Fostering curiosity about the EU among children

Dr Emmanuelle Schon-Quinlivan, Director of the BSc in Government and Lecturer in European Politics, tells us about a project aimed at getting primary school children to discuss Ireland and the EU
Fostering curiosity about the EU among children
Children learning about the EU.

LAST month, the website for My Big Friendly Guide to the European Union was launched in University College Cork. This innovative six-week teaching and learning programme focuses on getting primary school children to discuss and debate Ireland and the European Union.

At a time when populist political parties but also green parties are on the rise across the European Union and Brexit is on our doorstep, this could not be more timely. There is a real need for our future citizens to understand what the European Union does and how they can amend or further it.

In 2017 myself and Trish Collier, a primary school teacher in Kilmurry NS, won a Jean Monnet grant from the European Commission. The aim of the grant was to develop a productive collaboration between primary and third level education in order to get teachers and children thinking critically about the values, principles, purpose of the European Union and the role of Ireland in the club.

Trish and I were clear that this programme would not be about selling the European Union to children. Instead, it would be about raising awareness and curiosity about the European Union and Ireland’s place within it while fostering open debate on key issues. UCC promotes the idea of independent thinkers — there are no right or wrong answers. We can all have our own opinions and debate them in a safe and respectful environment. That is a celebration of diversity and inclusiveness which is in the best traditions of this famous university. Trish and I are providing that initial spark and – in 10 or 12 years’ time — the hope is that many of these primary school pupils will come to UCC to study. They may study music, drama, engineering, arts, medicine or law, but the hope is that they will have an appreciation and an understanding of how their community and the European Union work.

In 2018 and 2019, my BFGtoEU was piloted in six primary schools across Cork City and County from Junior Infants all the way to 6 th class. This programme fits perfectly in the Social, Environmental and Scientific Education and Social Personal and Health Education curriculum which children cover when studying their community within a bigger world as well as how to become active citizens. It is progressive which means that as a school, you can decide to implement this programme from Juniors to 6 th class. However, it is also adapted so that you can decide as a teacher, independently of your colleagues, to run this programme in your class. There is no Action Plan to fill out or reporting to carry out. This is an engaging and fun programme which focuses on the educational aspects of active citizenship at the local, national and European level.

My BFGtoEU is children-led and teacher-friendly. It involves many hands-on activities and games. In order to explain the concept of European Union, the children make a smoothie: each country is a fruit, delicious in itself but once you mix it with others, it makes something new, called the EU.

They also reflect on the different levels of decision-making by using a Russian doll with the smallest doll inside being the community level, then the county level, then the national one and finally the European one.

All the games and activities as well as the lesson plans, slides and quizzes are freely accessible on the website:

It was the former American President, Benjamin Franklin, who said – ‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn’. BFGtoEU focuses on active learning and the enthusiasm from all the children is infectious.

As part of my BFGtoEU, pilot schools have been graduating in UCC. In May 2018, Ryan Tubridy delivered the graduation speech to 239 children of 1 st , 5 th and 6 th classes, accompanied by their parents.

This week Rob Heffernan presented 193 children from 2nd, 3rd and 4th classes in front of more than 300 parents. Children were acknowledged for their extraordinary engagement, curiosity and critical analysis of the European Union’s policies and Ireland’s role in the EU.

The words of William Butler Yeats about education are often quoted because they are inspirational and apt. Yeats wrote: ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’.

Trish and I are providing that spark for children which hopefully will become a fire; a fire that burns within them to become lifelong learners, investigators and empowered citizens.

After two years of testing the programme in primary schools across Cork city and county, Trish and I will run a free Continuing Professional Development course for primary school teachers. It is EPV approved and will run from July 1 to 5 in UCC. Free parking is available through UCC park and ride venues. This course will be hands on and invaluable in terms of giving teachers the confidence to use the website and develop teaching methods of Ireland and the EU in their classrooms. It is still possible to register on the website at Any further information can be obtained by emailing Emmanuelle at

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