This blog is authored by SEEC educator Dana Brightful.
One of the hardest things I’ve had to do was talk to my 4year-old about racism and what that looks like in the world. I didn’t think I would have to have this conversation at such a young age. Our family had always talked about physical features and celebrated my son’s beautiful brown skin, big brown eyes and curly brown hair. We made it a point to also let him know how loved he was by not just his immediate family but his SEEC family as well. His love for silly dance moves, jokes that didn’t quite make sense yet, learning, and all things Thomas made him one unique and special little human to his community. So when he looked up at me with sad brown eyes and said, “Why can’t we go to Baltimore to see Thomas again?” you can imagine that it broke my heart. How was I going to explain to my 4-year-old what had happened in Baltimore and the long history that preceded these events?
This question came during the riots in Baltimore after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray. Citizens were outraged about the ongoing injustices African Americans face by the hands of the police and judicial system. How was I going to explain something so complex to my young child? As an educator I had approached these sort of difficult topics with my students before, but as a mom it was breaking my heart. I was not just sad for my child, but for the lives of the young men and women who have died as a result of these injustices. What was even more difficult was that I knew that this was the first of many conversations to come. Though it would look different over the years, the underlying theme would remain the same: some people do not value your body because of the color of your skin. But I took a moment to breathe and give myself pause so I could carefully consider how I introduced this concept to my 4-year-old.
I encourage adults who are faced with this challenge to pause and reflect and say to your child, “I need a moment to take some deep breaths before we talk about your question.” It does two things: it allows you to reflect on your emotions and think about how to proceed and it shows your child you are taking them seriously. I pulled him next to me and asked him to sit near me. He immediately climbed into my lap, which grounded me emotionally. I began with the facts: the people in Baltimore were upset and had been protesting so the Mayor shut everything down to minimize the amount of damage done to the city and to ensure that people remained safe. He remembered what protesting was (either from SEEC or talks at home) and asked why the people were doing it. I very simply stated, “Because they feel as if many young men and women aren’t being treated fairly based on the color of their skin.” I added, “ Sometimes people will not like you, or me, or daddy because our skin has more melanin making it appear browner in tone. Some people will not treat us kindly or fairly, which isn’t okay.” He then asked, “If all the people protesting were brown like us.” I told him, “No, which is a good thing. It’s important for the people who don’t like us to see that not everyone thinks like them. They need to understand that no matter what your skin color is, we all deserve to be treated like humans.” He then asked, “Were there people who died?” I was unsure exactly what he was referring to, so before answering I asked him for clarification, which is always a good thing to do so you are not assuming what your child is talking about. Often times children have ideas or thoughts in their head that we are not aware of unless we ask for clarification. He said, “Were there people who died and was that why the protesters were upset.” I immediately began to cry. It’s okay to cry and feel emotions in front of your child. It humanizes you and lets them know how you are feeling. Through tears I let him know that, “Yes people died and that these deaths were unnecessary.” Finally, I let him know that he shouldn’t feel afraid. I told him that part of my job as his mom was to protect him as much as possible and to always fight for him.
We ended this particular conversation with hugs. I made certain to reassure him that even if people don’t like him because of his skin, that his village (the people who love him and care for him) will fight for him because I didn’t want him feeling overwhelmed by the idea of people not liking him. I needed him to understand that while there may be people in the world who do not like him because of his skin color, that he shouldn’t worry because their are people who love him for the human being his is and that surpasses any dislike in the world. This talk happened nearly 5 years ago and we continue to discuss racial injustice and inequality. That conversation laid an important foundation for my son. It encouraged him to use his voice to be an advocate for himself and others. It also gave him the ability to recognize allies for our people. It’s a talk that will continue in our household and now includes my youngest son as well. While you may never have the same experience as me or my children, I hope that you understand that our feelings are the same as yours. We are sad, upset and, hurting but most of all, we are in awe of not just our city’s outpouring of love and advocacy, but the world’s. My sincere hope is that you read this and are able to take something away from it to help in your discussions with your own child. This is an ongoing journey for us all and one that will prove for be rewarding down the line.
This blog is authored by infant teacher Lida Barthol.
At SEEC, we often talk about “careful looking” as a strategy for helping children engage with objects. But careful looking is not only a tool we employ during lessons, it is woven into every aspect of our work as teachers. Back in 2016, I trained with the Resources for Infant Educarers, an organization devoted to promoting respectful care for infants and toddlers. Part of that training involved observing infants at play for long stretches of time, noticing the tiny details in their movements and facial expressions. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what we were expected to gain through this observation. This year, though, I have finally started to process it — in large part thanks to a book I recently read, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. Odell writes:
Practices of attention and curiosity are inherently open-ended, oriented toward something outside of ourselves. Through attention and curiosity, we can suspend our tendency toward instrumental understanding — seeing things or people one-dimensionally as the products of their functions — and instead sit with the unfathomable fact of their existence, which opens up toward us but can never be fully grasped or known. (p. 104)
It turns out, observing babies and young children is a bit like watching the ocean or the night sky: sometimes you just need to sit with the unfathomable fact of their existence. Beyond that, observation serves many practical functions in the classroom. It enables us to plan lessons; negotiate classroom dynamics; and notice not only the milestones, but the hundreds of in-between steps of each child’s development. And for parents who are now simultaneously negotiating working from home and home-schooling their kids, it can be an equally powerful tool.
