In our country today, most early childhood environments reflect diversity of some kind: cultural, social, or individual. The children we care for can come from a variety of backgrounds, but even if they do not, it is our responsibility to help them develop awareness, acceptance, and appreciation of the shining web of diversity of which they are a part.
New technologies and the media have shrunk our world and expanded our experience, so that our children are increasingly exposed to the pluralistic heritage of our nation and diversity of all types. Whether the children you currently serve are a homogeneous or diverse group, it is important to remember that young children are alert and curious, and that even those as young as two years of age notice differences of color, gender, and physical ability. By age three, children are at a stage where they can be influenced by the biases of others. We must be very aware, therefore, of our responsibility in providing bias-free environments which encourage acceptance of others, reflect the culture and characteristic of families in our facility, community, and larger society, and help children see how people may be different yet similar on a human level.
As care givers and teachers, what steps can we take to help children value themselves and those different from themselves? At the Southern Region Early childhood Programs, we have found the following factors extremely helpful.
START WITH THE FAMILY
Learn more about the families and children with whom you work. Without being inquisitive, ask questions, find out what the family values, who its members are, what its concerns and goals for its children may be. Culture influences child rearing patterns and behaviors, including those associated with meals, sleep, dress, gender, interaction with adults and other children, toilet training, guidance, health care, ways of showing affection and respect, ways of celebrating and occasions to celebrate. Children bring these cultural influences to the child care facility. Thus, we need to know and understand the family's cultural orientation to make a child feel comfortable and secure, and provide a sense of continuity.
Many different family structures exist today. Include them all. When the family is accepted and involved, the child feels safe and is more accepting of others. Celebrate moms, dads, grandparents, extended family members, siblings, and others important to children. Have photographs of family members on display. Get to know your children's people well.
INVITE FAMILIES TO SHARE CELEBRATIONS, CUSTOMS, FOOD
Celebrate festive occasions often and joyfully throughout the year, not just at "traditional" times, and not just as a one-time, "tourist" affair. Festivals are important aspects of cultural life and experience, so celebrate them, but do not focus on these only. For example, food cooked specially for certain holidays can be a wonderful treat; however, share ethnic food eaten by a family at other times as well. Remember, food holds special significance in most cultures. Similarly, it is fine to share exotic clothes of various cultures, but everyday clothes should also be acknowledged. See people as they really eat, dress, and live.
USE MATERIALS AND TOYS WHICH REFLECT DIVERSITY
Exposure to diversity through everyday materials can make children more accepting of differences.
Have a variety of musical instruments. Play music and songs from many cultures--dance music, lullabies, nursery rhymes.
Display pictures and photos showing people of different races, cultures, gender, age, and ability at various types of work, recreation, and celebration.
Have art materials, such as crayons, paint, play dough, and paper, reflecting various skin tones.
Make or buy dolls representing different cultures, abilities and gender. Use such dolls when telling stories, and encourage children's dramatic play with them.
Do not avoid children's questions about color, culture, or other differences. Encourage looking in mirrors to notice similarities and differences and acknowledging them through art, music, stories, and play.
HAVE PLENTY OF MULTICULTURAL BOOKS AVAILABLE
A good selection of books should be a basic part of any child care program. Like other toys and materials, books reflecting diversity should be part of children's daily experience. Luckily, many excellent books exist today which promote understanding of diverse cultures and lifestyles. There is no longer any reason to have books which are of poor quality, portray groups or individuals stereotypical, and ignore the voices of cultures present in our society or the realities of their present, everyday life.
Books for young children should emphasize the similarities we all share, while honoring differences. For example, books such as Ann Morris' Bread, Bread, Bread (1989) and Hats, Hats, Hats (1989), and Norah Dooley's Everybody Cooks Rice (1991) help children see the sameness yet variety of food and clothes needed by people everywhere. Similarly, children can understand relationships different children have with grandparents through books such as Arthur Dorros' Abuela (1991), Phoebe Gilman's Something from Nothing (1992), and Angela Johnson's When I Am Old With You (1990).
SHOW RESPECT FOR DIFFERENCES
We should constantly and carefully examine our own attitudes and behaviors to make sure that we do not demonstrate prejudice or disrespect for those who are different. Children become aware of diversity early in life; they also need to learn to respect and appreciate rather than fear diversity early in life. By modeling respect, adults show children that customs, languages, cultures, and physical attributes different from their own are important and to be honored.
Diversity in our society should be valued and enjoyed, not considered a threat to the values and lifestyle of any group. Teachers and caregivers need to accept the challenge of promoting an atmosphere of understanding and harmony in which all children can grow and develop fully.
Dooley, N. (1991). Everybody Cooks Rice. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda
Dorros, A. (1991). Abuela. New York: Dutton Children's Books.
Gilman, P. (1992). Something from Nothing. New York: Scholastic.
Johnson, A. (1990). When I Am Old With You. New York: Orchard Books.
Morris, A. (1989). Bread, Bread, Bread. New York: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard.
Morris, A. (1989). Hat, Hats, Hats. New York: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard.