How Do Kids Learn Their Rights?

by Carol Kocivar | December 11, 2017 | 1 Comment
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December 15 is Bill of Rights Day

One of the most important things we can teach our children is how to apply the lessons they learn in school to what is happening in the real world. And in today’s world, it can be pretty confusing.

December 15 is Bill of Rights Day, commemorating the 1791 ratification of ten crucial amendments to the US Constitution. It’s a good time to consider issues we face in America today and think about how they relate to those rights.

What do the following events have in common?

  • The Steinle murder trial in San Francisco involving an undocumented immigrant.
  • The shootings in Las Vegas and laws about concealed weapons.
  • Violence and the march in Charlottesville.
  • Police tracking of cell phone location data.
  • An athlete” taking a knee” during the national anthem.
  • Fake” news and the free press.
  • Banning immigration based on religion.
  • A baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay marriage.

If you answered that they all involve rights guaranteed by our Constitution, well done.

These events raise issues of freedom of speech and the press and religion. They show the tension between freedom of assembly and public safety. They touch on the right to bear arms and the power of government to prevent public danger. And they look to the important rights of privacy, a trial by jury, and the right to marry.

Just because rights are declared in the Constitution does not make them simple.

How can schools teach kids about their rights?

Rights are complicated. America's founders took two years to ratify the Bill of Rights, and they ended up omitting two of the twelve amendments that were proposed. The interpretation of these rights has evolved over time.

Schools play an essential role in teaching children the basics about the Bill of Rights. But parents also can help reinforce this learning. Bill of Rights Day is a chance to talk about it. Here are some questions to start the conversation:

  • Should you be able to say things that hurt people?
  • Should your school control what is in your student newspaper?
  • Should you be punished for saying what you think?
  • When would it be ok to limit what you can say?
  • Should schools say what you can and can’t wear?
  • Where should you be able to wear a shirt with hateful words on it?
  • What if wearing a certain color made people angry?
  • Should you be able to march to protest something?
  • What if it creates danger?
  • What if what you are doing is unpopular?
  • Should your class vote on a religion for your classroom?
  • How would you feel if you were not part of that religion?
  • Should schools ask you to say a prayer?
  • What is privacy? Should your school be able to search your backpack?

Talking with your kids about the Bill of Rights

Are you struggling a little bit to engage kids in these issues? We’ve put together some resources to help.

This site explains constitutional topics for different grade levels:

Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
4th - 7th Grade
8th - 12th Grade
Teach it

Summarizes the amendments that became the Bill of Rights and how they relate to children’s lives.

ACLU of Maryland

A Resource Guide for Teaching the Bill of Rights. This is quite a thorough look at important rights that affect students and contains major legal cases written so kids can understand.

National Constitution Center

Celebrate the Bill of Rights Day with educational resources from the National Constitution Center

Facing History and Ourselves

Investigate cornerstones of successful democracies, including religious freedom, a free press, media literacy, and living with differences.



Don't just learn civics - play civics! Free resources, tools, and support for informed and engaging civic learning.

Arts and the Bill of Rights

I love it. Here's a musical interpretation of the Bill of Rights that illustrates how you can teach using the arts.

Wait, but…

What about Women?

A conversation about the Bill of Rights seems incomplete without acknowledging that the Bill of Rights started a process that remains unfinished. To pick a glaring example, a constitutional amendment to permanently guarantee equal rights regardless of gender has never been ratified. The process stalled in the southern states generations ago.

Application Deadline: January 19, 2018

Is your school doing great work helping kids understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens? Then apply for the California Civic Learning Award. It celebrates public schools' efforts to engage students in civic learning.

Happy Holidays to everyone! Thank you Bill of Rights!

Questions & Comments

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Carol Kocivar December 12, 2017 at 11:08 am
The American Founding: The Bill of Rights
This comprehensive, multimedia online exhibit features a trove of resources on the Bill of Rights. Part I contains the English, Colonial, State, and Continental origins of the Bill of Rights; Part II features the Federalist/Antifederalist Debate over the Bill of Rights; and Part III explains the politics of the Bill of Rights in the First […]
©2003-2024 Jeff Camp
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