5 Ways to Teach Liberty to Young Children

By Nancy Littlefield

If you believe that liberty is important for the future, you probably wonder how today’s kids are learning about it. You might quiz young children in your life to determine what they know. You could scan their social studies texts to see how liberty is described. Ultimately, you will probably decide you should instruct them about liberty yourself. But how?

Elementary and middle school-aged children are not developmentally ready to debate the border wall, the minimum wage, or the war on drugs. Much of the discussion about liberty that engages adults would confuse or even distress young children. When it concerns liberty, what is appropriate to teach young children? How can it be explained? Can learning about liberty be engaging for five- to twelve-year-olds? As a parent and teacher, these are the questions I pondered. I created the website Kids Learn Liberty to answer them.

If you have ever tried to teach a young child, you know that you must build on the child’s current knowledge one small step at a time. Care must be taken to avoid using words the learner does not comprehend. Since liberty is an abstract concept, children’s grasp of it is strengthened with narratives and hands-on projects. Keeping all that in mind, here is a sample of topics from Kids Learn Liberty.

Explaining that government generally uses violence to pursue its goals would be unsuitable for young children. It would encourage fear and mistrust. However, children can learn to distinguish between cooperation and coercion. Both involve people interacting. Cooperation is voluntary. Coercion involves threats or actual harm.

After learning about, and hearing examples of, cooperation and coercion, children can listen to the story The Queen of the Frogs by Davide Cali, which explores the issue of rulers vs. ruled, and The Arabolies of Liberty Street, by Sam Swope, which pits the forces of sameness against the joys of individuality. Both will set the stage for thought and discussion about cooperation and coercion.

To make cooperation and coercion more personal, children can write examples of human interactions on index cards and sort them into their proper categories. As world events and family and personal experiences present more examples, these can be added to the deck. When they are ready, children can learn—or better still, figure out for themselves—that most government activities are coercive.

The dangers and difficulties of their journeys show the importance of freedom to them.

Immigration is an appropriate and interesting topic for five- to twelve-year-olds. Most immigrants move from less free to more free locations, which demonstrates liberty’s widespread appeal. Kids first need to know what immigration means and that troubles like war, oppression, and poverty are the reasons people relocate. The dangers and difficulties of their journeys show the importance of freedom to them.

Many outstanding children’s books describe immigrant experiences. Some are factual, such as L is for Liberty by Wendy Cheyette Lewison. A chapter book suitable for middle schoolers, Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse, weaves a compelling narrative about a Russian immigrant girl.

The immigrant experience can be made personal for young children by sharing with them the stories, photos, and heirlooms of their own immigrant ancestors. Children can also visit Meet Young Immigrants on the Scholastic website to hear the words of present-day immigrant children.

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Kids love heroes. Introduce young children to real people who championed liberty. Founders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson come to mind. Others can be even more powerful.

The beautifully illustrated book Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass by Lesa Cline-Ransome will astonish kids as they follow the twisting path Douglass trod to learn how to read. The Picture Book of Harriet Tubman by David Adler conveys the horrors of slavery and the risks people took to escape it. Tubman’s words describing how she felt to be free are breathtaking. Consider also Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, a living young person who stood up for her freedom to learn.

Something as commonplace as a grocery store produce department abounds with interesting examples of exchange.

Though the mathematics of economic freedom would lull young children to sleep (not a bad thing if you are an exhausted parent), adults can help generate kids’ interest in the economic activity happening around them. Farmers are plowing in their fields. Construction workers are putting up new buildings. Consider taking the children in your life on a tour of a local factory. The tag inside a new pair of sneakers will tell where they were produced. Why not help their new owner find that place on a world map? Trains and delivery vehicles are loaded with products heading to customers. What are they carrying? Where might they be going? Something as commonplace as a grocery store produce department abounds with interesting examples of exchange. Tomatoes from local farms, apples from Washington state, and grapes from Chile are all products of trade.

A surprising number of children’s books have economic freedom as a theme. Some are explicit, such as the classic story “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read. It cleverly describes how, without central direction, many specialists from all over the world work together to produce an everyday object. One Hen by Kate Smith Milway explains how entrepreneurship helped an African community become more prosperous.

A powerful way to demonstrate the importance of liberty is to contrast free and unfree countries. Unfortunately, most nonfiction books for young children about nations such as North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela fail to explain the oppression and privation suffered by their citizens. Stories about developing nations focus on the ways that children all over the world are alike. Though this is good for nurturing understanding, getting children from wealthy countries to make the connection between liberty and lifestyle will probably require explanation.

The story The Water Princess by Susan Verde describes a young African girl’s daily walks to obtain water for drinking and washing. Children with indoor plumbing will benefit from hearing that dependable tap water is a benefit of living in a free and prosperous community. Narratives are what make the realities of lack of freedom come to life. For example, truthful stories about life in North Korea (N is for North Korea by Trevor Eissler) and Afghanistan (Nasreen’s Secret School by Jeanette Winter) describe the lives of oppressed children.

Hearing explanations, reading powerful narratives, and making personal connections will help young children comprehend and appreciate liberty. Then they will be better prepared for the onslaught of historic and political perspectives they will encounter in high school and beyond. The best way to preserve liberty for posterity is to make sure that those going into the future understand its importance.

For more concepts, dozens of literature suggestions, plus links and family activities for teaching liberty to children, go to the website kidslearnliberty.com.


Nancy Littlefield is a retired elementary school teacher.

This article was sourced from FEE.org


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