Learning about human rights from the age of one

ECEC employees work every single day to teach the youngest children the fundamental values that are the very glue that holds society together.



Swedish researcher Ann Quennerstedt visited ECEC institutions wearing what she calls her ‘human rights glasses’.

She has studied how toddlers develop values that enable them to exercise their fundamental human rights.

The researcher studied an ECEC institution with 18 children, aged one to three. For nearly four weeks, she spent her days observing the children’s play and interactions.

‘I actively sought out situations in which children act in relation to a human right, or where a right is at issue’, she tells us.

The right to property ownership is complicated

She has singled out three human rights that she feels are especially important. One of them is the right to ownership.

‘This is a right that we never talk about a child having. All the same, it is a value that we talk about a lot in ECEC situations. It is also the most complicated right’, she posits.

All the children who spend time in an ECEC institution own things in their own homes. They own toys, stuffed animals, pillows, etc. In ECEC institutions, no one owns anything. Of course, that does not imply that there are no rules that apply to ownership in kindergartens.

A whole new principle of ownership

Both Swedish and Norwegian ECEC institutions usually practise the right of ownership by saying that a child in possession of an item owns it until they put it down. Then an opportunity arises for a change of ownership.

‘This principle is extremely complicated. The practice differs greatly from what applies at home. It is, however, important to learn this principle because it will apply for many years in a child’s life. Children will encounter this way of practising the right of ownership at school, too.

Childcare workers spend a lot of time teaching this principle to the youngest children, and they work hard to deal with conflicts related to this right’, states the researcher.

‘Early in a child’s life, they learn that we expect them not to take things away from others. We rarely give a thought to how complicated it is for a small child to understand this concept’, observes Quennerstedt.

An evolving right

‘Theories of child development suggest two methods for evaluating a child’s development,’ continues Quennerstedt. ‘Either a child is perceived as ‘complete’ by nature or will be ‘complete’ at some time in future by acculturation. There’s been a trend towards considering children to be the former’, she states.

‘In my research, I’ve tried to reconcile these two perspectives. A child is both: both an individual who already holds rights, and an individual who has to grow into those rights.

The right of ownership is a right that has to evolve within a child’, she explains.

‘I saw that some children give such weak signals when they want to take an initiative to exercise influence that they are not even noticed by others.’

Not all children manage to assert their right to exert influence

Influence is another right she has studied.

When it comes to the right to actuate your own influence, in the researcher’s opinion, there is considerable variation between children. Most children take initiatives to exercise influence, but some do not.

‘I saw that some children give such weak signals when they want to take an initiative to exercise influence that they are not even noticed by others. Then they give up quickly. This applies in particular to the timid, quiet children, that is, those who do not draw much attention to themselves in other contexts.

Children who do not take initiatives risk not being heard at all in a kindergarten with large groups of children’, in the researcher’s opinion. ‘They need adult support to exert influence. For that reason, staff must be extra attentive to them’, she maintains.

The right to equal treatment evolves rapidly

A third right the researchers have studied is the right to equal treatment. She is of the opinion that this right evolves rapidly in the age group from one to three years old. ‘It is not obvious to a child who is entitled to ownership.

To use the slide in an ECEC institution, you must queue up and wait your turn.

Some children are aware that other children have the same rights as they themselves have, and that it is not always possible for them to be the first to do things. Other children find this hard to understand, so they have trouble waiting their turn’, Quennerstedt adds.

‘Employees of ECEC institutions spend a great deal of time every single day working with this and other issues involving equality. This work deals with far more than child-rearing. Learning to strike a balance between my rights and your rights involves something even greater: It involves learning fundamental values and principles for how we build society’, concludes Quennerstedt.