Human rights can hit home for young pupils

From drama activities to group projects and games, there are lots of accessible ways to introduce the concept to primary children

Some people consider it inappropriate to explore human rights with young children, fearing that the issues might be distressing. However, it is a misconception that you have to use harrowing stories to get the message across: you can easily bring the topic of human rights to life through images, play and discussion.

Indeed, some teachers may not realise how much human rights education they already conduct. In a single morning in an average school, staff can deal with homophobic name-calling, misunderstandings about asylum seekers and negative stereotypes about gender.

So, human rights are already being taught to young children and many teachers are expert at dealing with the issues, because of their experience in responding to inappropriate behaviour. Where some professionals need help, however, is in finding a comprehensive way to explore children's attitudes and values in the classroom, not just in response to a playground incident.

At Amnesty International UK, we have expanded our teaching programme to primary teachers to provide training in this area. Children of primary age form their opinions about human rights in relation to their immediate environment as well as other parts of the world. Our programme helps teachers to assist students in developing their attitudes, and it goes something like this:

Seeing is understanding

Show photographs of homeless people, child soldiers or young people being bullied and ask your class to pinpoint the right that each person is being denied. Then, through discussion, explore ideas of justice and fairness; this debate naturally leads on to the concept of human rights.

Taking the illustrated scene in Amnesty's free resource Right Up Your Street (bit.lyUpMyStreet) as a starting point, students can consider how people balance their rights within a community by identifying what rights are being enjoyed and denied in the picture. Stimulate further discussion by showing your class the illustrations in We Are All Born Free, a picture book that is free to primary schools in the UK (for accompanying activities, visit bit.lyBornFreeResource).

Learning by doing

Try a range of interactive methods to structure discussions on controversial or emotive issues. Whole-class approaches can include elements of Socratic debate and forum theatre, both of which can be used to develop children's speaking and listening skills, and to create a respectful environment in which all students can exercise their right to expression and can develop their own ideas.

Other free resources from Amnesty include drama activities, games and group work tackling topics such as asylum seekers, refugees and child soldiers (for these and more, go to www.tesconnect.comAmnestyInternational). Children's emotional responses to these subjects will help them to develop empathy and understanding.

Empowering pupils

Teachers can empower children to defend their own rights and take action in defence of the rights of others. Amnesty's Junior Urgent Action Network uses current cases to develop pupils' skills and confidence as activists. In a recent example, students sent cards to Mahdi Abu Dheeb, a teacher unjustly imprisoned in Bahrain for organising a strike.

The benefits of teaching human rights in this comprehensive way are multiple. The approach enables children to consider global issues through the lens of equality and universality, rather than developing an "us and them" attitude. And we know that young people gain a more thorough understanding of rights when those rights are embedded within school life.

To develop this even further, teachers should be supported to deliver training to colleagues. This year, our Amnesty teachers delivered a range of CPD events, including whole-school training on homophobic language and challenging negative stereotypes around disability.

Ultimately, this type of educational approach is how human rights are truly realised. As humanitarian and diplomat Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends."

Jane Houston is a consultant in human rights education working with Amnesty International UK

Amnesty awards

The Amnesty Youth Awards, run in partnership with our sister magazine TES, are an engaging way to get students interested in human rights issues. Prizes will be awarded to young reporters, songwriters, photographers, campaigners and fundraisers in different age groups from 7 to 19.

Applications for the 2015 awards are open now and the closing date is 30 January. Find out more at

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