What do peace, human rights and democracy mean to children?

Human rights education is about practising respect towards others. At its core, it is about being able to co-exist with different kinds of people, the teacher explains.

Well at least now there are plenty of adults in the Viikki Teacher Training School classroom. In addition to their classroom teacher, Sari Muhonen, there are two student teachers, three researchers and both the reporter and the photographer from the University’s Yliopistolehti magazine, all waiting for the children.

“What on earth is going on here?” asks one of the pupils as they walk into the classroom.

Next up is a class given by two trainee teachers, Vilma Vartiainen and Viivi Vakula, where they will review the pupils’ collages on the topic of human rights. We are all interested in what the sixth graders think about human rights and how the subject is taught.

Pupils of the school are used to visitors and are not fazed by the crowd. They study each other’s work in peace and then have sensible conversations about them.

Human rights and ground rules

The task at hand was to get familiar with human rights and choose which five of them feel the most important. The students also made a set of rules for fair play, according to which their ideal world would be run. Based on these thoughts, they made collages with images and drawings of things important to them, either individually or in groups.

Some things were found in all of the collages: peace, the climate, the rights of minorities, safety and health. Feeling good about themselves and the rights of animals were also mentioned more than once.

"Even though these are very different, many of us have chosen the same rights. We think about many things the same way," one of the children reflects.

A few students are wondering what the phrase "Stop homophobia" written on one of the collages means.

"A phobia is a fear of something. Having arachnophobia, for example, means that you’re afraid of spiders."

"So, it means that you shouldn’t bully someone for being gay."

Stop the giggling

Some find it hard to focus when others are presenting their work.

"No giggling or goofing around while others are presenting. This is exactly what we are talking about here," says Vilma Vartiainen, a trainee teacher.

In other words, we should treat others nicely, as stated in the rules of some ideal world.

Pihla Miettola and Elsa Varkemaa, summarize their dreams for human rights: “It is important to us that nobody is judged by their appearance or background. That we have the right to a place that is safe, the right to hobbies and the right to love whoever we want. Everyone should have friends, food and rest.”

“In Finland, these are fulfilled better than elsewhere.”

“What’s important is to have the right to live where you want, believe in what you want and have the right to peace. These are all things we take for granted, things you don’t really have to think about, unless you see something like news about Ukraine, where there is no peace,” Jere Ruuth says.

"We should all help each other. No racism. And better rights for animals, too," Joel Tuulisaari and Mikael Mutka add.

Slow and difficult

There is an ongoing pilot project focusing on democracy and human rights education at the Viikki Teacher Training school. During the year there have been many human rights and peace education events, the biggest of them being the Children's Rights Week. The week was planned around the pupils' wishes.

"The children had many great questions, for example about what a parent or a teacher is allowed to do, or how we should treat others. Ultimately this is about learning how to be with different people," Sari Muhonen says.

According to Muhonen, human rights education fits in very well with the school’s activities. When making the collages, for example, pupils learned Finnish, visual arts, social studies, information retrieval, personal growth and cultural understanding.

"Human rights education is about practising respect towards others," Muhonen states. "It's not for the short term and not always easy."

"Unfortunately, there are situations where someone, for example, makes a snide comment about someone else's cultural background. These are always dealt with and worked through together."

Iran and climate change are distressing topics

Muhonen says that world events often come up as a subject of discussion in school. She thinks that even difficult topics should be discussed with children, especially if these things worry them.

When asked, the pupils all say that learning about human rights has been interesting.

Pihla Miettola says that there are a lot of human rights and they all seem important, especially those about minorities.

“Human rights come up in our everyday life when we see news about them. Feeling upset about other people affects us too. What’s happening with women’s rights in Iran is really upsetting. Not all of us have the same rights,” says Miettola.

Climate change distresses Elsa Varkemaa.

“We are often told that it is our generation’s responsibility to solve it. The rights of animals are also important: that they have a home and that they don’t need to suffer.”

The teachers’ responsibility

In the ideal world of sixth grader Lea Waris, no-one is discriminated against, everyone is equal, everyone has the right to express their opinion. And nature is protected, too.

Human rights have been discussed at school before as well, but this time there was more information gathering involved. One thing Waris learnt is that there is such a profession as a human rights worker. It did sound interesting, even though she does not think she is going to end up working in that field.

