In our classroom, where I work as a member of the teaching team as a speech-language pathologist, we try to build on children's knowledge and experiences. We encourage children to use "same" and "different" to talk about themselves and others. "Look, we have the same snack today!" "Hey, I have blue socks, too!" "You look different with your glasses on." We try to start with similarities and differences that they can sense directly — like colors, shapes, and sounds — and gradually move toward the more abstract. Learning to respect and appreciate similarities and differences among people is an important foundation for the more abstract concepts of fairness and justice. Somewhere in between is day-to-day social learning: how to be a respectful, contributing member of a classroom community.
In our predominantly middle- to upper-class suburban community, most families live comfortably in single-family homes. The families are generally white, European-American, with two well-educated parents (mother and father) and one or more children. But some of our preschoolers come from families who have recently immigrated to the United States, from families who speak more than one language at home, from single-parent families, from two-mom or two-dad families, from biracial and bicultural families, and from families who are not as financially comfortable as most. There's diversity, but it's not always visible.
I'm convinced that children who are different from the majority are aware of their differences, even if it's not obvious to everyone else. A few years ago, Kayla, a child from a low-income family, brought a favorite doll for show and tell. Elli quickly spoke up. "Why does she bring that doll every time?" Nancy, the teacher, said "Shh, Elli, let Kayla talk." Nancy and I discussed it later, and agreed that we were shocked at Elli's comment. From our adult perspective, we knew that Kayla had fewer toys to choose from than most of her peers, and we were sensitive to the issue of socio-economic prejudice. We resolved to discuss it with our early childhood colleagues. Through informal conversations, we've discovered that we're not alone in struggling with this issue, but none of us feels confident about the best approach to take with our young students.
Often these unexpected comments at inconvenient moments provide good opportunities for authentic learning experiences, if we stop and take advantage of them. Shortly after reading Katie Kissinger's book All the Colors We Are, which explains how we get our skin color, I was present when some children were playing with a wooden dollhouse and various people and animal figures. Peter, who is white, picked up a baby figure with brown skin and showed it to Cassie, a biracial child and said, "Cassie, this one looks like you!" Peter noticed this similarity and pointed it out in a friendly way. I wasn't sure if I should do something to make sure that Cassie heard the comment, to make sure she was OK with it, but I simply said, "You're right, Peter, that baby's skin is almost the same color as Cassie's." Peter had opened a new path in our exploration of human similarities and differences. Comments about skin color are OK, even though they may make us feel uncomfortable. While unkind comments about skin color (e.g., "Your skin is dirty brown") required an anti-bias response, observations like Peter's were welcome.
I felt prepared to facilitate conversation among the children as we embarked on a project that followed from the book. First, we prepared to mix paints to create each child's skin tone. Danny immediately informed us that he was "white." But as we blended colors like peach, mahogany, and terra cotta to match each child's unique shade, he and his classmates were fascinated to learn that everyone's skin tone was some mixture of our paint colors. The children began to make predictions like, "I think you're peach and bronze mixed," and some of them proudly repeated their own unique formulas to the others.