I started my career in education a couple of decades ago in a culturally diverse preschool based out of Bangalore, India. I was young and bright eyed with a willingness to learn while simultaneously challenging traditional concepts of education in the Indian context.
Within the first few weeks,I learnt one of my most important learnings as an early childhood educator - to take the time to ‘understand the child’s context’. Kids of all ages learn and connect better when they are heard and understood. I quickly learnt to say “Mama’s coming back” in 8 different languages as we attempted to make the little ones feel safe and secure during this transition of home to school.
As early childhood educators, we know that cultural identity matters. And as the world becomes smaller, taking the time to understand a child’s cultural context matters. But, not just for ourselves. We also need to give kids the skills to celebrate their cultural identity and teach them to understand another person’s cultural context. Skills that need to be developed and nurtured as early as possible. Skills that lay the foundation for a child's understanding and acceptance of different people, cultures, and perspectives from an early age.
Incorporating diversity and inclusion in the playroom isn't just about having toys of different races or backgrounds—it's about creating an environment where children can explore, ask questions, learn, and engage with the world around them in a way that celebrates our shared humanity and differences.
Here's why it's important:
- Early Learning and Empathy:
Children are like sponges during their early years, absorbing information, values and beliefs and forming attitudes. By exposing them to diverse toys, books, and experiences, you can help them learn about different cultures, races, abilities, and backgrounds. This early exposure through play and stories promotes empathy and understanding, helping them relate to people who are different from them.
Without exposure, children may struggle to empathize with others who have different life experiences, challenges, or identities. A child who has never played with a peer with a disability might have difficulty understanding and empathizing with the challenges that person faces.
What You Can Do: Read books like ‘You are enough’ by Margaret O’ Hair whose beautiful story has been inspired by Sofia Sanchez, a 11 year model and actress with Down Syndrome.
- Representation Matters:
When children see dolls, action figures, books, and other toys that reflect a wide range of appearances and experiences in their playschool environment and not just at home, they learn that everyone's story is valuable. Representation validates their own identities and helps them appreciate others' identities. It boosts their self-esteem and helps them feel valued.
What You Can Do: A simple story like Goldilocks and the 3 bears can easily be made inclusive by changing the lead character to Lila, Farah, Miguel or the name of any little child in your class.
- Diverse and Inclusive Play:
The playroom is a space where all children should feel welcome and included. By having a variety of toys and activities that cater to different abilities and needs, you create an environment where every child can participate and enjoy themselves.
What You Can Do: Think about the sensory needs of the kids in your class. One little girl didn’t like balloons and we adapted our birthday decorations to suit her needs.
- Preventing Bias and Stereotypes:
Children start forming stereotypes at a very young age. By providing toys, books, and activities that reflect diverse cultures, abilities, genders, and family structures, you can counteract stereotypes and encourage open-mindedness. Toys and play experiences that challenge traditional gender roles and cultural stereotypes help children see that they have choices beyond societal norms. This contributes to breaking down limiting beliefs and promoting equality.
What You Can Do: Switch up gender roles and family structures in storytelling. For instance, instead of a story about a mommy and a daddy, tell them stories about 2 mommies, 2 daddies or a single parent.
- Increases Cultural Competence:
Without exposure to culturally diverse playmates and experiences, children may lack the cultural competence needed to navigate an increasingly diverse world. They may struggle to communicate effectively and respectfully with people from different backgrounds. Playing with toys and engaging in activities inspired by different cultures encourages children to ask questions, learn about traditions, and appreciate the beauty of global diversity.
Did you know teenagers who have experienced diverse play environments in the playroom are more comfortable interacting with individuals from various cultural backgrounds, which can be invaluable in an increasingly globalized society?
What You Can Do: Mark out and celebrate diverse festivals in the classroom calendar. Invite community members to do a ‘show and tell’ visit to your classroom. It is a great way to have fun and learn about different cultures through music, food, clothes and games.