Lea Waris thinks that human rights education is both worthwhile and important: when children are taught about human rights from an early age, they are less likely to discriminate against others. But this is not guaranteed.

“Human rights can be taught, but they don’t always stick. Discrimination is not always seen as a human rights issue. Teachers could talk more about human rights and consider how they could be made more effective in the pupils' lives,” she reflects.

Waris thinks that drama, for instance, would be a good way to teach about human rights.

A valuable lesson

Many pupils say they liked the collage exercise when Vilma Vartiainen asks at the end of the lesson. They could have spent even more time on it. Many also say it was nice to draw and do crafts.

"This was nice to do because we got to be creative and find information together," Otto Laaksonen says.

"It was fun not having to do so much work. We could just look up things online," says Joel Tuulisaari.

Sari Muhonen thinks the children are interested in societal matters and like projects where they get to focus and get to know things. The collaboration between teachers and researchers has also been rewarding. Some methods that were used during the year will most likely remain a part of the school’s daily routine.

Lately there has been a lot of talk about whether schools should focus more on teaching the basics. Do these projects take too much time away from that?

Muhonen offers reassurance: "Both are necessary. It's important to practise multiplying decimals, but broader studies have their place too. They are not mutually exclusive."

Young people and the children themselves think human rights education is important. In the youth barometer 2021, peace, human rights and democracy were rated the highest out of many important issues.


The article was published in Yliopisto magazine 4/2023 in Finnish. It was translated by Sonja Aittokoski, Minea Benigni, Elena Chakhvatova, Markus Heimo, Helmi Hintikka, Hilda Hokkanen, Aada Hynynen, Tiia-Maria Hänninen, Elli Ilonen, Nelli Järvinen, Esa Karpansalo, Hanna Kauppinen, Vili Kilpeläinen, Suvi Kuitunen, Tilda Laitinen, Samuli Moilanen, Saara Nurmi, Christian Plank, and Kristiina Tuominen, revised under the supervision of John Calton, university lecturer in English.


Listen to the child

In Finland the term ‘peace education’ has a slight echo of the 1970s. It is still associated with the propaganda of socialist countries in the minds of many.

“One’s background can influence one’s perception of peace education. Ideas change gradually,” says Selja Koponen, a doctoral researcher. 

There has been a lot of talk about war during the last year and not so much about peace. Koponen is part of a project that promotes peace education in comprehensive schools. The project was launched at the beginning of 2022. The perspective was slightly altered when the war in Ukraine broke out in February.

“If images of war in news is disturbing for children, teachers should be able to discuss it. We want to prepare teachers for this.”

Peace education is supposed to become a part of the everyday life of a school. Children should learn how to promote sustainable lifestyles.

“Only a few teachers regard themselves as peace educators, even though a part of peace education is about how to talk to each other and how to behave. We would like these things to become a part of children’s lives in school and elsewhere.”

Koponen reminds us that the basis of a stable society is peace, democracy and human rights. These should be included in the child’s upbringing and education from an early age.

Koponen has written her doctoral thesis about the children’s involvement in their own learning. In many cases, we hear the children, but we do not listen to them.

“To be able to take into consideration the viewpoints of a child, we need to change our way of thinking instead of just trying some individual stunts.”


Information about your rights

Human rights have been part of the curriculum in comprehensive schools for a couple of decades by now. However, not all pre-service teachers are instructed on them and accessing further training can prove difficult.

“It’s an odd situation. International human rights commitments create a responsibility to teach about human rights and children’s rights, but the teachers don’t necessarily know enough for that,” says the doctoral researcher Tuija Kasa.

Why should human rights be taught in comprehensive schools?

“It is important for children to know about human rights and the rights of the child, so that they can identify any problems. The information is of particular importance to children whose rights are not respected.”

Kasa has been involved in designing an educational package for teachers. The material is based, among other things, on complaints made to the ombudsman.

“In Finland there is a mistaken notion that we do not have human rights problems. People do not always perceive injustice close to them,” Kasa points out.

For example, the rights of disabled children in schools are inadequately catered for, and there is not enough information about the experiences of the Sami and Romani people.

The researcher encourages us to think about what the essentials are that the schools should invest in. This should be done by listening to teachers and students in that field.

“In the survey I conducted, pre-service teachers felt a strong need for information on teaching human rights. We cannot leave teachers on their own with this.”