Celebrate Diversity Before Kindergarten

1 March 2017


Friedrich Froebel, a 17th century German developmentalist, was the founder of the first kindergarten. He envisioned the early years of life as a garden, garten for children, kinder. In a garden, every flower grows at its own, individual pace. Each is a unique, separate creation. With a little loving care, they will all thrive. While I believe in Froebel’s basic ideas, I feel we owe our children more than just watching and encouraging the growth process. Today, we need to make their world, their lives, full of many different kinds of flowers and types of gardens. 

Developmentally, we know that by age 3 young children have an awareness of differences in language, skin color, and customs. So, in these early years, our initial focus should be on increasing preschooler’s knowledge about similarities and differences in their world. We need to ensure that they see as many different kinds of people, places, and things as they possibly can. 

Being exposed to a richly varied world helps preschool children learn to naturally accept, appreciate and respect all the differences in life, including their own. A preschooler who grows up in a diverse environment learns that life is full of differences and will not be frightened or biased by them, but rather will embrace and expect them.

Many times in my life, I have had chances to personally experience the benefits of diversity and anti-bias. What allowed me most of all to see the positive effects of diversity in young children’s lives came when I was recruited to start the first elementary extended day magnet school as part of the 1976 desegregation plan for North Carolina’s Wake County Schools. Our goal was to achieve a better racial balance by motivating white families to voluntarily enroll in historically black, neighborhood schools. My school, Phillips Extended Day Magnet, did so by offering before and after school child care.

Phillips Elementary was located in an inner-city neighborhood across the street from Washington Terrace, an historically African-American, low-income public housing development. The only children assigned to the school were from the surrounding neighborhood. The rest of our children’s parents, all white, drove to our school because no busing was offered. For most of the children, both black and white, this was their first exposure to teachers and families very different from their own. Social, economic, and racial differences abounded for everyone. Yet, I witnessed over the first few months of school, young children learning how to respect and honor these differences. My own 5-year old daughter was among them. Learning together day after day, our differences became our norm. Our differences were no big deal. Nobody stood out because everyone was different!

I can’t help but think that in the U.S. today, we desperately need to learn how to acknowledge and respect each person’s individual differences. And that the place where this really begins is in the early years of life. As we know, our children come into this world with an innate openness. As we get older, it becomes harder to unlearn the fear of differences we have developed in our lives. Even the places we spend our days become less open-- our schools, workplaces often become more segregated. Compounded by the business of our modern lives, we become less available to trying new things. Still, we can learn again through our preschoolers’ eyes. We can experience life’s amazing variety thanks to their natural openness. Children really do have the simple power make you see things again that you take for granted.

So, we all have a serious responsibility to provide our preschool children the full panorama of life’s differences. That may seem like an extremely tall order. But, as so many things in the preschool years, we begin simply with a few basic approaches.

Here are 6 ideas to help you on this important journey towards anti-bias with your child:

  1. Focus on increasing your preschooler’s knowledge about similarities and differences among their own peers, the other young children in their lives. This knowledge can be related through their awareness of their peer's different family structures, foods, celebrations and cultural traditions. Talk about different family structures and traditions as you would your own, respectfully, simply and naturally. As adults, we need to set an example of the support, understanding, and value of their peers' diversity.  
  2. Look for preschools and play groups that have a diverse population. Preschoolers learn about different races, classes and cultures best in everyday play situations.
  3. A preschooler’s primary means of learning is through play, so make their play diverse. Toys and other things that preschoolers play with reflect culture and provide insight into the norms and values of society. Adults need to evaluate toys to make sure that they reflect cultural diversity and don’t reflect a cultural bias. For example, try to include dolls of different skin colors and genders as well as blocks and wheel toys-- for both girls and boys. Mix it up!
  4. Seek out cultural festivals and celebrations in your community. Try restaurants with different cultural foods. Notice the restaurant’s decorations, how they present their food, how it tastes. Chat about how it's similar to and different from what you eat at home.
  5. Visit different places of worship for short visits. You don’t have to be particularly religious to appreciate the beauty of spiritual places, such as churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. Talk about what you see during and after your visits; the decorations such as stained glass, candles, the style of building and its altar.
  6. Young children are naturally curious about differences. They will often ask pointed questions about things like skin color and dress. It’s important to answer in a way that shows respect for the differences, but in a way that’s not a big deal, naturally and simply put. “Yes, her hair is different from yours. It’s pretty, isn’t it?”

I think we can all agree, our children are our hope for a better tomorrow. Let’s help them learn that differences don’t make enemies. Differences just give us more varieties of flowers in life’s garden. We all can and must learn to love, respect, and enjoy life’s awe-inspiring diversity.  

Add to our list - Are there other ways you've found to bring new and different experiences into your and your child’s life? You can give us your feedback right here!

You can also explore the your child’s wondrous world through our activities, What Happens to Water, Focus Scopes and my article The Promise of Your Child’s Early Development - Make the Most of It.