Back in March, many people waved goodbye to the last vestiges of a work-life/home-life balance. One particularly popular meme that surfaced in the spring depicted Dolly Parton, with the overlaid text, “When you’re working from home but you’re also a parent: working 9-9:10, 9:45-10, 10:20-10:35, 12:30-2:00, 2:15-2:16…” In other words, attention is in short supply. In fact, having the time and space to simply observe is a privilege. In other childcare jobs I’ve held, low ratios and unsupportive administration meant the day was about putting out fires (figuratively — except for once), sticking to a strict schedule, and rushing the kids around enough that they’ll nap well. If any of that sounds like a day in your home, I understand. Attention is a luxury, but it’s one that pays dividends. Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, says, “That kind of deep attention that we pay as children is something that I cherish, that I think we all can cherish and reclaim, because attention is that doorway to gratitude, the doorway to wonder, the doorway to reciprocity.” In the context of both teaching and parenting, giving yourself just a second to deeply see and appreciate that tiny, wise person in your life might be just the self-care you need.
It can be hard to master the type of open awareness that Kimmerer describes, especially when so many demands are being made on our attention. Instead, I find it more helpful to keep some concrete questions in my mind while observing children at play. Here are just a few places to start:
Observing Movement — What is this child doing with their body? How are they doing it? How might they feel in their body?
Developmental milestones can be an area of stress for new parents. It is important to remember that every baby reaches each milestone in their own time, in their own way. Paying attention not only to the milestones your child is working on, but to their own unique strategies for accomplishing those milestones, can give you a more robust sense of their motor development.
Observing Perspective — What is this child noticing? What knowledge are they using right now? What might they feel about themselves in this moment?
One of the things I find most rewarding about teaching is seeing how children express their unique perspectives from the very beginning. For every play activity we offer at school, there will never be two completely identical reactions — some children swim in paint, some use a brush, and some won’t touch it at all for weeks. When we pay attention to how our children authentically respond to the world, we get new information about who they are as learners and as people.
Observing Relationships — What social skills are at play here? What is being practiced? If there is conflict, how can I support each child with as little intervention as possible? How can we navigate this conflict in a way that honors the perspective of each child?
Once, as a teacher in the toddler room, my co-teacher Brandi and I pointed a projector at the wall and encouraged the kids to stand in the light and find their shadows. Two of our little guys (let’s call them G and J) marched back and forth with their arms in the air, watching as their shadows did the same. J tripped over his own feet and fell, but before I could offer help, G — who was about half his size — reached down, offered his little hands, and helped him up. Once they were both standing, G helped J brush himself off. For the next couple weeks, the kids would often playfully “fall down” and help each other up. We are often taught that young children are extremely self-centered, but when we know how to look for it, we see that they are also capable of deep levels of compassion and empathy.
Observing Yourself — What is happening in my body? If there is stress, where is it coming from?
Even on the best possible day in the classroom, there will always be moments when it feels like everything might just fall apart. Sometimes it takes us too long to get back from a museum visit and suddenly the whole class is crying for a nap at once, or we come back from a summer day splashing in the sprinkler and find we need to change 8 wiggly babies out of soaking wet diapers and swimsuits in time to eat lunch. The best way that I have found to keep my cool in these moments is by paying attention to my own body and breath. Often, I realize that it’s not the crying babies that cause me stress, but rather, my adult expectations about how something is supposed to be — How can drinking one bottle take this long? It shouldn’t be this hard to get baby shoes on! Why aren’t you already asleep? Observing when these thoughts start to creep in helps me to deepen my patience and respond with compassion, even under pressure.
These are just a few examples for how we use observation as a tool in our teaching, but practicing awareness is a lifelong project. For those who are interested in learning more about the type of observation I practiced during my training with RIE, author and podcast host Janet Lansbury has shared an example on her blog. Tom Hobson, better known as Teacher Tom, has also written at length on his blog about his observations as a teacher in a cooperative school. For educators who are interested in going deeper, I highly recommend the book, The Art of Awareness: How Observation Can Transform Your Teaching by Deb Curtis and Margie Carter.
This blog is authored by SEEC educator, Dana Brightful.
When my Kindergartener asked about the upcoming holiday season, I was thrown for a loop. I hadn’t thought about what that would look like since many of our family members fall into high risk categories. It never crossed my mind that we would be here, mid-October still having not seen many of our relatives. Some families have adjusted to what seems to be the new normal for now, while others like mine, are taking slow steps to get to a place of feeling safe in public spaces and with extended family.
