Get started today.

How to explore race and diversity in the Early Years

A discussion with Laura Henry-Allain MBE, global award-winning educationalist, storyteller, producer and consultant.
12 min of reading
18 May 2023
How to explore race and diversity in the Early Years - article cover

What steps can be taken to make sure that racial and cultural inclusion are prominent during the Early Years? We spoke with Laura Henry-Allain MBE, who explained that the crux of the discussion is that it’s not actually about ‘celebrating’ race and diversity as such, but more about having a conversation. We must make sure that we don’t hide away from these discussions, and from any questions that children may ask educators. Let’s explore suggested changes in policy, mindset and CPD opportunities that will positively impact all children in their first five years.

What you’ll find in this article:

    Meet the expert: Laura Henry-Allain MBE

    Laura Henry-Allain MBE

    Laura Henry-Allain MBE is an award-winning international producer, storyteller, educationalist and consultant. She is the creator of the characters JoJo and Gran Gran, a series developed and produced by CBeebies and is the series’ associate producer. Her bestselling children’s book, My Skin, Your Skin, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu, explores race and racism, and empowers children to be the best versions of themselves.

    Examine the language used at your Early Years setting

    One important thing to stay away from is language and attitudes of ‘I don’t see colour.’ While we think this is being kind, it’s important to acknowledge a child’s race. It comes down to fundamental acknowledgement of a child’s identity during the Early Years. Studies have shown that children as young as three and four can have racist attitudes (such as “the doll tests” discussed below).

    Henry-Allain suggests that you invite these conversations at your setting. Welcome them. During these first five years it is essential that settings support children with their self-identity. Their identities must not be ignored, and this includes that race and culture are not denied.

    Remember that this is not a one-time activity or discussion. This mustn't only be discussed during Black History Month and ticked off for the year. It doesn't work that way. Children must be supported with their self-identity throughout the year.

    You may be aware of the famous study done by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark during the 1940s (“the doll tests”) where children aged three to seven were given dolls to play with, which were identical apart from colour. The children were then asked to identify which doll was ‘bad,’ which doll they preferred and so on, which led to a majority preferring to play with the white doll and assigning positive characteristics to it. This created a clear negative impact on self-esteem and self-identification of the children of colour. Henry-Allain believes that if we did the same test now in the UK, the results would not have changed that much.

    Why is it that a child as young as four may come home, or go to nursery, and tell their special grown-up that they want to be white instead? What is that child seeing at their setting, or at home, or in their general environment that makes them see their own race and culture in a negative light? This is where educators have the power and moral duty to step in to take active measures to ensure all children see their own race and culture in a positive light.

    So, how can settings work to change this?

    Conduct an audit of your anti-racism policy

    All Early Years settings should include anti-racism as part of their policies and procedures. This will cover anti-Blackness and any group that has the potential to be, or has historically been, discriminated against.

    What does your setting’s policy do to promote diversity? From recruitment, to induction, to retention and beyond. It’s important to take a step back and look at what proactive measures are in place to promote inclusivity at your setting. This is not only with your staff, but with your setting’s parents and families as well. Again, what it comes down to is supporting these conversations on racism and anti-racism.

    How are you promoting diversity in your recruitment, Induction, Retention, Famlies and beyond

    Methods to encourage curiosity to explore race and diversity in the Early Years

    It starts with the materials used at your setting. Do you have different coloured skin-toned crayons? Dolls of different colours, with different hair and clothes? Your main question as an educator should be, ‘How am I engaging the local community and further afield?’

    If your setting is not located in a diverse area, what can you do to ensure that diversity is brought into your Early Years setting? As an example, Henry-Allain suggests recycling shampoo bottles and combs for different types of hair as resources within a setting. Another idea is to plan a day trip that takes children to more diverse areas of their communities and beyond.

    Ideas to encourage race and diversity exploration

    Be aware of racist messaging in your Early Years setting

    When did you last conduct an audit of the diversity of your classrooms? Remember that reflective practice in the Early Years is not only for children’s development, but for staff as well.

