Final word: all the fun of the fair
Writer of The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson, talks about teaching children about fairness through looking at the wider world
"It's not fair." Surely that must be one of the commonest sentences ever uttered in homes, classrooms and playgrounds. And I'm sure too that almost everyone's earliest memories include a vivid one of being mistreated or wrongly accused.
This innate sense of justice isn't totally selfish either. Children readily sympathise and spring to the defence of other people. Many of our most popular and enduring stories are about the abuse of human rights: Cinderella is a slave labourer; the three billy goats gruff are tyrannised by the brutal troll; Snow White is victimised by the jealous queen.
But for children to take the next step — to understand that this sense of fairness, these rights apply to everyone of all ages and backgrounds — they do require some help and information.
At the start of the academic year I was delighted to help Amnesty International promote two resources — a free primary-school pack which serves as a taster for human rights awareness, and a new revised edition of Our world our rights, a 148-page book full of activities and lesson plans.
I was most impressed with both packs, with the breadth and entertaining nature of the activities, and the clear way in which they are set out. At the start of each lesson plan are the following headings:
What you need
For example, an early activity, designed for five- to seven-year-olds and lasting an hour, aims to help children understand global trade. The class talk about what they had for breakfast, and then cut and squeeze oranges as a starting point to considering all the people and tasks involved in growing, preparing and exporting our breakfast orange juice. Picture cards telling 'The tale of the orange juice' are then used, and children discuss whether everyone in the story has been treated fairly.
The activities for seven- to 11-year-olds introduce children to the Declaration of Human Rights, covering topics such as refugees, racism, sexism and child labour. An additional wonderful resource is the illustrated book, We are all born free (also available on CD), in which 28 top illustrators each interpret one or more of the articles of the Declaration. Among the most striking images is the one by Jane Ray of a bloodied rag doll, illustrating 'No one has the right to hurt or torture', and call me biased but I love Gruffalo illustrator Axel Scheffler's amusing picture of various animals exercising 'the right to enjoy the good things that science and learning bring'.
My own contribution to the Amnesty campaign was to help some schoolchildren assembled at Edinburgh's Storytelling Centre to act out my book The magic paintbrush, which is based on a traditional Chinese story. The young heroine of the book has the power to paint things which become real. She is determined to do so only for the hungry and needy, and she stands up to the greedy Emperor (played zestfully to the children's delight by one of their teachers), who imprisons her when she refuses to paint him a tree of golden coins. I suspect that this story will ring a bell with those of you who are familiar with Amnesty.
Among all the enthusiastic letters that Amnesty forwarded to me after the event was one from a child dwelling on the fact that some people have much less to eat than others. "It's not fair," she wrote — those three words again, showing how receptive children can be to the idea of human rights.
All resources are available through www.amnesty.org.uk. The magic paintbrush, by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Joel Stewart, is published by Macmillan at £5.99.