This story clearly illustrates how children process information about places that are foreign to them. To a young child, "far away" might mean the half-hour drive to Grandpa's house. For a 5-year-old in North Carolina, Arizona might as well be another planet.
How can we teach young children not only about Arizona, but Africa and Australia as well? How can we help them enjoy and appreciate cultural differences in a way that's meaningful to them?
Make the Connection
The children in your classroom will learn about other cultures through you, their parents, and other adults they are introduced to. As you develop close relationships with children, what you tell them will become more meaningful. Over time, your messages have deeper meaning to them because you, a most trusted adult in their lives, are the communicator. The relationships children have with you and with their peers set the stage for successfully exploring what's in the next county or in another country.
If you are a child's conduit to the world, it follows that the most effective way to teach children about cultures across the globe is to use what's available locally. Say the word Australia to a 4-year-old, even show him where the country is on the globe, and it will likely mean nothing. But introduce an Australian dad to your classroom to talk about life there, with stories and photos of where he grew up and samples of Australian foods he likes, and you will capture a child's imagination.
Share Cultures Through Storytelling
Storytelling is a lively way to capture a child's curiosity about others. This is a wonderful way to "invite" people from other cultures into your classroom. Be careful in your story selection. Select stories that young children can relate to. Think about who the children are and what they can handle. Keep in mind that you can retell a story that's in a book, using your own language and perhaps modifying the details. Let the children tell their stories and be the leader some days, too.
How you present a story is important. Give the story energy. Use your voice-not just your regular range, but the highs and lows, whispers and shouts as well. Select descriptive words to help children imagine the scenes.
Children learn from concrete examples, so employ props when you can. Any simple prop, such as a walking stick, a festive hat, or a frying pan, can help make your story come alive. Use your body, too. Stand up, sway, wave - surprise your audience!
After you've told a story, find out what children know about the particular experience you're sharing. If you're telling a story about baking bread, ask what children know about cooking in general. Find a way to incorporate their responses into the story. If you've recounted Jack and the Beanstalk and a child mentions that his family grows hot peppers, tell a new version of what happened to Jack when he scaled the hot pepper.
You can use stories as a springboard for discussions about a culture. Bring in photos of what people grow in their gardens in Africa or Latin America or take a trip to your community garden and show children the different kinds of plants that grow where they live.
Music, books, and guests offer special opportunities to spark children's curiosity about other cultures and invite them to explore these cultures further. Here are some ways you can take advantage of the joy of sharing lively songs, interesting stories, and special visitors to introduce children to the wide world beyond their doorstep.
Play music from different locales during nap or snack time. If most of your children are listening to rap, gospel, or rock, try playing country western, classical, or jazz.
Try moving to different types of music. But don't expect elaborate movements from children. While you're trying to explain a complex dance from India, children simply want to wiggle in a fun way.
Create new lyrics to familiar songs. This can be as simple as, "If you're happy and you know it, eat a tortilla," with the children pretending to eat a tortilla. Teach the children new lyrics, and invite them to create lyrics, too. They will naturally draw on ideas that reflect their own heritage. Talk about other cultures and see what lyrics they can create based on your conversations.
Share musical selections such as the following:
- The Putumayo label produces joyful compilations of music from around the globe. Look for World Playground: A Musical Adventure for Kids, World Playground 2, Latin Playground, African Playground, and Dreamland: World Lullabies and Soothing Sounds (Putumayo World Music, www.putumayo.com).
- Enjoy music by Ella Jenkins (see www.ellajenkins.com for a host of possibilities) and Hap Palmer (draws from many traditions in his recordings). Try his Can a Jumbo Jet Sing the Alphabet? and A Child's World of Lullabies (Hap Palmer, www.happalmer.com).
- Try I Am Special, Just Because I'm Me (Thomas Moore Enterprises, Inc., www.drthomasmoore.com). Many of the songs are about the self and others.
Overall, look for child-friendly songs - ones with simple melodies, lots of repetition, and call-and-response. These formats invite children to easily participate and make the songs their own.
Pair a story you tell with one you read - say, a Native American oral story that's been passed down through generations, followed by a book about a Native American girl. Your local library may be able to lead you to collections of stories meant to be told aloud, or you can find storytellers in your community and gather stories from them.
