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Community uses arts and games to educate children about human rights

Sarah Simmons looks at artwork that students made from the first class.

For the next four weeks, the Office of Human Rights in Tompkins County will hold classes to educate Ithaca’s children about their basic human rights in preparation for International Human Rights Day on December 10.

As part of the Human Rights 4Kidz project, these weekly classes held at the Greater Ithaca Activity Center (GIAC) and Southside Community Center use art, songs, discussion and games to build an understanding of select articles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

The program, which is geared toward children age 4-to-12, began on November 10. These classes provide an interactive learning experience on the concept of human rights, Sarah Simmons, program and outreach specialist for the Office of Human Rights, said.

A 1998 study in the Journal of Adolescence revealed that children around the age of 8 did not even know that they had rights. These classes are an attempt to make that connection.

“Human rights aren’t something you just have, it’s something that has to be protected and we have to take actions to do that,” Simmons said. “We [have] to get to young people, and help them understand that they have those rights, but they’re not just going to be there.”

Each class starts with a game, which leads to group brainstorming and art projects. On the first day, the class decorated the outline of a human figure based on how they see themselves.

“They drew who they are inside so that’s like sharing who they are with each other,” Simmons said. “Everything is generated by the young people, so they are creating. I provide a frame for the conversation and they fill that in. In terms of the arts, that’s one of the gifts that we can give anyone, or young people in particular — which is that structure within which to be creative.”

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The children were actively engaged in the material, Brandon Blas, youth program leader at GIAC who sat in on the first class, said.

“They really got into it,” Blas said. “The kids were raising their hands all the time.”

Aside from the artistic engagement, these classes help the children to become better people and better friends, he added.

This year marks the 21st anniversary of International Human Rights Day and the second annual celebration at GIAC next month. At this celebration, Simmons plans to display the artwork the students created during the first session.

There is a need for prep classes instead of a “one time, ‘fix all’ human rights” celebration, Jenna Stroud, Youth Program Coordinator at GIAC, said.

“Our youth is an underserved population and they need to be represented and have a voice,” she said. “It’s important for kids to understand that they do have rights, and that they are valuable and created uniquely. They have a right to know their basic needs.”

One of the main reasons that Southside is participating in the initiative is the promise of hands-on opportunities for young students to learn about human rights. Kenneth McLaurin, executive director at Southside Community Center, said he is excited for the opportunity students will have to learn about human rights.

“As they grow older in this world they can always advocate for themselves and their neighbors in their community,” McLaurin said.

Due to the sensitivity of these concepts, Simmons said has to strike a balance in these classes.

“Young people can probably handle more than we realize,” she said. “Obviously when you’re with a group, you don’t want to trigger anything. But at the same time, you don’t want to dumb things down. Primarily, it will be about children treating each other with respect.”

The goal of these classes is to have a lasting impact and be self-sustaining in building awareness.

“It’s not just after the classes,” Stroud said. “It’s not just after the celebration, but it’s after a few classes and a few celebrations that we do that the children start internalizing their worth.”


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