David came home from school last week and described the other children in his kindergarten classroom. John, who sits next to him, had interrupted him during class that day. "John is bossy," David declared. "He's from New York. You know everybody from New York is bossy."
David's mom reminded him of many friends who had moved into his neighborhood from the New York area who are not bossy, but kind and fun. She explained being bossy can be part of anyone's personality. "Including mine," she emphasized. "And I'm from Michigan."
Situations like that one arise every day in early childhood classrooms. They give us a great opportunity to teach children about diversity. By exploring differences among people, children see, understand, and can enjoy the great variety of life all around us. We are their guides, drawing upon their natural curiosity while giving them new experiences. And as an added benefit, I've found that children who appreciate diversity have more skills to handle conflicts when they arise.
In my view, teaching diversity is not the same as teaching "tolerance" or "compassion" for someone who is different than you. Compassion for someone who is different, just because they are different, can be condescending. Your goal is to teach compassion towards everyone. Here are some strategies to try in your class:
* Start with your colleagues. Adults have difficulty talking about racial, religious, and class differences. Have a conversation in your center about who you are and what makes you unique. Talk about what diversity means to you. This exercise is like playing scales on the piano. Do it enough and you get comfortable, but it takes practice.
* Get to know the parents. Children are bringing their experiences from home. If you have limited knowledge of a child's home life, it can be easy to misinterpret what the child says: When four-year-old Ashley announces that her friend in preschool walks funny, Ashley might actually be thinking about her older sister who has a disability.
Parents and guardians offer a great resource for teaching about diversity. Invite different parents each week to talk about what they like to do at home, their work, and their favorite foods, sports, hobbies, or other interests.
* Introduce the idea of stereotypes: "Sometimes, people make statements about other people that aren't true." Point out there is even a stereotype of a family as always being a mom, dad, and kids. Above all, be patient. If children say something offensive, remember they have limited experience and are likely repeating a statement they have heard from an adult.
* Use music to make diversity fun. Play with familiar songs. "Mary had a little lamb" could become "Maria had a little lamb" or "Jake had a little lamb." Don't stop there - make Mary daring and sing, "Mary had a little spider." The idea is to help children see familiar things in a new way.
* Take a field trip. In my city, there is an open-air market catering largely to Latino families, with a variety of Mexican goods and foods for sale. What's in your city? Find out where you might take the children so they can be around people from another culture. You could eat at a restaurant with different foods or enjoy a dance or musical performance from another part of the world. Be sure to talk with the people you are meeting so the children can get to know them. Those conversations make the people more real.
* Bring diverse people into your classroom. If your center is largely Asian, bring in non-Asians as workshop leaders, storytellers, or simply people to talk about their families, jobs, and homes. Don't forget people with disabilities. Invite a deaf person to visit your class and teach a few words in sign language or an older student in her wheelchair to show how it works.
* Use color. Color is often a starting point for conversations about diversity because skin color is a difference we all see. Children are intrigued by color. When my young friend David found out his mom would have a baby, he decided the baby would be twins with brown skin like the twins he knew from South Africa, even though David's mom and dad are white.
Artwork can be a way for children to use color to explore these questions. Let them follow their natural inclinations and color a person green or a dog purple. Ask why they picked those colors and listen to the answers.
In my sing-along song "At the Easel," I encourage children to experiment with color: "At the easel, at the easel, I can choose any color I want./ I choose red!/ I paint the house red./ I paint the dog red./ I paint the sky red./ I paint the grass red./ Today I must like red." Follow that verse with other colors.
Finally, above all, enjoy yourself as you explore diversity, and your children will, too. In some ways, I think, they have an easier time conquering their fears of others than adults. Give children experiences that will aid them in developing interpersonal skills, and you will give them the world.