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. 

What is cultural inclusion and tokenism?

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:

  • You want to introduce the children in your setting to Chinese culture. It isn’t because you have children of asian heritage in your setting or because you want to create a whole topic based on it – you just decide to on a whim.
  • The only thing you do is make traditional Chinese lanterns out of paper, and have traditional Chinese clothing in the dressing up box. You also don’t discuss the Chinese culture outside of these activities, talk about the languages used or everyday Chinese cultural practices. The next day you move on.

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. 

Why tokenism gets it wrong

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. 

Cultural identity 

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. 

Your environment speaks volumes 

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: 

  • Take a look at your own environment. What cultures are represented in your community, and in your own setting? Is there a large Turkish community in your area? Or Polish? Understanding your own environment is the first step.
  • Are your toys representative of the children’s cultures, and the community around you? Take your kitchen space – if you’ve only got a set of English breakfast food toys with bacon and fried eggs, it might be time to rethink and assess. What food do the children in your setting recognise as familiar, and can you make your toys more varied to accommodate them?
  • Be vigilant about your own practices. Children learn prejudice from prejudice, so if you use language or practices that include harmful negative stereotypes, children will parrot these. You have a big responsibility, but also a wonderful chance to help reduce negative stereotypes and cultural bias for the next generation.

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.

How to embed culture at the heart of learning 

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. 

  • Make cultures a part of continuous provision

    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 in a way that lets children know that culture is something to be proud of. It shows them it’s a part of daily life.

    “When culture is included in a regular and daily way, it fosters an inclusive learning environment where children are encouraged to take pride in the cultural diversity of [their] nation,” says Deborah. 

    Small world play is an excellent place to start! Try making a small world play focused on a specific culture or country to get the ball rolling in your continuous provision. You could have the country flag, objects that mimic the country’s landscape, everyday foods and the weather specific to the country. Or how about a small world play for each of the seven continents?

    But don’t stop there: “[…] small world play should be accompanied by other learning resources, like books, video clips, art activities, incursions, etc., which deepen the learning around the topic and encourage children to think more broadly about that culture,” Deborah states.

    Try using your small world play as a starting off point to introduce a culture, and build your activities and other elements of that culture around it. It’s all about immersing the children in as many ways as possible.
  • Invite individuals who personally celebrate the culture

    “Input around how to share about other cultures in the setting should be coming from people from that culture,” states Deborah.

    If you’re thinking of celebrating a festival like Diwali, have someone who celebrates it come and explain it to the children. Not only does this give the children accurate and detailed information, but it connects them to different cultures in a personal, emotional way.

    This is what Deborah urges Australian settings to do. “Engaging directly with Indigenous people is the most effective way to, in a non-tokenistic way, explore in your classroom themes of Indegenous identity, history, connection to country, traditional knowledge and cultural practices.”

    Do you have a large Turkish community? Ask a few individuals to come to your setting and share their knowledge. It’s incredibly important to give the little ones accurate, realistic and personal examples of culture – and what better way than having a real-life person explain it to them?

    The children will love this, and they’ll have the opportunity to ask all their questions to someone who lives and breathes that culture every single day.
  • Inclusive language is key

    Language is more important that you might think, and it’s the perfect way to weave inclusivity into your everyday practice. We’ve written a piece on inclusion and language when we talk about gender, but the way we talk about other cultures than our own plays a huge role.

    “Language is such a powerful mode of learning,” states Deborah. “It’s critical that educators have a high level of self-awareness around how to use language which is inclusive, and does not discriminate against anyone, or position another culture as ‘other.’” This could simply be stating that festival clothing is ‘exotic,’ or calling it ‘dress-up clothing.’ 

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.

The original version of this article was originally published in Famly by Bronagh Kathleen McGeary.

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