By Amara Sardelli, AmeriCorps member serving with the Grew Elementary School team
Many people believe that social justice issues are too complex for children to understand. This can lead to social justice, as a whole, being considered a taboo topic to discuss with younger students. While the subject may bring up emotional feelings that are challenging for children to process, it must not be avoided. Social justice issues can easily be adapted to fit children’s levels of understanding. When adapted successfully, adults can have fruitful social justice conversations with children.
In the elementary school extended day space, I've found that social justice topics can be broken down in bite-size chunks for students to absorb. A good place to start would be to define "social justice" for young students, since this is a term that they most likely will not be familiar with. Once the definition is understood, a number of hands-on, fun activities can be led to help students understand the concept of equity in a more abstract sense. For example, an activity that addresses equity could include a group of students trying to perform the same act while some students have barriers, such as not being able to use their hands, and others do not. Alternatively, have students perform the same task while they all have access to different resources.
One fun and easy activity that allows students to perform the same task but with different barriers could include having students try to shoot a basketball in a hoop while students are standing at varying distances away from the hoop. When performing the activity, students will begin to realize that the same activity is more difficult for some than for others. Ultimately, the activity allows students to learn kinesthetically that, due to certain inequalities, certain people have a harder time getting to the same goal as others who are more privileged.
After the activity itself, it is important to debrief what just happened. Ask students who were standing at different points from the basket how difficult the activity was for them, focusing on those who were very close and those who were very far, so students can see the inequality present in the situation. Essentially, activities like this one allow students to actively explore the concept of inequality and allow them to see that the same acts are harder for certain people than others, based on the limited resources available to them.
It is very common for elementary-age students to learn about the oppressions of certain groups of people throughout history in schoolwide curriculums. I believe that if children can understand and handle learning about systems of oppression from a historical lens, then it is possible that they can understand and handle talking about oppressive systems that exist today. With great care, social justice lessons can encourage children to think more deeply, inspire them to act in a positive manner, and open the doors for more knowledge to come their way.