So, to acknowledge how my child was feeling, we sat down and talked about some of the things they would miss about not having our “normal” holiday visits. I allowed Alex to stear the conversation to give him control. At a time like this, it’s important that children feel a sense of control when so many rules surrounding social distancing can make them feel like they cannot control anything. After verbally sharing his ideas, I asked him to write (or draw) the things that we usually would need for our family holiday visits. As he drew, he named things like foods we typically eat, games we play, activities we do and people we see during the holidays. Next, we talked about how we could make some of these things happen virtually. Alex was definitely sad about not seeing some of his family but I reminded him how it’s important we do our best to continue to social distance from our family members whose preconditions put them at a higher risk at the moment. While Zoom, FaceTime and Google Calls cannot replace the hugs from relatives, together we thought of these three ways to make the holidays a little more like pre-Covid days.
1.) Send a themed care package: Alex thought of some of the things his great grandparents like that we usually bring during the holidays. We plan to pick up certain items they cannot get in their state and ship it to them with a special message for the season.
2.) Send & exchange recipes with friends: While we won’t see many of our friends this season, having a piece of something special to share with his friends was equally as important to Alex. We are going to print out and decorate some the recipes we use during the holidays (i.e. sugar cookies) and ask that our friends share a favorite recipe of theirs in return.
3.) Cooking & Video dinner: Alex has celebrated his birthday virtually and thought it might be nice to have dinner virtually as well. We are planning to work with one of our family members to create a menu together, take photos while we cook and finally eat together virtually. Later, we plan to exchange the cooking photos and collage together.
While getting closer to pre-Covid days seems to be on the horizon, my family and I recognize we are still a way out. We are doing our best to adjust and be mindful of the people at risk. We are all in this together looking for a little light to help us feel a little bit better. Hopefully these ideas will help make everyone’s winter season feel like home.
Digital learning provides significant opportunities to learn and connect while physically apart, however it also comes with great challenges, especially when working with the youngest of children. Over the last seven months our school has been engaging children through virtual means, and we have found some successful techniques that we’d like to share in the event it helps other educators. One strategy that remains consistent with our in-person approach is the use of objects. This blog is authored by Juliana Venegas and Sarah Huffman, one of our preschool teaching teams, and shares their experience using objects with their class in a virtual format.
SEEC uses an object-based learning approach because both museum objects and everyday objects are a powerful learning tool as they tell stories, are tangible, real, and spark wonder. When we moved to virtual lessons, we wanted to keep true to the object-based approach we use in the classroom by sharing museum objects digitally and encouraging children to bring related objects to our online lessons. While some aspects of a museum object are lost when sharing digitally, we found that the addition of children bringing their own objects was a benefit we didn’t have when in the classrooms or museums. Having each child hold an object gives them a tangible way to connect lesson content to their immediate lives as the objects were coming from their own homes.
The children responded very well when bringing objects with them to virtual lessons. They could not wait to share what they brought and enjoyed seeing what their peers brought as well. They also seemed to have a sense of pride in the objects they had to share, which may have increased their overall engagement in lessons. They were quick to make comparisons between each other’s objects and the objects and images we shared in our PowerPoint presentations. Often, the children would recognize another item that we were showing but had not asked them to bring; then they would excitedly go find it in their home to point to or show us. We did not ask them to do this, but we supported these opportunities when they occurred.
Objects Support Anti-Bias Education
Having students bring their own objects to our virtual lessons supports the Anti-Bias Educational approach really well. Children were able to closely examine the objects they brought and compare them to the museum objects on the screen or to those of their peers. As teachers, we facilitated this by giving each student an opportunity to describe their item. Then we would go to each of the other students to ask if their object had something similar or if it looked different. It seemed that it may have been easier to have their own object than to share an object like we would do in the classroom because the children could continuously examine their objects throughout the lesson (they didn’t have to remember what they looked at before). After everyone shared, we, as teachers, would ask if all the objects did the same job and if they were all tools. This reiterated the idea that while some tools for mixing, for example, looked different, they all did the same thing. We would often connect that idea back to previous lessons: all our kitchens look different, but they are all places where we cook and spend time with loved ones. We all look different, but we are all chefs and help in the kitchen.
Having children bring an object to a virtual lesson is a great way to ensure you are reaching all different types of learners. Some children are perfectly fine sitting in front of a computer screen and listening to their peers and teachers, while others need to have a tangible object in their hands to help focus.
Also make sure to think outside the box and provide options. We were very aware that families may not be comfortable or able to go out to purchase materials. When we asked families to send their child to our lessons with an object, we made sure to provide options. For example, during our unit on cooking, when learning about mixers, we asked our class to bring something they use to stir – some brought spoons, some brought whisks, and some brought hand mixers. Being general about what we asked for allowed families to use what was accessible to them and provided an opportunity for children to engage by sharing what they brought. Sharing objects in this way also allows children to see the variation and nuances of a theme or concept, expanding their view of the world.
Lastly, be prepared in case a child does not bring an object. Families had a lot going on, so we didn’t want to make any family or child feel bad if they forgot to bring an item or didn’t have time to look for a particular item. In this case, one of the teachers may not show their object, instead opting to ‘not have an object’ as well. The teacher leading the lesson would reassure the students that it was okay to not have an item and would facilitate careful looking of others’ objects and the images on the screens. Even without an object, there were still ways for every child to participate.
While digital learning provides significant opportunities to learn and connect while physically apart, it comes with great challenges, especially when working with the youngest of children. This summer our school has been engaging our students through virtual means, and we have found some successful techniques that we’d like to share in the event it helps other educators. One such strategy is to create a character. This blog is authored by pre-k 4 educator Krystiana Kaminski, the creator of Penny Featherbottom.
The character of Penny Featherbottom came about after hearing that our stay-at-home order was being extended and I was feeling frustrated and upset by the news. I needed some cheering up and I thought my families might as well.
A few weeks before, we had finished our unit on Natural Phenomenon. Before moving on to a new unit, we did a week of Just for Fun which was light on academics and had more humorous stories and activities. The children seemed to like it, so we decided to continue it on Fridays. That week we were using one of our favorite Sesame Street songs, “Mahna Mahna”, and we thought that creating sock puppets could be a fun activity. After a few attempts, (my first one was very scary looking), Penny Featherbottom was created along with their glorious mustache. I began to make videos with Penny that explored our current topic. The funny thing was when I was filming, the mustache came off accidentally and I just went with it. It later became a huge part of the narrative as Penny tries to get it back through magic and then science.
The children seemed to really enjoy Penny Featherbottom and would sometimes ask for more videos. We didn’t use them much in our Simple Machine unit but when we did our unit Potions and Fantastical Notions unit Penny took on a more starring role. Penny decided to learn magic to grow back their glorious mustache. Once they accomplished that, Penny started messing with my dog (making her turn herself into a dragon) and us teachers (they turned us into vampires). We had a fun Zoom call where my co-teacher, Sara, and I showed up as vampires and the children had to turn us back to humans using that week’s lessons on potions and incantations. Penny was then asked to no longer use magic and they made an apology video for the children. We wanted to build on what we have been learning all year about making amends. People sometimes make mistakes and it is important to recognize and own that and then figure out how to best make amends. Penny’s final video/PowerPoint was about turning to science as their new interest which led to them wanting to further their education at Sock Puppet Academy.
I had a lot of fun making the videos but did encounter quite a few challenges as I’m not very technologically adept. I found most of the video editing sites wanted you to pay for monthly membership and the one on my computer was very slow. Sometimes I would use photographs of Penny instead of a video and added those to the PowerPoints I used during lessons. We’ve been adding audio to our PowerPoints and that has made some of our files very large which led to lots of other tech challenges. There were also times when I had promised the children a video but did not have it in me due to these stressful times. Our families were very understanding when that happened. I went into this wanting to create something that brought joy so I tried to make sure I was feeling joyful when making the videos.
My main advice to anyone wanting to create something similar is to have fun with it. It doesn’t need to be perfect, and I found that the more absurd I got with it, the more fun it was. Penny Featherbottom became part of our online class community, and even infiltrated some children’s home life. For example, one child started blaming everything that went wrong at home on Penny’s magic. Another created their own sock puppet characters, Pip and Pop, and made a delightful video with some impressive voice work!
Similarly to most schools in the world, SEEC was thrown a huge curveball in March when we closed the doors to our centers and embarked on a virtual journey with the youngest of children. Faculty and families alike worked to find best practices for our children to maintain relationships and engagement while connecting through a screen. Much of our philosophy focuses on experiencing the world in person with strong social interactions, so we wrestled with how this would translate to a whole new platform. Like many others dealing with this new normal, we have been actively trying out new strategies and assessing their success as we go. We wanted to share our successes, failures, and reflections from the past five months through a blog series. Below are some of the themes we will expand on in the coming weeks.
Create a Routine
Children thrive when they have a routine. Knowing what is coming next gives children a sense of control and comfort especially in the midst of a sudden, major, lifestyle change. So it’s not surprising that our faculty found it helpful to outline the plan of the day at the start of each lesson. In addition, our teachers often began each session in the same way, for example, singing a hello song, or doing some deep breathing, and ended in the same way. These subtle cues helped children adjust to adapt to the new “classroom”
While we may all be physically apart from each other, we still need to connect with our community through authentic interactions. We’ve had other school community members join video calls to share their expertise in a topic that the class is learning about. For example, one of our preschool classes was learning about gardening and produce. One of our toddler educators is a gardener and was able to join them from her home and share some of her plants and tools with them. Other ways to connect to the community include sharing related videos and images of community members and safe, nearby, locations that families could visit.
Make it Silly
Life is challenging right now, for parents, teachers, kids, everyone. Our faculty wanted to lighten the mood, so they kept the silliness and fun flowing even while virtual. Some silly strategies they employ are creating characters who appear on the video calls, playing music and having a virtual dance party, and having a week of theme days such as crazy hair day or dress like your favorite book character day.
In addition to needing to keep the silliness, our faculty also quickly recognized the children’s need for plain, simple, social interaction. Some of our preschool classes began having virtual snack time where children signed on and ate their snack and chatted together like they would at school. This has become very popular among the children and it often lasts far longer than the teachers anticipate!
Strong relationships are essential to meaningful learning experiences in early childhood. While more difficult to foster through screens, it is possible! Besides one-on-one video calls between teachers and students, our faculty incorporates photos of the children in their lesson presentation. The children love to see themselves in the presented topic, and are able to reflect on past learning. Each of our classes also has a shared photo album where families can upload photos from the week. This allows children to see each others’ learning and feel a connection with their peers.
A cornerstone of our practice is the use of objects to teach children. We often venture into the museums to observe and learn about artifacts or artworks related to our curriculum, but we also frequently use everyday objects and find that they’re also a powerful tool. While we’re away from the museum, teachers have asked children to bring their own easily accessible objects to the class, which has served several purposes. First, children became more invested in the session because they had something to share to the experience. Having an object also allows for tactile learning that is so important in early childhood when a teacher cannot physically facilitate that from a screen. Sharing objects also allows children to see the variation and nuances of a theme or concept, expanding their view of the world.
We’re taking everything we’ve learned and incorporating it into Virtual Family Workshops this fall. To learn more and register, check our Family Workshops page. Also, be sure to check back for more blogs expanding on the above themes.
This post was written by Maureen Leary, Director of Toddler and Kindergarten Programs
Value of Virtual
When the Smithsonian closure due to Coronavirus health concerns was announced in mid-March, none of us had a clear sense of how long it would last. Once it became obvious that it was going to be more than a few weeks, SEEC faculty immediately transitioned to conducting distance learning through online platforms. Teaching young children this way is neither ideal nor intuitive, but we knew we needed to quickly develop these skills to better support our families. At SEEC we believe it’s important for us to offer virtual interactions for a number of reasons. It provides personal connections during a time when we can’t experience them directly; it offers an anchor point for themes and topics that families can explore in their own way and on their own time; it inserts some amount of structure into the days and weeks that have been completely upended; it allows children to retain a level of comfort and familiarity with peers and educators during what has turned into an extended closure with no definitive end.
The Challenges of Virtual
Many families are craving the connections and routines that suddenly disappeared from our lives, and appreciate the opportunity to see each other virtually. That said, we also know that consistently participating in these interactions can sometimes be a challenge. Maybe your child is tired, hungry, grumpy, or just uninterested. It could be that you have a work conflict and you can’t prioritize your child’s meeting over your own. Perhaps you’re feeling overstretched and just don’t want to add one more thing to your day. Skipping your child’s scheduled activity might cause feelings of guilt and worry, and cause you to wonder if it’s ok to be missing these online interactions. At SEEC our answer is always an emphatic yes. We encourage families to follow their children’s leads on what helps the day go smoothly for them. It might be that they’d rather go outside during a virtual circle time, or that they just have no interest in it at all. Maybe they refuse to talk or get frustrated with how the conversation goes. All of this is developmentally appropriate and totally ok. Enrichment can be found in so many ways, in moments small and large, and doesn’t always have to be carefully orchestrated. What’s really important right now is that all of us, children and adults, feel cared for and supported.
Tips for Virtual
If you do choose to participate in an online “circle” here are some helpful hints compiled from conversations we have been having with our SEEC community.
Some children are camera-shy. Don’t insist that they talk or even appear on the screen. Giving them repeated exposure to the format and letting them develop comfort with it at their own pace is likely to increase their participation. And if it doesn’t, that’s ok, too!
If your child is reluctant to talk but does want to be included, suggest they give a virtual high-five or a thumbs up as a way to connect with others.
Check with your child’s teachers about scheduling some one-on-one screen time. Even just 10 minutes of individual attention this way can pay big dividends.
Some families have found it’s easiest to pair distance learning with snack time, so the child is staying in one place and not becoming distracted by other surroundings.
Alternatively, if the weather’s nice and it’s hard to be inside, try bringing your screen outside and participating that way. We’ve seen toddlers actively engage in circle time while also riding a tricycle down the street!
One final, related note: a recurring concern with the current environment is that young children are getting more screen time than is recommended. This is an issue we are always thinking about, and while we agree it’s best to limit screen time for young children, we do believe that distance learning offers important benefits, especially as we practice social distancing. At SEEC, we generally advocate for the limited use of screens when they are a single element of a larger, interactive experience. Of course, there may be families who opt out entirely of distance learning for the screen time concern alone, and that is also a decision we respect. We always want families to do what feels right for their own well-being, and it certainly won’t be the same for everyone. We encourage you to trust your instincts, be responsive to the needs of your child, and reach out to your child’s educators if you have any questions or concerns.
Please welcome guest blogger Anna Forgerson Hindley of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. As the Supervisory Early Childhood Education Coordinator at the NMAAHC, Anna Forgerson Hindley’s work focuses on positive identity development, interrupting structures of racism and prejudice, raising healthy, courageous and compassionate children in a highly diverse and inequitable society and introducing African American history to young children in age-appropriate ways. She holds a Master’s degree in Museum Studies from The George Washington University.
