may be a little bit better-behaved than some of the bickering lawmakers we see on television.”

In this town where Revolutionary War soldiers once waged battle, the Ice Cream Act of 2019 was not a forgone conclusion while the attending dignitaries - local kids between 6 and 10 years old - built it over the course of a game called Build-a-Bill.

“It started with one student proposing that every Friday should be Ice Cream Day - at least until someone pointed out that not everyone would have the time to enjoy ice cream on a workday or school day,” said Downey. “After a long and spirited debate, we finally came to a compromise, shifting Ice Cream Day to Saturday instead. As a Freehold taxpayer, I’m also grateful that our young legislature decided that the state should only pay for half of the cost of the ice cream, rather than all of it.”

“There is hope,” Houghtaling quipped.

The 11th Legislative District Assembly representatives founded Kids Congress last year to help educate local children about their government, including what it does and how it works. Houghtaling and Downey first discussed the idea after meeting with local Monmouth County students who came to visit the State House in Trenton on class trips.

“The kids we meet with always ask what we, as legislators, do, and whether we like what we do,” Houghtaling said. “Their curiosity gave us an idea - after all, the best way to learn is by doing. So, we decided that the best way to answer their questions would be to bring the legislative process to them, and give these kids a real taste of leadership and lawmaking.”

Houghtaling and Downey have been impressed with the civic interest of students in their district before. While visiting classrooms in Freehold and Ocean Township, students have always shown an interest in their legislation to make the horseshoe crab - an important part of the Jersey Shore ecosystem - the official state arthropod, and asked about laws to protect wildlife and marine animals from pollution.

On Monday, the topic of the day was the state animal, with the young Freehold legislators voting to change New Jersey’s state animal to the black bear. (Currently, the horse holds that honor.)

Downey, a Freehold resident, said that she hopes that instilling interest and some knowledge of government early on will spark a lasting interest in public service for the kids who attend. As the sponsor of legislation that would add a course in civics or United States government to public high schools, she’s passionate about encouraging students to become active and interested citizens.

"We really want to help every child develop the same passion for serving their communities,” Downey said. “I think that when people take an interest in civics as children, they’re more likely to engage with their communities and take leadership roles as a result.”

"We’ve both found public service to be one of the most interesting and rewarding experiences of our lives," said Houghtaling, who served as Mayor of Neptune before being elected to the Assembly. “We want to pass that passion on, and we’ve found Kids Congress to be a great way to do that.”

Houghtaling and Downey are hosting Kids Congress at two additional locations in Monmouth County this summer: on Tuesday, July 30 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Neptune Township Public Library; and on Monday, August 5 from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Eatontown Community Center. Interested parents can learn more or RSVP by calling Houghtaling and Downey’s legislative office at (732) 695-3371.

With two more sessions of Kids Congress remaining, the black bear still has its shot at the top spot - and maybe, just maybe, Ice Cream Day will deliver sweet treats every Friday and Saturday to come.

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