Human rights education in early childhood

Human rights education in early childhood
By Dr Carmel Ward


The United Nations International Day of Education is celebrated every year on January 24th. This year’s theme is ‘learning for lasting peace’, which is timely given the continuing conflicts across the world.

Learning about human rights in early childhood can be seen as abstract or sensitive, but it is critical if we want to overcome discrimination and expand prospects for peace.

Advocating for children’s rights

International Day of Education provides an opportunity to advocate for children’s education rights, especially in Early Years. Article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) defines access to education, and Article 29 defines the aims of education. Together these education rights reinforce other rights, meaning they are fundamental to children’s enjoyment of all other human rights. 

In this blog, I use the term Early Childhood Education (ECE), which ‘does not preclude the notion of care or caring relationships which influence children’s learning but attempts to reclaim education as holistic’ (Urban, 2009: 14), to advocate for the right to access education for young children. This is because Article 28 does not mention Early Childhood Education and Care, which is a significant exclusion. It is important to note that the Committee on the Rights of the Child (the ‘Committee’), has addressed this issue in repeated recommendations for states to include free access to early childhood education, and recently there has been a call for a new optional protocol to the UNCRC that addresses this omission (Sheppard, 2022).

Children’s human rights education

Article 29 defines the aims of education and can be viewed as the foundation of children’s human rights education (CHRE) (UN, 2001). CHRE is recognised within early childhood through General Comment seven issued by the Committee, which recommends that it ‘should be anchored in everyday issues at home, in childcare centres, in early education programmes and other community settings with which young children can identify’ (UN, 2005, para. 33).

CHRE involves three elements:

  1. learning about rights (curriculum content)
  2. learning through rights (ethos, relationships, environment, and pedagogical processes) and
  3. learning for rights (taking action to exercise rights and uphold the rights of others).

Transformative definitions and models of CHRE see children and early years educators as powerful change agents, who not only respect others and their human rights but are empowered to take collective action to protect and defend rights, which parallels with promoting peace.

CHRE and Peace Education

CHRE and Peace Education are different but share similarities. The aims of education and, therefore, CHRE promote learning for lasting peace. This is clear in Article 29 which asserts that education should be directed ‘in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin’. The interconnectedness of rights and peace is also articulated in the UNCRC Preamble which states that children should grow ‘in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity’. Arguably, then, CHRE can create a foundation from which to build learning about peace. I believe that advocacy for CHRE is needed at policy and practice level, meaning individual settings or educators, in order to create spaces where all young children, including those who experience conflict and discrimination can learn about, through, and for rights.

Promoting learning through rights

To promote learning through rights and lasting peace we can start by creating a safe, inclusive early years environments where the rights of all children and educators are respected, including those from marginalized groups and war zones. This involves ensuring that settings are free from all forms of discrimination, including xenophobia. Peace is rooted in protecting human dignity and mutual respect, which requires cultivating empathy and respect for others.

We can also incorporate learning about human rights into the curriculum and daily routines or experiences. These can include planned provocations and in the moment opportunities for children to theorise about peace, identities, cultures, friendships, and resolving conflicts. Using the language of children’s rights can contribute to learning about peace. It is worth noting here that pedagogical guidance and resources that can inspire early years educators to implement CHRE are expanding.

Finally, we can create environments that cultivate learning for human rights, where children (and educators) are empowered to take action to defend rights and in turn promote peace and social justice. Reflecting on my own experiences and research in Rwanda, young children (three-six years) can not only learn about rights, but they can also defend rights. Their relational, reciprocal theories about rights show their innate concern and respect for the rights of others. Acting for rights requires cultivating a collective sense of community and children’s active participation.

Ultimately, lasting peace requires mutual respect for human dignity and rights. By implementing children’s human rights education, we can create a foundation on which we can promote peace and create more equitable relationships in and beyond our Early Years communities.

Bio:

Carmel Ward is the Research and Evaluation Manager at Early Childhood Ireland. She is an experienced educator, leader and researcher in early childhood education. Her PhD research in Rwanda focused on exploring a pedagogy for rights in early childhood. The study stemmed from her children’s human rights advocacy and interest in learning from different cultures and perspectives.

References

Sheppard, B. (2022). It’s Time to Expand the Right to Education. Nordic Journal of Human Rights, 1-22.
United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (2001) General Comment No.1
(2001) Article 29 (1): The Aims of Education (CRCGC/2001/1). New York: United Nations.
United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (2005) General Comment No. 07:
Implementing Child Rights in Early Childhood (UN/CRC/GC/7), Geneva: United Nations.
Urban, M. (2009) Early Childhood Education in Europe. Achievements: Challenges and Possibilities, Dublin: Education International.

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