Creating early learning environments in which children and their families feel valued and welcome requires thoughtful planning. It is important to take an objective look at the images children see in the pictures and posters that are hanging on the walls. Examine the way the diversity of the world is reflected in the toys that they use in their play and construction. Reflect upon the variety of the music that children hear and the snacks and meals that are provided. Survey your bookshelf for titles, images, and languages that are representative of the children and families in your care, and of the larger community.
Children’s literature can be used to help children gain a broader understanding of themselves, others, and the world around them. Literature inspires empathy and diminishes the fear that is often caused by the unfamiliar.
When considering the books you are presenting to children, ensure that the materials depict a wide variety of experiences, people, and places. The stories should depict differences in a positive and affirming manner. Materials should avoid stereotypes and focus on contributions, collaborations, and understanding that every person brings value to the community.
Here are a few areas where you can focus your attention:
- Race and ethnicity – stories depicting people from a variety of countries and regions of the world, including families who have immigrated to the United States
- Religious beliefs – stories depicting different religious traditions and celebrations from around the globe
- Economic class – stories that explore the lives of those living in different economic conditions
- Ability – stories that depict people special needs and different abilities living within the community
- LGBTQ – stories that include same sex parents, or characters who express differences in gender or sexual identify
- Family dynamics – stories that show different types of family structures, including single parent families, adoption, grandparents as parents, etc.
- Gender roles – Stories that depict male and female characters in non-stereotypical roles.
- Anti-bullying/social justice – stories that depict the harmful effects of bullying and oppression and how to stand up for the rights of others
Including a wide variety of books helps to ensure that children see themselves and their families represented in a positive light in your classroom. These books can, but do not have to be, the starting point for important conversations about respect and valuing others. Sometimes, just making these books part of your regular reading rotation can send powerful messages to young children who are forming their earliest opinions of the world.
When having conversations about the stories you are reading it’s important to talk about both the similarities and the differences children notice in the story. For example, after reading a story about a religious celebration, ask children to think about how the celebration is similar to and different from what they have experienced. Maybe the family in the story used unfamiliar materials in their celebration, but they all sat down and ate a meal together. You don’t need to focus on the belief systems represented in the story, but try to find similar traditions that young children can understand, like gathering around the table with family.
It can also be a valuable lesson to reflect with children about how characters in books are feeling. If children are able to identify the emotions of the story, you can follow up with a question such as, “Have you ever felt that way in your life?”
Children may have questions about parts of stories that you will want to answer with honesty. If a tough question comes up and you are unsure how to answer it, say something like, “That’s a great question and I am glad you asked it. I don’t have an answer right now; I need to give it some thought. Can I get back to you tomorrow?” At that point, call on your colleagues, your program director, the child’s family, and reputable social justice resources to help determine what your response to the child’s question will be.