The beginning of a beautiful friendship: NMAAHC + SEEC
As the head of the early childhood education initiative (ECEI) at The National Museum of African American History and Culture , I am thrilled to connect with SEEC as a guest on this blog. Our two organizations have a special relationship full of mutual respect from which we continually learn from each other. SEEC’s nearly 30 years of teaching young children in museums and philosophy of learning through objects has shaped how we design programs for children at NMAAHC. In turn, as SEEC increasingly commits to anti-bias education, we have been able to support their efforts through trainings and by being a resource when questions emerge about racial identity, race, history and bias.
SEEC educators are masters in using objects, art and community spaces to broaden children’s understanding of the world. They were eager to visit NMAAHC when we opened last fall to explore learning opportunities for young children yet had questions – thoughtful, important questions – they sent to me. The following question is just one of the many they submitted but is what I am asked most in my work. If you are reading this, you likely have a young child – or many young children – in your life. Whether you are a parent or an educator or both, you may have grappled with this same questions.
How do we talk about race with young children?
This question and the follow-up professional development I led for SEEC staff last February inspires what I share with you now.
This is a personal, lifelong journey
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
– Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist
Part of NMAAHC’s mission is to be a place of healing and reconciliation and to provide space to have constructive and respectful conversations about race and identity. As I have developed the early childhood education initiative at NMAAHC, I have deeply considered what this means for our youngest visitors – and continue to think about every day!
The work of early childhood education has the power to affect what society will be in the future. We can help build strong children who will grow to make the world more equitable, just, and kind. Never doubt that the work you do – as a parent or an educator – is important and POWERFUL!
While it may be easier to build strong children than to repair broken men, it does not mean the work we do is easy. In fact, when we commit to respecting and embracing differences and acting against bias and unfairness and focus on positive identity development for all children, the work is often hard, at times emotional, and requires us to look at our own identity, bias, and baggage.
All of us must reflect on these things so we can begin to peel back the layers to get clearer about our experiences throughout our lives and the assumptions we make now. The following questions may help as you reflect:
When were you first aware of your race?
What do you remember from childhood about how you made sense of human differences? What confused you?
What childhood experiences did you have with peers or adults who were different from you in some way?
Once we reflect on where we have been, we can start to understand the assumptions and potential bias we hold. As a white educator, I have the responsibility to continually examine and think critically about race, justice and my own privilege. I encourage you to take time to reflect on yourself before you start to think about the children in your lives. Be kind and honest with yourself, knowing this is a lifelong journey.
Teaching race with young children
My friend and mentor, Julie Olsen Edwards, explains that the notion of race is a social construct designed to fraudulently divide people into groups ranked as superior and inferior. The scientific consensus is that race, in this sense, has no biological basis – we are all one race, the human race. Racial identity, however, is very real. And, in a racialized society, everyone is assigned a racial identity whether they are aware of it or not. Young children are not immune to this.
At NMAAHC, our programs explore, celebrate, and uplift differences while simultaneously seeking ways to connect with the ways we are similar. Part of this is to support understanding and the development of each child’s healthy racial identity, although we do not always directly discuss race. Talking about racial identity and race looks different at different ages. The conversation must be layered throughout childhood in age appropriate ways that connect to what is happening developmentally.
Children are not colorblind. Talking about race with young children honors who they are as learners but the conversation looks vastly different for a one year old than it does at five. I recently sat down with Julie Olson Edwards and Candra Flanagan, coordinator of the student and teacher initiative at NMAAHC and my thought partner, to think about what this means for the different stages of early childhood.
Knowing that infants recognize race at 6 months of age, it is appropriate, and beneficial, to talk about how we are different while uplifting the message we are all the same. We all play but some of us like blocks and some of us like books! We all have bodies but all our bodies look different! This age is a time to celebrate the diversity of humanity and create a healthy, positive emotional framework when discussing identity.
Between two and half to five years of age, children are sorting, organizing and classifying to make sense of their world and their language is expanding rapidly. Children are able to begin to understand the complex social construct of race when we introduce skin color and where it comes at this age. We get our skin color from our biological parents. There can be different shades of skin color in the same family. Every person’s skin is different and every family is unique – isn’t the diversity around us beautiful! At this age, children begin to recognize justice and fairness in their own lives so purposeful and thoughtful conversations and explorations allow children to construct personal meaning about these concepts. Although conversations about fairness and justice at this age are appropriate, children need to have a solid sense of identity, race and self before talking about racial injustice.
By 5, 6, 7 years of age, children are able to have conversations about injustice and being treated unfairly based on identity (race, gender, etc.). Before you enter this conversation, reflect and center the goal to respect and embrace differences and prepare children to act against bias and unfairness. If you are an educator, consider the following questions: Who is in the classroom? Who is the only? Who are the few? And who is the teacher in relationship to the students? Inherent in labels of race is hierarchy and built in power dynamics. If the previous layers of honoring difference and establishing sameness, celebrating all the different shades of people, and an understanding of where skin color comes from are not in place, jumping to a conversation of racial inequity and injustice may leave children confused or worse.
