Young children experience conflict every day, generated by differences in age, size, physical abilities, language, race, ethnicity and culture, religion, family structure, socioeconomic class and gender: 'No girls allowed!' Children wish to be treated fairly and they have problems with perceived unfairness. They have an effusive and unrestrained capacity for expressing bothhurt and compassion, and they enjoy the calm of equity and collaboration.
At Oak Grove School our youngest students, aged three to six, attend preschool and kindergarten. At the core of our practice of the art of observation during these early years is active listening and paying respectful attention. Teachers find that when we listen to young children, they provide a window into our society's priorities, values and prejudices:
'I wish I could be pretty like Daisy. She has bubble gum-coloured skin.'
'He can't be the daddy lion—he has slanty eyes.'
When young children are free to choose their play, teachers observe that they already exhibit societal stereotypes. By the time kids enter preschool, they have assimilated biases from the wider society, often developing strong, misplaced ideas. Many already show discomfort or even fear of certain differences.
A basic principle in our early childhood work at Oak Grove is that children will draw conclusions about other people based on their own previous experience and conditioning. Our practice of the art of inquiry includes providing space for children to actively question the way they have been conditioned to think about the world. Teachers respond to children's negative comments with discussions that are simple, clear and appropriate to the child's level of understanding.
'Shushing' children after an embarrassing statement might help an adult feel more comfortable in the moment, but effectively teaches kids that there is something shameful about the target of their remarks—and about the child too, for asking a question. Instead, teachers respond by acknowledging what children observe: 'You noticed that Daisy's skin colour is different from yours.' We then give them information using accurate language: 'Skin colour comes from something called "melanin" in your skin, which protects it from the sun. If your ancestors lived where there was a lot of sun, your skin would have more melanin and would be darker.'
Hurtful language elicits an immediate response, so rather than leaping to judgement or evaluation, we describe: 'Ming's eyes are that shape because he is Chinese. People's eyes come in many different sizes and shapes. He uses his eyes to see just like you do.'
A child's statement, such as 'Boys can't wear jewellery', reflects what could be called 'pre-prejudice'. Oak Grove teachers gently but firmly intervene: 'Sam is wearing jewellery and he's a boy.' We support a child who may have been hurt by biased behaviour and help children learn peaceful ways of resolving their own conflicts.
Teachers give straightforward information to children about differences: 'Lilly was born with legs that work differently from yours. She uses her wheelchair to do all kinds of things.' We encourage them to extend their thinking about something that interests them: 'Yes, a ramp would help her chair get up the stairs.'
As we read books or show pictures to children, we mediate messages or images that are stereotyped: 'The person who wrote this book was thinking only about kids who live with a mom and a dad. She wasn't thinking about kids who live with grandmas and grandpas.'
We might create emergent curricula around comments such as these— for example, we investigated wheelchair access at our school and the physics of ramp-building. Teachers also initiate curriculum proactively, planning projects and discussion designed to counterbalance prevailing prejudices in 1 society. We have been inspired by the Anti-Bias Curriculum , an approach to teaching young children created by educators in the 1980s, to awaken children's budding capacities for empathy, to support critical thinking about fairness, and to lay the groundwork for their ability to take action against discrimination.
Each January, as part of Oak Grove's participation in the local celebration of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday, teachers introduce the story of the day in 1955 when Rosa Parks broke the law by refusing to give up her seat on the bus in segregated Montgomery, Alabama. We describe the bus boycott that followed and the subsequent changing of an unjust law through the participation of many people. Children hear Rosa Parks' story and because they process their experience through play, they begin to re-enact it. The 'bus driver' checks to see who can roll their tongue (a culturally neutral genetic trait) to decide who has to sit at the back of the bus! For days, children take on roles in spontaneous versions of this skit.
As children play out a story that intrigues them, teachers pay close attention to their comments, so that we can discuss what they're curious about during group time.
'My skin colour is tan, see? Like the wood on this table.'
'That's not fair! With that law, I couldn't sit on the bus by my friend Benjamin.'
'That's fair to me when everybody can go to school even if they have light skinor dark skin.'
'It's fair that Carol can go to school with me because she's Black and she's myfriend, but she only wants to play with Davey.'
'I think that everyone could share the same drinking fountain and could rideanywhere.'
'My dad was alive when that happened with Rosa Parks, too. It wasn't fair 'cause the white person could've stood up! The rule was the dark-skinned people needed to sit at the back of the bus and the light-skinned people needed to sit at the front of the bus. Other people had the idea of stopping riding the bus! It wasn't fair. I like that we changed the rules on it.'
Through this process children begin to understand the injustice of the bus law and the power brought to problem-solving when people work together. Children begin to bring up injustices in their own lives. This year at Oak Grove, at an all-school assembly, preschool and kindergarten students shared their re-enactment of the Rosa Parks story with a rapt audience of elementary and secondary school students. It was followed by interactive activities for all students, designed to explore skin colour differences and to encourage them to share stories of inequitable treatment.
Teachers observe young children at Oak Grove learning to recognize injustice: 'No excluding kids because they're a boy or a girl. Everyone wants to play.' Students develop the ability to generate ideas to make changes: 'We have to write a letter to the company to stop saying that Band-Aids are "skincolour".' Their ability to speak up for themselves and others in the face of injustice grows: 'Don't play cowboys and Indians—that hurts May's feelings.' In teaching young children, we make space in our lesson plans for the awakening of empathy. We adults pave the way by helping them feel safe and secure in all their many identities, to interact comfortably with those who are different, to recognize social injustice and to speak up for what feels unfair to them. This is a tall order but, fortunately, it occurs one step at a time in small,daily ways that are accessible to all of us, no matter where we begin.
This work calls on teachers to be light on our feet. None of us is completely free of bias. Oak Grove teachers consider it essential to inquire into our own background to identify misinformation and stereotypes we ourselves carry, so as not to act on them or pass them along to the children in our care. We invite children's families to be partners with us in this process. By facilitating students' growth in these areas and their ability to stand up for themselves and others, they experience their capacity to make constructive changes in the world.
' … If you want to change the world, you have to begin here (taps chest), which is the world. If you change, you are bound to affect the world.'
J Krishnamurti, 13th December 1975
Meeting with Oak Grove parents, staff, trustees and guests.