By Jessica Kirby —
If we want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders.” – Abigail Van Buren
November 20 marks Universal Children’s Day, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1954 to encourage global recognition and understanding of issues that compromise the emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being of children.
Its primary objective is to bring awareness about children the world over who have succumbed to violence, exploitation, and discrimination, and to encourage advocacy at the national and community levels in ending the abuses millions of children worldwide wake up to every day.
While we are in the spirit of celebrating children and taking a stand in their defence, we can also think about empowering them, encouraging self-esteem and a sense of global responsibility they can take with them into their futures. Mother Teresa refused to talk about bullying because it empowered the bully, but was more than willing to talk about peace. Bearing the same principle, how do we turn children’s eyes to a global focus, a sense of personal capability and power, and a strong urge towards social justice?
Jennifer Borzel owns Maple Tree Montessori preschool and kindergarten in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Social justice projects are regular fare at the school, which currently has eleven students aged two to six.
In previous years Borzel and the children made cookies for Nanaimo’s “Everyone Deserves a Smile” project, which provides the homeless with cards and baked goods during the holidays. The preschoolers contributed 98 dozen cookies to the cause, which brightened the holidays for almost 400 people.
During Black History month, Borzel and the children studied Martin Luther King and took a bus ride to experience Rosa Parks’ contribution to civil liberties in the U.S. This year, the children participated in the Sweaters for Syria project, through which they collected and donated almost 100 sweaters to send to refugee camps in the war- torn Middle Eastern country.
It might sound surprising that children as young as two years old are presented with materials and lessons aimed at achieving a greater sense of global responsibility, but Borzel says preschool is the ideal time.
“The time we have to develop mind and spirit in children is zero to six years old,” says Borzel. “Compassion and empathy continue to develop after that, but the highest neurological input we can give is during that time.”
Getting a complex and sometimes heavy message across effectively calls on the principles of Montessori education—a teaching model developed by Maria Montessori in the early 1900s that focuses on fostering independence, self-belief, and self-confidence in children through freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical, and social development.
For instance, Borzel never gives anything to a child’s mind that she can’t also give to their hands—also a key Montessori principle—meaning the tactile, action-based components of a lesson are essential. Whether it is baking the cookies, choosing the sweater, or climbing on the bus, the children at Maple Tree Montessori are consistently and personally active in their projects.
“All of those things are teachable moments for them,” says Borzel. “We also have social justice books in the classroom that talk about kids making a difference in environments, and I use that language when we do projects: ‘You made a difference. You made the world better. You made someone else warmer.’ Even though those ideas might be abstract now, that doesn’t mean you can’t begin the roots of understanding that will come to fruition later on.”
Those simple phrases, repeated over and over, coupled with easy, fast, and doable projects spark awareness that appeals to different children in different ways.
In discussing the Sweaters for Syria project, Borzel explained that the children in the refugee camps were cold—something any of her students can relate to. It is essential, says Borzel, that their comments and reactions to the issues are respected and not corrected.
“When we were talking about the sweaters, one of the children said it would be a good idea to send chocolate with them. He might have brought that up because it protected him from the idea that other children are suffering, or it might just be that he had chocolate that day or that chocolate is awesome,” says Borzel.
“Importantly, we don’t correct them and say, ‘No, they don’t need chocolate, they’re cold.’ Allowing those comments and respecting them is part of the teaching, along with not expecting the child to understand the lesson on an adult level or with the same reverence we would.”
Borzel’s work at developing a close, respectful relationship with her students also facilitates the absorption of social justice lessons. Because she feels the lessons are important, and the children relate closely with her, they, too, feel the issues are important. It’s also ideal that parents follow up with bringing the message home.
Borzel chose the Sweaters for Syria project because it was easy and doable for every child in her school, considering every family lives incredibly busy lives, but also wishes to do more to help.
Each child could take a sweater from their own home and see the huge pile the class collected. Borzel’s own children, 6 and 8, were inspired by the project to collect sweaters from their school and from their father’s office.
“It offers a bigger lesson when you ask people for help, and they help you,” she says. “There’s value in that and in doing it as a family and extending the conversation beyond the classroom.”
Social justice projects aren’t done very often in most schools and that is a sad fact, says Borzel. “Helping children radiate outwards is easy and it doesn’t take a lot of time, whether it’s making cards and dropping them off at a seniors’ centre or hosting a potluck and bringing extra food for the food bank or dog food for the SPCA. And it might, for some children, seem scary to walk up to the door of the seniors’ home or the SPCA, but without those exposures now, they won’t do it later.”
And an investment in a child’s future is precisely what Borzel and her work through Maple Tree Montessori is about. “Why do we do these projects? It takes longer and is more work, that’s true,” she says, “I always think of something my dad said to me: ‘It can be hard now and easy later, or easy now and hard later.’ I put the time and energy into these projects now so later I have the type of kids I want to hang out with later in life.”
She cites some great examples of children engaging in social justice and creating real change in the world like Craig Kielburger, who at 12 years old co-founded Free the Children and the Me to We social enterprise, which advocate for children’s rights, and Ryan Hreljac who developed Ryan’s Well, an advocacy group that campaigns for clean water and health-related initiatives in developing nations.
“Both of them came from families who valued social justice, creating change, and them,” says Borzel. “If they hadn’t come from those families, would they have taken those risks?”
For more information about Sweaters for Syria, please visit Canadian Lutheran World Relief at www.clwr.org.
Borzel also recommends Me to We www.metowe.com as a great place to inspire discussion and project development that fosters social awareness and empowerment in children and families.