- Builds Friendship and Connection:
A diverse playroom provides opportunities for children to form friendships across cultural, racial, and linguistic lines. This can foster meaningful connections and teach them the value of diverse relationships. Children who are not encouraged to play with a diverse group of peers may engage in social exclusion, intentionally or unintentionally leaving out those who are different from them. This can lead to feelings of isolation and low self-esteem in excluded children.
What You Can Do: Play cooperative games that teach inclusivity from a young age making children less likely to engage in exclusionary or bullying behavior. They will learn that differences are natural and should be celebrated.
- Promotes Language Skills:
Exposure to diverse books and stories helps children develop strong language skills. It also teaches them about the world, fosters curiosity, and encourages them to ask questions and engage in meaningful conversations. Kids who grew up playing with peers who spoke different languages or dialects tend to have better language skills, making it easier for them to communicate effectively in diverse environments.
What You Can Do:A simple circle time activity of saying hello in the different languages that are represented in the class or in your community - hello, namaste, ni hao, hola.. Is a great way to introduce different languages. You can then keep adding words and phrases to it. A different word every week.
- Develops Critical Thinking:
Incorporating diversity into play encourages children to ask questions, compare, and contrast. It promotes critical thinking as they explore differences and similarities among people.Children start to take on different roles and perspectives, which stimulates their imagination and critical thinking as they make decisions for their characters and navigate the plot.
What You Can Do: Include costumes, puppets, and storytelling props that allow children to act out different stories and scenarios.In a restaurant setting, will they eat with their hand, a fork or chopsticks? They learn to analyze situations, anticipate outcomes, and adjust their role-play narratives accordingly.
- Improves Conflict Resolution Skills:
Studies have shown that kids who have experience in resolving conflicts with peers from different backgrounds tend to be better at conflict resolution, which can be an essential skill for handling interpersonal challenges during adolescence and beyond.
For instance, two children, Sam and Aisha, both reach for the block set at the same time and start tugging at it, arguing over who should have it first. Sam comes from a background where sharing toys is encouraged from a young age, while Aisha's cultural background values individual playtime and ownership.
What You Can Do: Acknowledge both Sam and Aisha's perspectives, highlighting that different families have different ways of playing with toys. Gather the children in a circle and initiate a discussion about how each child's family plays with toys. Let the children start sharing stories about their homes and how they play with siblings or friends. As the children listen to each other's stories, they begin to understand that there is no single "right" way to play. Sam will learn that Aisha values having her own toys, and Aisha learns that sharing can be a fun way to play with others. With empathy in place, Sam and Aisha decide to build something together with the blocks. They come up with an idea, and as they work together, they find joy in cooperation, taking turns, and using their creative skills.The conflict is resolved as Sam and Aisha find a compromise that works for both of them.
- Facilitates Open-Mindedness and Innovation:
A child's understanding of the world can remain narrow if they do not have the opportunity to engage in diverse experiences and conversations. Kids who have experienced diverse playrooms often approach problems with innovative solutions, drawing from their exposure to various ideas and perspectives.
What You Can Do: A little boy injures his leg and can’t play Tag. Encourage him and his friends to suggest another way that they could play together. One friend suggests they play a board game instead. Another friend decides to put up a puppet show to entertain his injured friend.
- Ability Navigating a Diverse World:
As children grow into adults, they will inevitably encounter diverse workplaces, communities, and social networks. If they haven't learned how to interact with people from different backgrounds in their formative years, they may struggle to navigate these environments effectively.
What You Can Do: Play a game where the children take on different roles in a fictional town. The roles include a mayor, a police officer, a doctor, a teacher, and a construction worker. Assign these roles to the children without considering stereotypes, ethnicity or traditional gender or race associations. These kinds of diverse play experiences can lead to less biased decision-making in the workplace as the children grow into adults.
In conclusion, diversity and inclusion in the playroom lay the foundation for lifelong attitudes and behaviors. Scientific research consistently shows that such diverse playroom experiences can lead to greater empathy, reduced prejudice, improved communication skills, and enhanced cultural competency, which are all valuable attributes for navigating an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.
At indigrowkids we are empowering kids and their grown ups to celebrate the diversity of themselves and those around them everyday. Follow @indigrowkids for more play and conversation. And visit us here for more!