What is cultural awareness and why is it important in early childhood programs?
In its most basic form, cultural awareness is how we communicate with each other. What we believe, what we value, how we interact and build relationships are all part of cultural awareness. Recognizing that our beliefs and styles of communication may be different from another person’s are an important part of cultural awareness.
Why is this so important for early childhood programs? Every child wants to feel like they are accepted for who they are. Every child wants to have a sense of belonging – to their family, childcare program, and community. This sense of belonging and acceptance are part of the essential social emotional skills young children need for lifelong success. Jenna Bilmes outlines these skills in her book Beyond Behavior Management: The Six Life Skills Children Need, 2nd ed. (2012). Social emotional development is the foundation for all learning, so the more we can support positive experiences for young children, the more we support their school readiness skills.
In her book Diversity in Early Care and Education: Honoring Differences (2007), Janet Gonzalez Mena identifies ten attributes of culture that influence each of us. Those attributes are:
- Abilities and disabilities
- Social class, including status and economic level
- Ethnicity and national origin
- Religion and/or spiritual practice
- Original geographic location of family
- Sexuality, including sexual orientation
How do you respectfully incorporate each of these attributes of culture in your program? The easy answer, according to certain rating scales and some state and national accreditation programs, is to buy costumes, books, dolls and puppets, and posters that reflect diversity. The school supply companies are eager to please, and have many offerings. But are they authentic?
If you were to visit Japan, do you think you would see lots of people walking down the street wearing Kimonos? And when you visit Mexico, how many people do you see wearing a sarape and a sombrero? How about in Africa, do you think everyone wears a Kinte cloth? I can’t remember the last time I wore chaps and a Stetson hat. And yet, these are the “costumes” that are included in many dress up sets that are labeled as multi-cultural. I believe these costumes promote stereotypes rather than celebrate diversity.
So how can you be authentic in bringing diversity into your program?
First, begin by focusing on the children who are enrolled in your program. Photos of the children and their families displayed in frames or a photo collage sends the message that everyone is welcome. Include extended family as well. Photos of staff members and their families should be incorporated into the display. Encourage families to share holiday activities and foods as well as everyday activities and foods. Music from home is another great way to bring the home culture into your program. Invite families to come in to do an activity or read a favorite family book.
Evaluate the books in your library. Do they reflect diversity or are there stereotypes represented in the stories? Do you have a balance of books that reflect various ages and genders in non-stereotypical roles? How about people with different abilities? Do your books reflect different cultures and languages? Are many different family structures represented in your book collection? These are tough questions to ask, and many children’s books do not have a balance of diversity represented. There are some great resources available to help you in your review of materials. Head Start has some great resources for Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness, including a tool for evaluating children’s literature. The Anti-Defamation League has a number of programs and resources available for Early Childhood Anti-Bias Education. Teaching Tolerance has a wide range of resources on all aspects ofdiversity and respect.
What about those posters?
Just slapping posters on the wall and calling it a day does not align with best practice. The environment should be set up with intention. Even if you’ve chosen a set of posters that reflects non-stereotypical images, are the posters meaningful and authentic for the children in your care? Do the posters enhance the environment in a way that is accessible to children, or are they randomly placed on the walls, doors, or cabinets – just because you should have them, or because someone else told you to put them up? Are the posters just adding visual clutter to your space?
The intentional teacher might have these posters in his or her program, but only IF there is a purpose. For example, that poster of the older gentleman and a younger child reading a book might be placed in the library area.
A better use of the posters is to incorporate them into daily learning activities. Any of those posters can be used as a springboard for a language and literacy activity. Share the poster with the children, either at circle time or in small groups. Ask the children questions about what they see, and what the picture brings to mind. Encourage the children to make connections between the images in the posters and their own lives and experiences. Making connections is one of the essential skills children need, as documented by Ellen Galinsky’s research in Mind in the Making.
Engage children in the process of writing by encouraging them to draw pictures and write about their own family experiences that reflect the images in the posters. Gather the children’s work and assemble the papers together to create a book, using the poster as the book cover. Place the book in the library area for children to read and revisit.
Engage children in Social Studies experiences by using the posters of community helpers as a springboard to discuss different types of jobs. Ask family members to take photos in their own work place to share with the group. Invite family members to come in and share what they do. Attach those photos to the back of the posters or create another book, engaging children in creative thinking – What do you want to be when you grow up?
For infants and toddlers, try taping the posters to the floor or along the inner rim of the infant pool. As children look around and move around, they can engage with the faces they see.
Infants and toddlers are attracted to faces. Why not use the mirror as a starting point for exploring faces? Take many photos of the children and their families, and frame the mirror with these photos. Use board books in the library to engage children in looking at pictures and photos of many different people.
To soften the edges in the room, try using different patterned and textured fabrics. Fabrics are a great addition to the dramatic play area. They can be used in any way a child can imagine. Consider using fabrics as a tablecloth in dramatic play. Draping fabrics over a rocking chair creates an inviting seat. Draping fabrics across the top of a shelf to soften the look of hard edges.
Sheer fabrics can be draped from the ceiling. This creates an inviting space for children to play. It visually lowers the ceiling for young children and encourages them to get cozy.
The possibilities for authentic representation of culture are endless.
How do you authentically incorporate cultural awareness in your program?