Live Human Rights in your Early Childhood Classroom

(from the Teaching Young Children About Human Rights Resource Notebook)

On the first day of school in the Fall, it's time to start setting the foundations for a classroom which functions with respect for each child, and with children respecting each other. It may be apparent when you look at lunches and discover that one child eats ham each day, while another hates it...there's the opening to explain that people have different opinions or tastes, look different from each other, and that you respect these differences. Make children aware of the many areas in a school experience where you emphasize the rights of each person. The teachable moments come at unexpected times. Use them! Within a few weeks you will be ready to introduce the children to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, An Adaptation for Children (by Ruth Rocha and Otavio Roth, United Nations Publications, 1989).

The use of big words with children is almost always a captivating experience. Start with the word universal. Most children know the word universe, and can figure out that universal means everybody on our planet Earth. Ask what the word rights means. Have children look at each child in the group and, if you have a ethnically diverse class, discuss the outstanding features as you together discover the range of different skin colors, hair, size, etc.If your class is a more homogeneous group, have children check out noses or ears and it will be evident that they are each unique individuals. People (by Peter Spier, Doubleday and Company, 1980) is the book to bring out at this time. It shares differences in the four billion people on Earth in wonderful ways. Pictures in books, discussions, the materials in your classroom, the pictures on the wall, and your responses all need to show respect during work and play times. Children will soon know that each person, child, or adult is important, needs to be respected and has rights.

By early December, children have experienced living in a classroom where not only do they show respect for each other, but the teachers show the way. You and your children are now ready to write a Declaration of Human Rights. It may be one based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) or it may be one which reflects the rights of children in your classroom.

A possible beginning is to ask each child to pretend s/he is writing the Universal Declaration, and to think and suggest a right which seems important to her/him. As a right is offered, the whole body of children should discuss it, agree or disagree, and, when a consensus is reached, the accepted right is put on a long sheet of paper. Perhaps you'll be fortunate to hear an idea like this: "I'm from the country of Detroit and I want the Declaration to say, "No one can tell you what to be on Halloween." The body of children would then call out "Yea," "Yes," "That's a good one," and the right is listed. Or children might say, "Wait a minute, that's not a good idea," and a discussion begins. Use the children's language for a meaningful Declaration.

Continue the list for as many days as there are ideas, with the deadline being Human Rights Day, December 10th, the anniversary of the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). You can conduct a ceremony as follows:

Set a special table with a long feather (you'll need to look carefully to find one), a dish of ink or black paint, and the printed page with the Declaration. Invite all the children to listen once again as you read the few, or many rights they have offered and explain that before anyone puts her/his initials on a document such as this, s/he must agree to all the ideas and words. No one must sign it; only those children who believe what it says are to dip the feather (like the one in the UDHR book) to print their initials.

The room will most likely experience a hushed tone as one by one, solemnly and seriously, children dip the feather into the paint to print their two initials. If you have an old Notary Public Seal at your disposal, after the last initials are in place, affix the seal in the corner. A photocopy of the signing feather made into a book mark can be presented to each "signer." With your Declaration in place, live the school year under its guidance.

By Gloria Needlman, Nursery/Kindergarten Teacher
University of Chicago Laboratory Schools
Early Childhood Advisor to Amnesty International USA's Human Rights Education Steering Committee
Author and Workshop Presenter
(c) 1994

Reprinted with permission of the author.