Australia: Children explore their rights through art
Barbara Piscitelli & Felicity McArdle
The authors were from the School of Early Childhood, Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology. In this article, they discuss work that helped children reveal their idea about their rights through art. The work covered both the joyful and the sober sides of children’s perceptions and – sometimes more significantly – their realities; and it produced some potent and graphic images. The article concludes with a set of five practical lessons that cover how to make the work possible with materials and resources that are available. But they also reveal what can happen when what children express is at odds with what some people and policy-makers want to hear.
Originally published in Early Childhood Matters (vol 98), June 2001
We are at the beginning of a new era in children’s rights – one that promises to be exciting with an abundance of significant legal, administrative, bureaucratic and personal challenges. The topic of children’s rights seems to challenge people and, in Australia as well as other countries, there has been a great deal of discussion and comment in the media, the government and the public arena. There are widely diverging views, some of which claim that ‘children should be seen and not heard’, an outdated maxim of a time before children’s rights were protected – yet this sentiment is still held within communities around the world. At the other end of the scale, some people claim that they have nothing to offer in the area of children’s rights since they consider the human rights arena to be territory for lawyers and judges; they often remark that the area should be left to the experts. Increasingly, though, the children’s rights movement has focused attention on the urgent need to educate children, the community and the professions about children’s rights and, in particular, to learn about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). If the new era of children’s rights is to flourish, then a concentrated campaign of community awareness must take place. One major part of the community awareness and education campaign should focus on teaching children about their rights.
Inspired by the work of other small scale children’s rights educational projects, a group of educators and artists formed a group in Australia in 1997 to learn how to best develop a way of teaching children about their rights. 1 Together we visited four schools to talk with five to twelve year old children about their rights, and encourage them to depict their views of their rights in drawings, paintings and murals. We found this a most invigorating and exhausting project; invigorating because we learned that children already know a great deal about their rights and exhausting because there is so little available in terms of resources and materials to teach about children’s rights. Over the course of the project, we developed materials and activities that would encourage and support a rights perspective in classrooms (Piscitelli & McArdle, 1997). In a search to locate information on teaching about children’s rights, we found some books and reference materials to assist us but, for the most part, adapted ideas to suit the interests and life experiences of the local children.
From our philosophical standpoint as early childhood educators, we developed a way to introduce children to the topic of human rights. Our strategies included holding meetings with children to read stories and engage in large group conversations. We read the children’s book, For Every Child, a Better World, 2 and discussed different life situations for children around the world. The book opened the door for discussions and questions about health, education, families, working children, war and poverty. In smaller groups, we had more personal conversations, handled questions and looked at photographs of children around the world. The photographs proved to be a good catalyst for more detailed dialogue about how their lives were similar or different to the children in the photographs. Following these conversations, we invited children to think about their rights, and to make a picture that showed one of their most valued rights. The older children also wrote poetry about their human rights as a group activity.
Children’s views of their human rights
In our project, children exposed their ideas about their human rights in potent and graphic images. From the joyful and exuberant messages about play to the more sobering images about war and violence, the children’s drawings expressed deep emotions and pure desires. In many cases, the children made pictures to convey their sense that no child, anywhere, should have to suffer from an indignity. The exhibition was titled by one of the ten-year-old girls working on a group collaboration of a large mural. She painted the words Children Have Rights! across the mural - leaving a strong verbal message about the fact that children already had rights. No-one could deny that. She and the other exhibitors spread their messages about human rights to thousands of people all over the world.
The arts seem to be a good vehicle for children to reveal their thoughts about their rights. In our project, we employed the arts as a vehicle for children’s visualisation of their human rights. One of our team, visual artist Raquel Redmond, selected a range of art making experiences for children to convey their ideas: drawing, mural making, painting, printmaking and collage. We scaled our choices for the relative age and experience of the children. The youngest children drew and painted, while older children used collage and print-making. The murals were painted by all ages. This wide and diverse range of art making provided us with a rich set of images for an exhibition of the children’s views of their human rights. We exhibited the children’s ideas at the first Australasian conference on children’s rights in Brisbane in 1997 - and received a very warm reception for bringing young children’s ideas to the attention of the international conference delegates. The exhibition later toured throughout Queensland and Australia to be viewed by thousands of people in small villages, regional centres and university galleries. From comments in the visitor’s books, it is clear that the exhibition provoked interest and controversy because of the views expressed in the children’s art.
From the children in this project we learned a great deal about a deep human yearning for a rightful life. In our discussions with these children, we listened, observed and responded as they expressed the desire for all children (not just themselves): to live lives free of war, to live in homes free of domestic violence; to live in a country without poverty; to have good teachers; to have a good education; and to live in good health. Clearly, these children had an idea of their rights and were able to express them. We were, in many ways, surprised to see how well children understood these ideas. But, we still wonder if they know how to protect their rights when faced with many of the biases and prejudices which children experience due to their age and maturity. Because of their vulnerability, those of us who work with and on behalf of children must keep vigilant and must be pro-active in educating both children and the wider community about the rights of children. The conversation we started needs to be sustained on a regular basis in classrooms everywhere so children can develop human rights consciousness.