Other points to consider:
Keep practicing. You are going to make mistakes. Pick yourself up. It is going to feel really awful because it is most likely that your mistake will be at the expense of someone else. It will certainly be in front of others. Apologize. Make amends. Keep practicing. Keep going. I practice this every day and still mistakes. Recently I coauthored an article with Julie Olsen Edwards about inclusivity in museums and interrupting racism with children. One of the main examples I use is a book that I happen to love – but also happens to strongly reinforce gender stereotypes. I was so focused on one aspect of identity (race), I unintentionally forgot to consider the importance of intersectionality. Learn from your mistakes and keep going!
One does not equal all. For young children, how we as adults speak impacts how children view and understand self and others. Generalizations, even if they say only things that are positive or neutral, communicate that we can tell what someone is like just by knowing her gender, ethnicity or religion. Thus, hearing generalizations contributes to the tendency to view the world through the lens of social stereotypes. Another pitfall related to generalizing, which often occurs in classroom settings, is when a child is asked to be a spokesperson for their race, culture, gender or religion. Let me say this in a different way, do not single out a child to speak for all girls, all Muslims, all Chinese Americans, the entire Latinx community, etc. This is particularly damaging when a child is asked to share without even volunteering to speak.
It’s not just black or white. The United States is a highly diverse nation full of people from every race, culture and ethnicity. This is one of the strongest characteristics of this country and is one worth celebrating. Yet, particularly in conversations about race, we often are stuck in a binary of white and black. However, many children in our lives identify as biracial or multiracial or those who do not identify as black or white. Biracial and multiracial children can feel conflicted or confused by the “this group” v. “that group” mentality when they identify with both groups. As adults, we are in the position to positively (or, unfortunately, negatively) impact the lives of young children. Which brings me to my final point,
Each child has a tribe. Whether we are parents of young children, educators of young children, or both, we are part of our children’s tribe and it is important for the tribe to communicate. Educators, it is not only respectful but necessary to have conversations about anti-bias education with the families of the children in your class. Parents, your child’s well-being includes the development of a positive sense of self and a healthy racial identity. Ask your children’s caregivers how they plan to support this for your child. The more we can come together as a tribe around our children, the better we all will be for it.
While this is hardly a comprehensive list, hopefully it either helps you begin or inspires you to keep going so we can achieve together what we hope to see for the young children in your lives – a fairer, more inclusive, and equitable world. As with any complex subject, there are countless questions, things often get murkier before they become clearer, and a single blog post certainly isn’t going to have the space to get as deep as we’d like. Yet every journey consists of many steps so let us embrace this moment as our next step towards creating a more equitable world.
Author’s note: I would like to acknowledge Anti-bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise-Derman Sparks & Julie Olsen Edwards. The framework and goals of anti-bias education is central to the work we do at the NMAAHC in early childhood education. In particular, Julie’s experiences, vision and teachings have guided me in my understanding and her words and wisdom are peppered throughout this article. The reflection questions I have shared are adapted from the anti-bias Stop & Think exercises. I would also like to thank Candra Flanagan for being my thought partner and for her work with students in 3rd – 12th grade. Her editing, perspective and friendship has profoundly shaped my work.
This blog was authored by Katie Heimsath, Director of Preschool Programs
The Impact of Quarantine on the Family
As adults, we have access to information and possess the cognitive skills to understand what is happening in the world. At SEEC, we often talk about the importance of talking to children about difficult subjects. Giving children the language to identify and express what they might be feeling or are curious about makes it easier for them to navigate complicated situations. Even though young children might not yet be able to understand the complexities of a global pandemic, they recognize when something feels different and are perceptive to the changes in our attitudes and emotions.
Living and working at home during quarantine is no easy feat. Our lives and daily rhythms have been turned upside down and most of us are feeling stretched and limited in one way or another. Many of our SEEC families have reported an uptick in meltdowns and tantrums from their children
Typical tantrums can stem from a predictable or obvious problem, like if a child is hungry or overtired. Our current situation adds a new layer of emotion for children and adults alike: we miss our friends and being able to go out in our communities, we’re worried about our health, and we are adjusting to new routines. To add to that, no one knows when it will get “back to normal.”
How Can I Help My Child?
The best way to help your child is by being there, both physically and emotionally. Being close in proximity helps children regulate their emotions and feel a sense of security, so it’s no wonder that picking up a crying baby is soothing to them, or that some children feel better after getting a hug. If it seems like it would help, offer a hug or your lap to sit in while your child works to calm down.
In addition to the emotions, a tantrum generates a lot of tension and energy in a child’s body. Show them ways of releasing tension like taking big, deep breaths. Help them focus their energy on something calming like watching the clouds, or redirect their energy by mashing some play-doh.