Ask what sort of music people in the story might listen to. Then play music from that culture and see if it's what the children expected. Remember to draw from a wide range of musical selections - include not only Spanish classical guitar, but salsa and Spanish pop as well.
Share books from a variety of cultures during group time. Here are some titles to share with children:
- Children just Like Me by Barnabas and Anabel Kindersley (DK, 1995) A teacher and a photographer spent two years traveling to five continents, talking with and photographing children from many walks of life. A wonderful starting point for conversations.
- Grandmother's Nursery Rhymes/Las nanas de abuelita by Nelly Palacio Jaramillo (Henry Holt, 1996)
- How Nanita Learned to Make Flan by Campbell Geeslin (Simon & Schuster, 1999) A fairytale journey filled with discovery, danger, and delicious flan.
- Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley (Little, Brown & Co., 2001) A young African-American girl discovers that all hair is good hair.
- Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joosse (Chronicle, 1998) This book features an Inuit child asking her mother to tell her about love, with highly appealing illustrations of Alaska.
- Yoko by Rosemary Wells (Hyperion, 1998) A little Japanese cat brings sushi to school for lunch, with unexpected results.
Point out illustrations in picture books that are representative of cultural differences. Talk with children about where they may have seen some of these items before. If possible, bring some of these items (clothing, musical instruments, food items, toys) into the classroom for some hands-on exploration.
With Special Guests
Bring diverse people from different countries, first-generation Americans, and others with an interesting story to tell-into your classroom. Consider singers, dancers, storytellers, or people who can talk about their families, jobs, and homes. Introduce them to the children as people who have something special to share. This is also a particularly effective way to celebrate holidays. During December, invite people from diverse cultures to describe their traditions. When introducing guests, speak in specifics, using childfriendly words. Don't talk about "the Japanese culture." Say "Nobu's dad is visiting with us today. His family is from Japan. Nobu and his dad will tell us about a food they like, called sushi. "
Invite bilingual storytellers to your class. Your local library staff might know of storytellers, or you can check with local cultural organizations. Invite a senior citizen who speaks another language-perhaps she can tell a story in English as well as in her native language.
Teach through the mouth. Foods can be a great way to introduce other cultures. Invite parents or restaurant owners to bring in dim sum, matzo balls, collard greens, tacos, or other surprising foods as part of an international potluck lunch or supper. (Before trying this idea, be sure to check your city and state regulations regarding food preparation and serving.) One resource you may want to try is The Foods I Eat... The Foods You Eat, a curriculum by Many Hands Media.
Seize the Opportunity!
Group time presents unlimited opportunities to share other cultures and traditions with children. What objects do you share with children during meeting? Bring in something that can stimulate a conversation about other cultures - a toy, a piece of clothing, or a ritual object such as a menorah. Perhaps you could show a photo of a friend who is from a different race or culture than the children in your group. Don't say this person is from a different group, just talk about your friend and let children make the connection.
For older children, schedule field trips to new places. How about touring diverse local churches, synagogues, or mosques? Maybe you could visit a store or festival that celebrates a particular heritage.
Along with the books and recordings, take advantage of the wonderful videos and dolls that are now available. Contact school supply houses to see what they have to offer. Check to be sure the depictions are accurate. Some African-American dolls, for instance, have traditional white features with slightly darkened skin.
Be sure to share your efforts with parents. Send home a flyer about the activities children are enjoying and the diverse people they're meeting. Emphasize that your work is helping children become socially competent outside of the community they live in. Explain that by learning about other cultures now, they'll have a head start on feeling comfortable in another part of the city, the nation, or the world. Here are some specific ways you can get families involved in furthering children's understanding about other cultures and traditions:
- Establish a time once a week when you invite parents to share their traditions in class. At meeting time, they might bring in beautiful or interesting objects that represent their culture. Or they might share photos of themselves as children and describe what life was like in their home and neighborhood.
- Invite parents to teach children songs they sing at home, share stories about their backgrounds and traditions, or bring their special foods into the classroom. When appropriate, they might wear distinctive dress and describe these articles of clothing to children. Examples might be an Indian sari or Jewish prayer shawl.
- If your classroom looks homogenous, dig deeper. There are individual differences within broader cultures. Ask parents to describe where their ancestors came from. Explore children's books, music, and art from these places.