Five lessons from our project
There is no one way to begin the process of focusing on the rights of children. Each educational environment has its own special community needs and faces its own challenges. In our project, we learned some simple lessons about education for children’s rights.
First lesson: start with the environment
Establish a philosophy and a setting that can be seen to be aware of and respectful of the rights of all who come through the door. Develop a program where children can take an active role in making decisions, in caring for their environment and in working collaboratively with others. Infants will learn about their rights in an environment where care providers adapt routines to children’s needs, honour their ideas and respond to their actions. Toddlers can take increasing control of their lives, so a rights-based environment should offer choices to children in decision-making, teach children to defend their rights, and protect children’s right to play. In preschools, children enjoy learning about their rights by experiencing equal treatment, reading picture books, discussing ideas, exhibiting their drawings and paintings, and thinking about the concept of fairness. In formal school environments, children should extend their participation in rights-based decision making through collaboration to develop class rules that honour each person’s rights and responsibilities. In a rights-based environment, children will feel free to discuss their rights and challenge any unfair practices that may exist.
Second lesson: work with what your children know
Talk with children about their rights and listen to what they tell you. Children’s ideas will not develop as the result of a single lesson, and adults should become aware that learning about rights takes time. Provide children with many options for exploring the concept of rights: drawing, writing, reading, listening to stories, dramatic play and, most importantly, in their daily interactions with others. As children’s ideas evolve, record change in children’s understanding of complex questions of what is ‘right’, or ‘fair’, or ‘just’. Help children to gain awareness of the world at large, and of the lives of children in diverse situations.
Third lesson: rights carry responsibilities
Every right is accompanied by a corresponding responsibility. This lesson is an essential aspect of learning about rights, and should form a framework for a respectful classroom environment. Teachers have many opportunities for teaching about the issue of rights and responsibilities. There is a dynamic link between rights and responsibilities - for every right, each recipient is responsible to handle that right with care. In the case of protection from physical punishment, it is important for children to learn that adults will protect them from harm; it is equally important for children to learn that, in return, you expect them to refrain from causing harm to others as a sign of respect and acknowledgment of their shared human rights and responsibilities. Such lesson are essential in human rights education.
Fourth lesson: everyone has rights; everyone is responsible
Human rights are for everyone. In the implementation of a rights curriculum, children can learn that the respect and dignity offered to them as individuals also belong to every person. Children can (and should) learn that everyone has the same rights, regardless of where they live or what they look like. In a classroom with right-consciousness, children will see that they can play a role on safeguarding human rights by always speaking out when unfair practices occur. Both parents and teachers need to become informed about how to act as guardians to children’s rights. When unfair practices are foisted upon children, it is the responsibility of every person to protect and safeguard human rights by taking positive action to assure children’s dignity. For this reason, it is important to listen carefully to children’s stories about their daily lives and, when warranted, to act on their behalf.
Fifth Lesson: some people and policy makers may not like what you have to say, but you have an ethical responsibility and a human right to speak for children.
In the long effort to reform the ways people treat children, there are bound to be areas of conflict arising from a clash between old and new thinking about children and their rights. It is inevitable that there will be differences of opinion about what constitutes children’s rights within each classroom, each community and each country. Yet, it is important to remember that the rights of children are not nationalised - they are universal. So every child, everywhere, has rights.
In defending the place of rights in the lives of children, there will be disputes about the status and competence of children. Some will say that rights are for adults, but the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child indicates that rights are present from birth. In our project, children indicated that they already have rights, and that they did not intend to let them be usurped. So, where entrenched injustice to children occurs, each of us has a role to play in upgrading practices, policies and laws to better reflect the rights and dignity of children.
Challenges for the new generation
We recognise that this new generation of children growing up today will be the first in history to have their rights enshrined and protected by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. When they pass into adulthood, what personal lessons will they bring with them to our societies across the world? Will they bring with them the messages of a respectful environment for all, with rights and responsibility shared equally? Will they know that they can speak for their rights? Will they be able to protect themselves from violations of their rights? In communities all over the world, important work is being done to bring about the dream of a better world for every child. From Italy, Belgium, Cambodia, Australia and many more countries all over the world, there are examples of projects to educate children about their rights, ranging from new curricula to Children’s Parliaments. While some projects may be undertaken at a large scale, many of the most important initiatives will be implemented at the grass roots level of local communities where people come together to live and learn. Projects should differ widely to suit the needs of local communities and the emphasis of local situations, yet all projects should have similar emphasis on building enduring and rightful partnerships between children and society - starting in the early years when such initiatives really matter.
Environmental awareness is to understand the fragility of our environment and the importance of its protection. Promoting environmental awareness is an easy way to become an environmental steward and participate in creating a brighter future for our children.
What is Environmental Awareness?
