Today is December 10th, International Human Rights Day, which means it’s time to talk about the responsibility of teaching kids about human rights. By no means is this an easy task, which is why we created this guide as support for all teachers and homeschooling parents in their efforts to introduce human rights to children.
This article briefly discusses the history of human rights in a tone of voice that’s kid-friendly and easy to understand. This will allow you to effortlessly transfer the knowledge to your kids or students. Most of the content, however, is focused on providing you with high-quality teaching resources that you can use in your classroom.
We also included a chapter on the developmental preconditions that kids must possess in order to understand some human rights concepts.
Without further ado, let’s begin!
Learning About Human Rights: What Educators Need to Know
Before we dive deep into the story of human rights, we have to first address the question of whether children of all ages can understand the concept of human rights, and to what extent.
Building a strong education in human rights for kids means that a lot of responsibility is placed on teachers and homeschooling parents to develop effective school-based practices on this topic.
In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations 1948), which applies globally, it’s stated that states are duty-bound to ensure that education is aimed at strengthening the respect and understanding of human rights and freedoms through educational policies.
But, what educational practices can effectively build knowledge, impart specific skills, and model the attitudes of children as little as four of five years old?
Human rights are abstract concepts with practical everyday implications. What this tells us is that all children who’ve started a formal education and have social relationships are capable of learning the principles behind human rights, however, the teaching methods vary. Younger children, might not be able to semantically grasp concepts like dignity, independence, or even freedom, but they can understand them in practice – for example, the rudimentary principles of what’s fair and what’s not. This can be achieved through practical activities, which we’ll explain further in the article.
As the children get older, you can use more formal definitions and texts that explain the nature of human rights.
The History of Human Rights
What Are Human Rights?
Human rights encompass the most basic rights and freedoms that belong to every human being from birth to death, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or ethnicity.
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”
Young children should know that with the term “human rights,“ people have written a set of rules that make all people equal. We all look different, believe in different things, want different things, and behave in a different way, but we’re all humans, which means we all have the same rights.
To be able to explain the concept of “rights”, it’s better if you start with the concept of rules. This is familiar territory, as most children know that rules are statements about what’s allowed and what’s not. Link these two concepts in a casual relationship that is easy to understand. A good example of this would be: “People have made up rules (and laws) that all people must follow. For example, we mustn’t (physically) hurt people. And, because all people must follow this rule, nobody can hurt you. This is your basic human right to life and freedom of torture and inhuman treatment”.
From there on, you can go on to explain the more complex nature of human rights. Together, you can take a look at all of the human rights separately and discuss them in greater detail. Just make sure to also explain that not everybody follows these rules, which is why it’s important for us to know our rights, and report if someone is acting against them.
The things that seem natural to us might be confusing to kids. It’s not uncommon for them to ask “But who made these rules?”, “Who decided that we have these rights?”, or naively “Where do our rights come from?”.
These are all valid questions. After all, how did we get to have universally accepted human rights?
It might be surprising to learn that the term “human rights” is relatively new. It was only after the Second World War and the foundation of the United Nations in 1945 that the concept of a human right (a right by virtue of one’s humanity) came into the global stage and replaced the previous concepts of natural rights and the rights of man.
This doesn’t mean that people before the Second World War didn’t believe in universal or basic human rights. In fact, historians can trace back similar concepts to ancient Greece and Rome, where human conduct was judged by the law of nature.
However, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the law of nature became associated with natural rights (a transition from law to rights). These natural laws and the laws of Man that followed still lacked the basic ideas on which our human rights are founded today.
Teaching Resources on Human Rights for Kids
Let’s go back to our main concern – how to teach human rights for kids?
Adapting your curriculum and lesson plan to the children’s level of understanding is crucial, but finding high-quality teaching resources that will encourage the consolidation of knowledge and make your lesson interesting and memorable is even more so.
In the following chapters, we’ll take a look at some of the best teaching resources and specific material for teaching human rights to kids.
Books on Human Rights for Kids
Fortunately, there are many great books on human rights for kids that can help you deliver the topic in just the right tone. Using children’s books as additional support for your lesson is also a good way to see how the child understands the concepts, so you can decide whether to expand the topic or go back and revise the material one more time.
Here are some great books about human rights.
We Are All Born Free by Amnesty International – an award-winning book that’s a great resource for schools, teachers, libraries, and parents. It teaches kids about individual rights and promotes empathy.