- Encourage parents to convey their cultural traditions to their children. The most meaningful activities are the most personal. Parents can describe their childhoods and their own parents' early lives. What did their parents and grandparents do for fun? What kind of games and toys did they play with? What did their homes look like? What were their favorite things to eat? Also encourage parents to talk about celebrations and special family events that reflect their cultures. The best stories will become a family legacy that children will remember.
Avoid the Tourist Approach
As you introduce children to other cultures and customs, be aware of "tourist" information - the broad stereotypes or misconceptions that all Native Americans dance at pow-wows or all Germans eat Strudel or all African Americans like rap. We must aim to teach with an understanding of a child's development and interests. That means we should not only describe traditional clothing, houses, or foods, but speak about how people dress and live today. We want children to see real people, not stereotypes. As we teach our children about different cultures, we also teach ourselves.
Don't be disappointed if a child's concept of a new place ends up being very different than your own. Your job is to give her age-appropriate information. The child will incorporate your information with what she is thinking about at the moment. 1 know a boy who told his teacher, "I'm running in Spanish!" he had just learned that Spanish was a different language, and was exploring the idea of what those differences meant in his own mind.
Cultures All Around the Classroom
Stock your learning centers with materials that represent the lives of people and places around the world. Decorate your classroom with photos of children and parents in other countries. Include the American flag and flags from other nations. You might want to add pictures of famous buildings and monuments, from the Taj Mahal to the Eiffel Tower. Have a globe available and display a world map at children's eye level to help introduce the concept of the world.
Here are some specific ways you can expand and reinforce learning about other cultures and traditions in your learning centers:
See if you can find distinctive clothing for pretend-play scenarios. Look for interesting hats and vests. Contact cultural groups in your community for donations of saris, kimonos, or other outfits.
Visit Spanish, African, or Asian grocers for small product boxes for your dramatic play area. The people and the print on i these containers may be different from i what your children are accustomed to see ing. This provides an immediate i opportunity for more conversation about people from different places.
Collect traditional family recipes and provide appropriate food boxes and cooking utensils for children to use during home/restaurant play.
Books suggest all sorts of dramatic situations and play. For example, after reading a book about ethnic cooking, bring in materials so children can pretend to use a wok or cook over a fire. Together, create different environments in the center.
Block and Manipulatives Area
Choose a book with unusual buildings, such as Houses and Homes by Ann Morris (HarperTrophy, 1995). Encourage children to create various kinds of homes that they've just seen.
Tell a story about a place you've been to and show children photos. Ask them to create a street from that place. Play music in the background that reflects the tradition, such as Japanese songs if you've told a story about Tokyo.
Invite children to use cardboard, wood scraps, and other art materials to construct their own Eiffel Tower, pyramid, or homes representative of other cultures.
Show children origami or paintings that depict new places, such as a beautiful Caribbean beach.
Invite children to draw pictures of their favorite parts of a book. They might depict new kinds of clothing they hadn't seen before, or a quilt from a particular culture.
Offer collage materials that include fabric scraps; clean, empty food packaging; natural materials; origami paper; and other materials that represent other cultures.
Learning about differences has become even more important for our children since the events of September 11, 2001. Adults, too, need to become more knowledgeable about our world. By exploring other cultures and traditions, we can help children recognize and celebrate their differences.
Multicultural Pavilion (and the early childhood section of Educators for Social Responsibility): http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/
Though the recommended books are for school-age children, the article "How to Choose the Best Multicultural Books" is worth reviewing for its thoughtful assessment on how to choose books about Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans, and other cultures.
RESOURCE BOOKS FOR TEACHERS
Anti-bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children by Louise Derman-Sparks and the A.B.C. Task Force (NAEYC) This comprehensive guide includes sections on racial and cultural differences and how to resist stereotyping.
Root and Wings: Affirming Culture in Early Childhood Programs by Stacy York (Redleaf Press, 2003) More than 60 activities to help young children develop an awareness of who they are and learn about others.
Storytelling in Emergent Literacy: Fostering Multiple Intelligence by Susan Trostle Brand and Jeanne Donate (Deimar Learning, 2001) Learn how to become a better storyteller. The authors' interesting approach is based on recent brain research and multiple intelligence theory.