At a glance
Imagine being a toddler and suddenly realising that we don’t all speak the same language. Or that some countries have night when it’s daytime for us. It must be completely mind-blowing!
Children have a natural curiosity toward new cultures. But when it comes to exploring these in our Early Years settings, it’s worth revisiting our methods — because in many cases, there are better ways to go about it.
For multicultural learning in the Early Years, we want to avoid cultural ‘tokenism’ — that’s when a culture is celebrated because you have to, or in a way that doesn’t acknowledge the real and most important aspects of that culture.
To better understand tokenism and cultural inclusion, we’ll hear from Deborah Hoger. Deborah’s heritage is that of the Dunghutti people in New South Wales, Australia, and her business, Riley Callie resources, fights for the recognition and inclusion of Indigenous Australian cultures in Early Years education. She provides a whole host of cultural resources for settings to use in their continuous provision. Her business highlights the importance of cultural inclusion, how it helps children form a realistic and anti-biased understanding of other cultures, and what it means for the local community.
We’ll delve into why being culturally inclusive is hugely important to children’s identity and sense of belonging, and how simple it is to create that environment. With a little bit of reflection and dedication, we can make sure we’re respectfully and meaningfully celebrating culture together.
You might have the absolute best intentions, and engage in tokenism accidentally. That’s why we’ve broken the idea down to show you where to make little changes that make a massive difference.
Let’s break it down with an example:
Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to make lanterns, or in celebrating a festival like Chinese New Year! We just need to be very mindful of how we do it. And, if we can, bring the children’s own heritages to the forefront.
Tokenistic practices are problematic, and don’t encourage a positive relationship with other cultures.
A 2010 study on anti-biased practices calls tokenism a ‘tourist’ approach: Children look at exotic foods and landscapes for a single day and then go back to their ‘real’ or ‘regular’ lives once the day is over. This separates children from other cultures completely, as it reinforces the idea that the child’s own culture is normal, and that any other culture is foreign, exotic and a novelty.
“Early childhood settings must be culturally safe spaces in order to foster a learning environment that is conducive to the emotional and academic development of respectful and inclusive children,” says Deborah.
Tokenism takes this culturally safe space away. It stops children developing a healthy and respectful relationship to other cultures, even if that culture makes up a big chunk of their own community.
According to Deborah, we should be embracing cultures on a regular basis, not just on a whim. Before we discuss how to do this, let’s look at how tokenism affects children’s sense of belonging, too.
If children associate any culture that isn’t their own with ‘other’, even if it’s present in their own community, this can encourage stereotypes and bias to creep in. But don’t panic! We’ve got some great tips coming up to help you evaluate and build on your practice to avoid this.
Firstly, let’s take a quick peek at why including other cultures helps include every single child at your setting.
“When [settings] engage in cultural celebrations which are tokenistic and perpetuate stereotypes, children from other cultures are at risk of feeling disengaged, devalued and misunderstood,” says Deborah.
Think about how the children in your care who don’t come from British homes - when you label Chinese or Japanese culture as ‘foreign,’ how might they feel about their own culture? Will they feel that their culture is respected by you?
When children feel that their own culture is valued, they feel accepted and that they belong. Embracing and welcoming other cultures involves every single child in the conversation, and ensures that no child feels devalued or excluded. It makes them feel comfortable, welcome and a part of the community.
Before we jump into the ways you can bring other cultures to your setting in an inclusive way, start by looking at your own environment.
You may already be doing them, but if you need a helping hand to get you started, here are a few points to think about:
It’s important to note that, as an Early Year educator, you have the opportunity to stop bias from ever forming. By being culturally inclusive, you’re showing each and every child that diversity is something to be celebrated.
Culture and the inclusion of culture shouldn’t be a one-time event or an activity. By making it a part of your continuous provision you’re celebrating and acknowledging different cultures by respecting that culture, and helping children broaden their understanding.
It’s important to note that you don’t need to make massive changes - you’re already doing a lot of the wonderful things you need to do with regards to including other cultures meaningfully. But by evaluating current practices, you can make sure you’re embedding other cultures at the heart of your setting with as much respect as you possibly can.