To define environmental awareness we must first understand the environmentalist movement. Environmentalism is an ideology that evokes the necessity and responsibility of humans to respect, protect, and preserve the natural world from its anthropogenic (caused by humans) afflictions.
Environmental awareness is an integral part of the movement’s success. By teaching our friends and family that the physical environment is fragile and indispensable we can begin fixing the problems that threaten it.
Numerous resources are available to promote environmental awareness; group learning (in or outside of class), informational and inspirational seminars, such as our Awakening the Dreamer Program, and environmental books and brochures are just a few of the tools that can get you involved in promoting the environment.
How to Promote Environmental Awareness
When learning about the environment’s declining health it is easy to feel discouraged, but what keeps us fighting for a healthy world is the future of our children. They should not have to inherit our environmental problems and in order to keep their future bright, spreading awareness is imperative.
Before you can begin promoting environmental awareness in your own community you must first make sure that you have a thorough understanding of environmental issues. Staying up to date on environmental news and reading comprehensive books about environmental threats are both great resources, but if you’re the type of person who prefers a more interactive approach, attending environmental seminars is a great option.
Our Awakening the Dreamer Symposium is an inspirational and informative seminar that discusses man-made environmental issues, while also instilling a sense of hopefulness for the future.
Join the 1000s and Kickstart Your Environmental Awareness Campaign with The Awakening The Dreamer Symposium.
A 4-minute introduction to the experience that will transform your relationship to the crisis and opportunity of this time in history.
Our Awakening the Dreamer Symposium, created by Pachamama Alliance, is an invaluable resource to help you become environmentally aware. Specifically, the symposium demonstrates that environmental destruction is the result of a flaw in the modern world’s belief system, in which our actions lack consequences. Meanwhile, our partnerns in the Amazon forest, the Achuar, (along with the rest of the world) are experiencing our consequences daily with the continued threat of big oil destroying their home. In order to keep their rainforest pristine we need to stop our dependence on fossil fuel and begin using environmentally sustainable resources.
The symposium makes a powerful point that the environment is in critical condition and while there is still hope to change our course, time is of the essence. During the symposium a desire and urgency to become an environmental steward is inspired; the symposium appropriately calls this desire as being in a state of “blessed unrest”.
Once the participant has awakened into this state of “blessed unrest”, they are supplied with courses of action and resources to begin promoting environmental awareness in their community.
Make a Difference
After you have become environmentally aware you can begin teaching those around you. The symposium acts a catalyst for you to begin your role as an environmental steward and provides online courses and other resources to keep you on track.
A good course of action that ensures your continued participation as a global citizen is to pick an environmental issue that strikes you as most urgent. The amount of environmental issue seems limitless and while they are all important it is best to initially focus on one cause. You will soon see that all environmental issues are intertwined and will find your niche of interest.
After your decision is made you then explain its importance and urgency to your community, friends, and family, create beneficial communal projects, and find more causes to become apart of.
Examples of Environmental Issues That Need Fixing
Here are several cause-and-effect problems that harm our environment:
- Oil Drilling- This issue is one that causes a great deal of environmental destruction. Our dependence on fossil fuel is a global addiction that affects every aspect of the world. Oil spills and offshore drilling poison marine life, oil drilling (on land) suffocates the earth, and the combustion of fossil fuels add to the increased atmospheric CO₂, which in turns causes the progression of global warming and ocean acidification. This is a multifaceted issue and is a good cause to get involved with because it covers such a broad spectrum of issues.
- Deforestation- Millions of acres of forest are cut down for industrial benefit, such as large scale farming, oil mining, and the production of paper goods. Deforestation causes wildlife and biodiversity extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has a Red List of environmentally threatened species with up-to-date information. Oftentimes, the cause for their threatened existence is listed as loss of habitat as it is for many Amazonian species.
- Production of Plastic Goods- Currently our society creates a great deal of waste and much of that waste is comprised of plastic. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2010 alone 31 million tons of plastic waste was created. This waste ends up all over the globe in both land and water, a good example is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Not only is plastic waste an issue, but the production of plastic is also dependent on fossil fuel combustion. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in 2010 191 million barrels of liquid petroleum gases(LPG) and natural gas liquids (NGL) were used in the U.S. alone to produce plastic goods.
Share Your Knowledge
Once you have chosen your cause and figured out some beneficial activities, share it with the world! Get your community, friends, and family involved. Use your political voice in your local city council and propose environmentally sustainable and beneficial projects. Start a community garden, buy from local stores and farmers markets, make your public transportation more efficient and/or start implementing clean energy strategies in your community centers.
It is more than likely that your children are learning about environmentalism in school, but it does not have to be limited to school grounds. Children learn a great deal at home and by using green practices you will be providing them with a strong foundation for environmental stewardship. Promoting environmental awareness is a crucial part of being an environmental steward. Start participating in the change and teach your community what it means to be sustainable.
Take A Stand for Sustainability
Enroll in Pachamama Alliance’s free, 2-hour online course, Awakening the Dreamer, which will equip you with the education, resources, and community needed to take effective action in creating a new future that works for all.