Preschool can be a rich time of growth for young children with opportunities to learn about many things. Preschoolers learn about the arts through literature, poetry, paints, clay, dress-up, play-acting, and music. They learn about math concepts through sand and water play by pouring and scooping, as well as building with different sized unit blocks. They learn about science through study and observation of our physical world including animals, insects, plants, and weather. They also learn a lot about our social world by forging new trusting relationships with caregivers, exploring friendships, negotiating shared space and materials with others, and expanding experiences and knowledge about differences among people.
Before age three, children’s view of the world is appropriately ego-centric. Developmentally they have not yet considered the vast differences in the people of the world. They have absorbed their own experience of their family’s unique culture as “the way things are.” All of the things about their own family is the way things are suppose to be from their point of view: the kinds of food they eat, how their family interacts with strangers out in the world, how they greet friends and loved ones, what language they speak. These are just a few of the many things children under three already know about their own families, and naturally they assume the same about the rest of the world.
Around age four, children begin to ask questions about the differences they notice. They are at a developmental stage of categorizing differences. “Why does that person have a wheel chair?“ “Why does Brook have two dads?” “Why do I have curly hair?” “Why does Amir’s mom use her hands to talk to him?” “Why do you have a big tummy?” “Why does Jiao look different than her family?” Children need to develop clear and simple vocabulary to explain the differences they notice. “That person’s legs work differently than ours do so they need to use a wheelchair to get around.” “Brook’s dads are gay.” “Your hair is curly because you have the same hair-genes that daddy does.” “Amir’s mom’s ears don’t work the same as ours so she doesn’t hear sounds.” “My body is not burning as much fat as some people’s bodies do, so it is stored right here in my tummy,” “Jiao is adopted. She looks like her birth-parents.” Our answers to these questions are how children begin to develop beliefs and values about differences.
Along with categorizing and differentiating, by age four, children are beginning to experiment with power and control. Negotiating with parents, caregivers, and friends can be more challenging at this time. This developmental stage sometimes gives way to children using the differences they see and negative messages they may have absorbed about differences to practice asserting their power. This can take the shape in the form of exclusion and insults: “You can’t play with us because your hair is curly,” “We don’t like you because you have two moms,” “You talk weird,” “Your food looks yucky.”
It is this pivotal time when kids need extra support through positive intervention so that their experimenting or imitating doesn’t grow into real discrimination. Misinformation we internalize about different groups of people is not easily undone, and it not only hurts the people being targeted, but we all miss out on friendships and community connections when we fear differences.
Preschools that have adopted an anti-bias approach make an invaluable contribution to the process of children learning to appreciate and celebrate differences. Classroom environments provide opportunity for children to enhance their sense of identity through sharing their unique culture with others. Anti-bias curriculum, which is free from stereotypes, enables children to develop a positive view of themselves and others as they explore differences through materials such as images, books, dolls, puzzles, and art materials that reflect a wide diversity of various ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, languages, religions, genders, family constellations, ages, sizes, abilities, and socioeconomic differences that make up their classroom members, their communities, and the world.
There are many additional steps that parents can take in their family and community lives to help their children develop positive views and appreciation of differences. Preschools using anti-bias curriculum can be powerful partners in helping children develop a positive worldview.
Bethany Kientzel is an early childhood educator, and marriage and family therapist intern. She can be reached at 831 429-6399.