It is important to also acknowledge your child’s feelings. Young children are still learning how to identify and understand their emotions, and giving a name to a feeling is one way to reinforce this learning. If they’re pre-verbal, try helping out by saying, “you look like you feel sad” or “you didn’t like when that happened.” If you can objectively narrate what happened, it can help the child feel heard and understood. If they’re verbal and able to tell you what they’re feeling, your role is to sympathize. If they told you they were feeling sad because they couldn’t eat snack with their friends at school, you could say, “I feel sad about that sometimes, too. I like eating with my friends. We both miss our friends.”
Emphasize that you’re there to help and problem-solve together. For younger children, you could offer one or two suggestions for moving forward. You could say, “It made you upset when you fell. I can help you up,” or “You didn’t like it when your brother took your toy. You want a turn. Say ‘me next!’” For older children, ask what would help them feel better or give them a suggestion. Then do it together! For some of the quarantine specific situations, it’s okay to admit that you don’t know the answer. Say something like, “I don’t know when we’ll go back to school, and that’s frustrating for me. I don’t like it when I don’t know when something will end! But, there are people working very hard to figure out that answer, so I know they’ll tell us when they can.”
Adults Feel Stressed Too
In a perfect world, we could all follow three easy steps to help our children get through a meltdown. We’re not in a perfect world, and we’re not even in a situation that feels normal to many of us. If you’re stressed or you overreact during your child’s tantrum, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Simply acknowledge what happened with your child! It’s powerful for a child to observe a person they love showing how they handle their big emotions. Remember, as adults we unconsciously regulate our emotions to make it through tough situations. If you have an opportunity to make that visible to your child, they’ll have one more example of what they can do to cope. It is also a chance to give yourself grace and a powerful reminder to your child that there is always an opportunity to try again.
This post was written by Melody Passemante-Powell, Director of Infant and Toddler Programs.
Schedules are a big part of most of our lives, and most people recognize the importance of these routines, especially for young children. Quarantine has turned everything upside down for many families, and some are wondering, how much of a routine should we try to maintain? To help you think through this we have posed some questions to consider first, and then outlined some tips and ideas based on structure level and age group.
What are my family’s needs? All families are different and it is important to recognize that one size does not fit all. Some thrive off of rigid schedules, while others need a lot of flexibility, and most of us fall somewhere along the middle of this spectrum. Think through what works well for your child(ren) and what works well for the adults in your home. These don’t always align so finding some sense of balance is the overall goal.
What is my family’s capacity? Unfortunately during quarantine many of us are both acting as full time caregivers and working to meet job requirements at the same time. Consider how much the adults in your family realistically have the capacity to implement in terms of routines and schedules while also giving the attention needed to other responsibilities. Also keep in mind how quarantine is impacting your child(ren) and what they have emotional/mental capacity to do on any given day.
How Your Days Might Look
High Structure: You plan your days to closely mirror each other, or if your child in enrolled in school, you can schedule your days to match what a typical day would look like at school. For example, try having meals, outdoor time (if possible), circle time, etc. around the same time of day as they would occur at school.
Medium Structure: You can plan to have some components of the day happen in the same way and at the same time, while still leaving a bit of flexibility in the schedule. One way to navigate this is to look at each day as having a loose agenda, and you can talk through what will happen during the day, but the exact details of when and how each part will happen aren’t planned out in full.
Minimal Structure: You can keep it loose and just see where the day leads you. You can let your needs/wants and your child(ren)s needs/wants guide what happens for the majority of the day.
Tips and Ideas Based on Age
Infants/Toddlers: This age group understands time in short intervals, so it’s best to find ways to break the day into smaller sections vs. talking through what will happen throughout the entire day in one sitting. It can be helpful to use the “first, then” method with this age group, using phrases like, “First we will eat snack, then we will go on a walk.” Visual cues to use as reference when talking about what will happen are also very useful for this age group. These can be in the form of timers, or photos/pictures of what will happen next.
Preschoolers: In general preschoolers can handle a little more complexity in terms of thinking through multiple components of the day. A visual schedule is great for this age (a series of photos of what will happen along with the word label, posted in sequence, or attached to a keyring so the child can carry it around to access what will happen and in what order). Timers are another useful tool, and there are so many to choose from (sand timer, Echo/Alexa, stopwatch, or these sensory timers) so you can use what works best for you. ()
School Age: Most school age children can get a sense of a full daily schedule if you choose to use one. Visuals of some sort never hurt, and if your child(ren) can tell time you/they can create a chart (nothing fancy, you can use paper and a ruler to make the lines!) of what each day or each week looks like based on the day and time. Seeing what their day and week look like mapped out might be helpful for time management and daily planning.
Do what works best for your family on any given day. There is no right or wrong way to do this.
Set yourself up for success. If what you are doing just isn’t working for your child(ren), or for you, change it up. The point of a schedule is to HELP everyone, if that isn’t happening most of the time, it is time to reassess!
Resist the temptation to compare. It can be hard to see or hear about what other families are doing, especially if it seems like everything is working beautifully for them. Remember the grass has a tendency to seem greener, but what you and your family are doing on any given day, even if it involves meltdowns and a to do list with zero check marks, is just fine.