I often deliver a training session looking at equality and diversity in the early years and we begin with this question as an ice-breaker. Usually this ensures that our session begins with a few laughs, for example, “I would be a strawberry bon bon because I’m sweet and have a soft centre” or “I would definitely be a bar of whole-nut chocolate because my friends say I’m crazy!” But the one theme that I will be always be able to pick up on, is the fact that we are all different. The range of sweets and chocolates chosen demonstrate that, even when answering the same question, there is a great deal of diversity.
But what does diversity mean and how can we celebrate this in our settings? Diversity recognises that differences are a natural part of society and these are viewed as a benefit not a threat. So celebrating our differences with young children is a great way of showing that we are all unique individuals. It helps children to grow up to be well adjusted adults who do not feel threatened by other people who do not look, act, behave or feel the same way that they do.
There is legislation in place to protect people who may be more vulnerable to discrimination, for example, the Equality Act (2010) legally shields certain groups of people with a protected characteristic from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society. It also shares prohibited conduct, meaning the different ways in which it’s unlawful to treat someone. Sadly, despite legislation being in place, discrimination regularly occurs, even within our early childhood settings.
For example, I am currently writing a book about developing a loving pedagogy in the early years and have been researching how we might use appropriate touch within our settings as a positive way to build relationships and grow oxytocin, the love hormone. I have interviewed several practitioners to ascertain their perspective on this and have found through my discussions with men and women that several settings have discriminated against men in their settings, even to the extent where they are not allowed to fulfil aspects of their role, for example, changing nappies. One setting even had a policy stating that men would not be allowed to change nappies. This is unacceptable and an example of sex discrimination in the work place.
Protected characteristics under the Equality Act
- Being or becoming a transsexual person
- Being married or in a civil partnership
- Being pregnant or having a child
- Race (colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin)
- Religion, belief or lack of religion/belief
- Sexual orientation
It is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of these
Very young children tend to pick up discriminatory attitudes or stereotypical knowledge and understanding from their parents and other adults close to them as well as from the learning environment around them. For example, if a boy is told by his father not to play with “girls’ toys” he will receive the message that he must only play with certain toys. Therefore we need to ensure that the messages we are giving in our settings are being inclusive to all children and are counter to any stereotypes they might hear elsewhere.
Children tend to base their stereotypes on physical appearance like skin colour, gender, size and physical disability and by the age of about four or five, we may observe children choosing not to play with another child in a discriminatory way. Obviously we need to challenge this and encourage a more inclusive approach, whilst accepting that we are not always friends with everyone and that’s OK. It is not OK, however, to be unkind, leave someone out of a game or exclude people because they are different. There are some great books that address this, for example, Michael Rosen’s, “This Is Our House”, and “When the Dragons Came” by Lynne Moore and Naomi Kefford.
The majority of children are very open when talking about differences and we must remember not to be offended if they talk bluntly or in a manner that could appear rude. They are not yet old enough to understand about social etiquette and regularly make faux pas-type comments, for example, “Why is that man’s head all smooth and shiny?” So a gentle reply stating, “We’re all different aren’t we, look my feet are bigger than yours” should be enough to deal with the comment in the spirit in which it was stated. We can also talk about difference to children in positive ways, by sharing our observations of the world and the diversity within it.
If we get to know our children and families really well, we will be less likely to make assumptions about them and we can ensure that our policies and procedures are as inclusive as possible. For example, when finding out about a family, can we ask about adults who are special to the child, not just have space on the form for mother and father, which assumes a traditional family make-up. Can we ensure that we listen to the voice of the child about who is important to them?
In order to promote positive values and challenge stereotypes we can:
- Effectively role model the values you want to promote yourself.
- Value and celebrate children for their uniqueness and individuality whilst also sharing similarities, so that children can see what is different about each other but also what is the same.
- Talk openly about what makes people different from each other, without expressing any judgement or approval or negativity, for example, “he wears glasses and has black hair”, “she does not wear glasses and has ginger hair”, or “she has a daddy who looks after her at home,” and “he has two mummies looking after him. “
- Accept differences between children and have an ethos of permission where there are no gendered toys or resources, they are all available to all children.
- Ensure the use of modern photographs of parts of the world that are commonly stereotyped and misrepresented.
- Help children to learn positive attitudes and challenge negative attitudes and stereotypes e.g. using puppets, persona dolls, stories and books showing black heroes or disabled kings or queens or families with same sex parents, having a visit from a male midwife or female fire fighter.
- Audit your resources and books to ensure that all groups within society are represented, e.g. LGBTQ+, disability, people of colour, different family groupings. Do any displays or posters show positive photographs and celebrate diversity?
- Help children to develop an understanding about different festivals and celebrations by beginning with those that the children in your setting celebrate and widening it to your local community and the wider world. This will help to make them more meaningful and enjoyable. Provide ways of preserving memories of special events, e.g. making a book, collecting photographs, tape recording, drawing and writing.
- Use food as a way of recognising difference and share a meal together, perhaps linked to different celebrations or family traditions.
- Invite visitors into your setting, e.g. dentist or shop keeper or visit different areas in the community, e.g. fire station, community centre, church, mosque, local shops.
- Play different types of music and encourage the children to move to the music in imaginative ways. Bring in instruments from different cultures and countries.
- Avoid making generalisations about how boys and girls play as this will reduce the likelihood of creating gender stereotypes. Do not group children according to gender, e.g. boys wash hands first, instead you could say, “if you’re wearing red, wash hands”, or “if your name starts with ‘XYZ’ you can go outside…”
- Ensure that all children have the opportunity to participate in all activities, making reasonable adjustments to the activities if needed.
- Share books and pictures about other children ‘just like me’, include children from around the world, fiction and non-fiction from different families and backgrounds.
- Draw or paint ‘Wonderful Me!’ self-portraits using correct colours for skin and eyes and compare with their friends.
- Choose stories and rhymes that show different ways of life in our country and around the world e.g. travellers, different houses and homes in other countries.
- Explain carefully why some children may occasionally need extra help or support, or why other children feel upset by a particular thing.
- Make a display with the children, showing all the people who make up the community around the setting.
I have recently joined a LGBTQ diversity group which aims to produce some free downloadable resources and booklets which will provide advice and guidance for early years settings. It is important that we support our children to learn about themselves, celebrate difference and feel included within our settings and wider society.
You can find out more by visiting Chttps://lgbtqearlyyears.org/
The website content is growing daily so do check on a regular basis.
You have heard it said, ‘out of the mouths of babes’ and my daughter told me the other day, “It’s good that people are different Mummy because otherwise everything would be boring if we were all the same!” And I couldn’t agree more! So if I were a chocolate bar or sweet, I would be a bag of jelly beans so that I can celebrate the diversity of so many different flavours!
About the author
Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.
Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.