I Have the Right to Be a Child by Alain Serres is another great book that successfully simplifies the topic and uses vibrant illustrations to spread the message. It’s most suitable for children between the ages of 4 and 7.
A Life Like Mine: How Children Live Around the World by UNICEF and Dorling Kindersley – a bestseller in its category, this book captures the lives of children around the world in a fascinating way. After 10 years of research, this book is written powerfully enough to open kids’ eyes to the diversity and uniqueness among us.
“Meena” Comic Books from UNICEF – Meena is a common name in Bangladesh that UNICEF used to portray a character that will be relatable and inspiring for kids around the world, especially in countries like Bangladesh. With Meena as the main protagonist, UNICEF created a package of comic books, animated films, discussion questions, teachers’ guides, and radio series.
UN’s “Declaration of Human Rights” – not a book but a milestone document in the history of human rights that would be a great teaching resource or reading material for older kids and teens.
Movies, Documentaries, and Videos on Human Rights for Kids
Sometimes, learning things visually can help children make connections between the things they’ve read and understand abstract concepts that were harder to comprehend.
Here are some educational videos on the topic of Human Rights for kids.
What is a human right? – a 2-minute animation by the United Nations that explains what it means to have a human right.
Wadjda (2012) – a movie about a 10-year old Saudi girl who wants to ride a bike and wear sneakers, which is frowned upon in the country.
He Named Me Malala (2015) – a documentary about the life and struggles of Malala Yousafzai.
Dancing in Jaffa (2013) – another documentary about a ballroom dancer who goes back to Israel (his native country) and teaches little children how to dance in an ethnically mixed group.
Activities for Teaching Human Rights to Kids
Last, but not least, organizing practical activities might be the most powerful way of teaching Human Rights for kids through experience.
Fair play? (ages 5-7)
Just as the name suggests, this activity aims to teach children about fairness and justice. It lasts around 30 minutes, and you’ll only need to print the fair play prompt cards – you can find them in the Learning About Human Rights in Primary School by Amnesty International.
To play, divide the children into groups and give them a card to analyze and discuss why the situation portrayed in the card is fair or unfair. When they finish, each group should present their opinions in front of the whole class.
Children’s Rights in the Classroom (5-7)
This is a flexible activity which can be executed in a variety of different ways, but the main idea is always the same – to teach children about the importance of human rights in school.
One simple way to organize this activity is to ask students to name the human rights they’ve learned. After this, ask them to think which of these are important in the classroom. No discrimination (equal treatment), being safe, and the right to education are the most commonly named rights. Discuss what practices and rules can ensure that all classmates enjoy these rights. Also, ask for examples when those rights were not respected and how you can avoid those situations in the future. Finally, you can discuss how one feels when their human rights are violated.
Human Rights in Our Environment (ages 7-11)
We’ve mentioned that human rights are abstract constructs that children might struggle to understand if they don’t recognize them in everyday situations. To help them achieve this, you can ask children to observe people on their street or while walking with their parents. As homework, they have to identify at least three situations where they’ve seen people enjoy, deny, or demand their basic human rights. Later, you can discuss these situations in class.
Just make sure to give them examples, so they understand what they’re looking for.
Alternatively, you can find pictures of different situations in everyday life and ask children to recognize what’s going on and which rights are being enjoyed, denied, or demanded.
Standing up for Others (ages 7-11)
Knowing our rights is not enough, unfortunately. Children should learn that as they grow up they should stand up to injustices, both when those injustices are toward them and toward other people.
Human rights won’t mean anything if we don’t respect them and ask other people to respect them. First, ask children to come up with ways on how they can make the school a safer place and how they can protect those who can’t protect themselves? This is also useful, for distinguishing between reacting aggressively and finding a long-term solution.
Also, ask children to anonymously write what makes them scared or uncomfortable and place it in a big bowl. Later, discuss the messages together and find solutions. If there’s a common problem that more students point out, you can focus on implementing some of the students’ ideas.
Before You Leave
Human rights is a serious topic that one should be careful not to overlook. Instead of looking at this as another theoretical unit to be learned, try to think of the implications that usually arise later in life as an indirect consequence of a person not respecting people’s human rights.
Countries place a lot of responsibility on teachers and homeschooling parents, which is more challenging than it might seem. Hopefully, our article gave you enough context and specific teaching resources for you to tackle this issue.
Anything else you need in terms of teaching resources, you can find on our website. Simply browse through our collection of worksheets or visit our blog for more help or insights regarding children’s education.
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