    What message does the physical environment of your setting give? Are there sarees, cultural prints, and writing in different languages on display, for example? Seeing different cultures and races positively included in their immediate environment is a step towards children working towards their own confident self-identification. It is important for other children to begin to develop a positive understanding of other races and cultures within their Early Years.

    Common mistakes settings make when exploring race and diversity

    Henry-Allain emphasises that while materials and resources are important, it’s fundamentally about changing the hearts and minds of everyone.

    It's about how an educator educates, how they have these conversations with children, parents and families. How does your setting present these diverse resources? And consequently, how do your educators observe children's reactions to them? Do they notice that the children hardly play with Black dolls, for example? How can educators make sure that children have this invitation to play, to explore?

    Ensure that these resources are not a simple bolt-on. They should be clearly and unequivocally a fundamental part of your nursery. Perhaps you can allow children to explore eating with their hands, or with chopsticks. These actions should be carried out with the intention that children at your nursery progressively embrace differences and begin to develop an understanding of other cultures and races.

    Get your parents and families involved in the conversation

    As essential as key person to child relationships are, forming the same relationship with the parent or carer is equally important. In an effort to continuously place the child’s education and development at the centre of your setting, what measures do you have in place to include parents from other races and cultures?

    Henry-Allain recommends a starting, bonding question of: “Would you like to share how you came about naming your child? Why did you choose this name?” This provocative question has been shared by Professor Lumsden, head of Early Years, Northampton University. It is essential to build inclusive relationships with your parents from the very beginning. One step towards this is to pronounce the child and parent’s name correctly. Ask them if they would like to record their names. This enables educators to listen back as many times as they need to get the pronunciation correct without having to repeatedly ask: “Sorry, can you say your name again?” It’s about making that effort and not taking a short-cut and creating a nickname, however well-meaning the intentions are.

    It’s a similar situation when exploring foods from different cultures. It’s important to be mindful of our own reactions that children will see and then, most likely, repeat. If educators are trying something new that they themselves are uncertain of, encourage them to try it before they explore it with the children, thus allowing for a more mindful reaction.

    Henry-Allain recommends educators provide new experiences to children. These activities create vast opportunities for children holistically: visuals, music, food, feeling different materials and so on. This also links to building children’s global view of the world. How often do you ask yourself: “Did children explore a new taste today? Did they learn a new word today?” It links to Laura’s affirmation for educators to ‘try something new today’. This, in turn, will spark a child’s own curiosity to learn more and do more. It’s about being mindful of these teachable moments within the setting.

    How to handle a situation where a child is demonstrating racism

    What does an educator do when they see a child being racist in a nursery setting (whether verbal or physical)? The key person should know their key children and their parents and families well. The main point to remember is that it’s about framing these discussions in a way that is age, stage and ability appropriate. It is important to have a conversation with the child and explore with them what has been said and done and why this is wrong.

    Remember to talk to the child’s parents as well. Provide that support to both. As we’ve highlighted, it’s important to understand that this is an ongoing conversation, which leads back to your setting’s values and ethos on inclusivity and anti-racism. It’s important, albeit uncomfortable, to realise that this child’s words or behaviour is coming from somewhere. It is essential to handle these conversations with parents and children with sensitivity.

    What can educators do to continue their education on racial and cultural inclusivity?

    It’s important to stress that this isn’t a one-course situation.

    Enrol staff on courses that explore structural and systemic racism as it’s important that they know the historical context of racism. There should be an onus on educators to educate themselves as with any other unfamiliar subject that they will be teaching children.

    Ample resources are available, such as books, podcasts and articles. Not only this, but what types of conversations are happening in the staff room? In staff meetings? Education needs to be supported in a holistic way, embedded right from recruitment to staff meetings, to recorded observations of practice. These experiences spark ideas for activities with children in the setting and support the teaching and learning within the home environment.

    Fundamentally, when it comes to race and culture inclusivity in the Early Years, it’s about having conversations. To make a difference. Ultimately, for our children.

    Know someone who'd like to read this article?
    a 30min session
    no strings attached