Can Animals Make Policy Fun?

12/13/2012 05:46 EST | Updated 02/12/2013 05:12 EST

Is your child crazy about Mo Willem's book, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus? I know a few four-year-olds who won't go to bed without it. But did you ever think that this book could be a great tool for teaching kids about the importance of policy?

Apart from the fact that the very word "policy" sends many of us into instant slumber, this short picture book can be used to introduce concepts and questions about how and why decisions are made. Knowing the "why" -- or the policy behind our rules and laws can be vital for anyone who must learn to live with the rule of law. And that would be your average four-year-old.

The pigeon wants to drive the bus. He REALLY wants to drive the bus. But, the bus driver tells the reader not to let the pigeon drive the bus. Well, why not? Can we teach kids to articulate the POLICY that would make this a fair decision? Is it that birds should never drive busses or is it that in order to drive a bus you need to have opposable thumbs, know the highway traffic act, and be able to see out the window while reaching the accelerator and brake with your foot? I put this question to some young people I know.

If you were a bird but you could fill all the necessary requirements to operate the bus, would it still be fair to keep you from driving the bus? Other than the fact that pigeons are known to poop a lot, they thought it might be okay to let a skilled pigeon drive, so long as it could pass the required test.

Would it be different, I asked, if we let every other sort of animal ride the bus, but still kept the pigeons off the bus? At seven and nine, my friends were quite happy to explain to me that a restaurant where dogs are not permitted to enter needs to make an exception for service dogs that help blind people. What if another patron of the restaurant is really allergic to dogs? Well, they suggested, that person could move to a table that is far from the one where the dog has to sit.

Taking this exception to a rule into consideration, my young friends were still not too happy about letting even a very skilled pigeon drive the bus. They did not think that pigeons could be trusted to keep themselves focused on the task at hand. Perhaps only well-trained domesticated animals should be allowed to drive the bus, they suggested. Still no pigeons. My young friends spent a good period of time working out a way to balance the safety of the bus riders with the needs or wants of the bus driver. Who knew that policy analysis could be such fun?!

Who do we include and who do we exclude? And on what basis should we make these decisions? How do we know when our decisions are being made because of the faulty reasoning or the untested assumptions that we call prejudice? Is there a difference between drawing distinctions based on bona fide requirements and discriminating based on irrelevant characteristics? These are the kinds of considerations we hope our policy and law makers will make. So why not our young children?

There are numbers of programs and curricula that focus on educating children about the justice system and how it works. There are others to teach them the importance of government and its various levels and jurisdictions. How many educators understand that policy analysis is where the fun begins? Perhaps we should take a cue from my young friends who also understand that the justice system and the legislatures are not worth much if we can't figure out what the purposes are behind the policies that drive the bus.

As a special treat for the holidays, the Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust invites you to join your elementary school-aged children in deciding what is fair by going to the website. Viewers can watch animated videos, help Mayor Moe work out whether rules for his City are fair or unfair, and play the "That's Not Fair!" video games. Let's join the junior policy analysts and have a great time!