As an undergraduate student at Wheelock College studying education, multiculturalism and appreciation of diversity were embedded in all of my course work. Very early on I was taught to embed this in my teaching practices rather than taking the tourist approach and focusing simply on holidays and other more obvious differences. Because of this, in my toddler room we sometimes have very simple, open conversations about skin color, hair color or texture, eye color and other differences. Just before winter break, J. looked at another boy and said, "S. is brown." To which I replied, "S. does have brown skin. What color are you?" J. looked at his shirt and replied, "Blue." He was satisfied with the conversation and moved on to another area to play.
While we have these conversation frequently, I also bring in some other
cultural aspects that relate to the seasons, holidays or the cultures of
the children in the class. The trick with talking to toddlers about diversity is knowing just how much information to give them to satisfy their curiosity. During the month of December we usually do some Christmas and Hanukkah activities. I put out a menorah and dreidels for the children to play with alongside the candy canes, bows and other Christmas items. I typically provide real candles for the children to place in the menorah and take out again but I was afraid the one year olds might decide to take a bite out of the. So I just put the menorah out in the play area to see what they would do. Mostly they just carried it around all day.
We practiced spinning the dreidels more as a fine motor activity and a way to expose them to something different. I could try to teach them the dreidel game and how to follow the rules but my reasons for offering them the dreidels were to simply expose them to something from another culture and to let them experiment. But, I have a strong feeling that if they were limited to simply playing the dreidel game they would have lost interest quickly. Learning how to make the dreidel spin takes a lot of practice. There was some frustration when the dreidel would just fall over when they let go.
Some were quite determined and spent long periods of time practicing and seeing what they could make the dreidels do, developing persistence.
Some practiced taking turns when more children wanted to join in and needed a dreidel to play with.
They learned some new words and practiced some familiar ones, such as fast and slow.
They talked to each other and the teachers as they explored. They practiced comparing and matching items. They discovered which type of dreidel was easier to spin.
Trying to catch the spinning dreidel before it stopped became a game in itself.
I feel that it is important for children to be exposed to different cultures and ideas from a young age. But, at the same time, I don't feel the need to teach them lots of specifics. Much of it is too abstract for them to fully comprehend. We read lots of books about Hanukkah that are age appropriate. In fact, they seemed to prefer the Hanukkah books over the Christmas books this year, even though most of the children celebrate Christmas. If they ask questions, I am more than happy to answer them to the best of my ability. I think learning about cultures is the same as any other area or developmental domain. I need to observe and listen to the children and they will let me know when they are ready to learn more.