If we want to create a society that values diversity, we must start instilling an appreciation for multiculturalism in young children as early as possible. Learning and development happens rapidly during early childhood, as the brain has higher plasticity. So, the critical years from birth to the age of eight are ideal for introducing the concepts of cultural diversity. However, there is not enough focus on this in Australian settings.
As part of my PhD study1, I set out to explore cross-cultural differences between Australian and Iranian early childhood settings. I found that many Australian early childhood educators were unprepared or unsure how to support and incorporate cultural difference in the classroom, which can have a lifelong impact on children and their cultural awareness.
Australian educators’ understanding of cultural expression also seemed one-dimensional. I interviewed four early years teachers and only one said she felt confident to teach and incorporate cultural diversity. This was because she was from a service that only enrolled children from Aboriginal backgrounds, and her own children were Aboriginal. Her understanding of diverse cultural expression in early learning came from her personal experience of seeing the way her children participated in activities like painting and drawing, which she acknowledged was different from what she taught. This gave her the confidence to appreciate and support differences in cultural expression in her classroom.
A lack of understanding of cultural difference is not just theoretical for me. It is something I have witnessed in my own child’s experience. The food my son has taken to school has been judged by his teacher, which has impacted his perceptions of what’s ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’. He has been told his chargrilled food looks burnt, so he shouldn’t bring it to school or eat it, despite it being common in my culture. My son has since asked me not to pack his lunch box with that specific food. In Year 2, his teacher asked him not to speak his home language when he was explaining to his friends, in his language, what we speak at home. He was told it was pointless to speak his language, since his friends couldn’t understand him. This was despite the fact that the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) highly recommends providing learning environments that respect diversity by honouring ‘the histories, language, tradition, child rearing practices and lifestyle choices of families’.
Teachers should be promoting this learning by planning experiences and providing resources that broaden children’s perspectives and encourage appreciation of other cultures. As children’s social and cultural environment influences their learning and brain development, early childhood is the time to promote and celebrate cultural difference, to nurture positive views of multiculturalism in the future.
- Promoting diversity in the classroom
There are a many simple, practical and research-backed3 ways in which teachers can incorporate multiculturalism in early childhood classrooms.
- Professional learning for teachers
Exposure to diverse cultural groups and experiences—through professional development opportunities, for example—can improve teachers’ confidence in encouraging multicultural creative expression and practices in their classroom. Teachers can also benefit from having time to reflect critically on problems, such as cultural marginalisation, caused by lack of diversity.
- Preparing the classroom environment
Teachers can assist children in learning and respecting different cultures by carefully setting up the classroom environment. This can be done by selecting books or posters with images that represent people of all skin colours, without any labelling that classifies them as different. More spaces could be added for cultural expression; for example: dramatic play spaces; areas for self-portrait exploration through drawing, painting and crafts; or a designate space for cultural artefacts that celebrate diversity.
- Family involvement
Teachers can invite families to share drawings, pictures, stories, cuisines and so on, to show how many different lived experiences there are between children in one classroom.
- 1 Ba Akhlagh, S. (2021). Early childhood national educational frameworks and teachers’ beliefs about creativity: A comparative study of Australia and Iran [Doctoral thesis, University of Newcastle]. http://hdl.handle.net/1959.13/1427296
- 2 Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. (2009). Being, Belonging and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (p. 13). Commonwealth of Australia.
- 3 Horne, P. E., & Timmons, V. (2009). Making it work: Teachers’ perspectives on inclusion. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 13(3), 273–286. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603110701433964
- 4 Pinchas, D. (2019, February 25). What does quality professional learning look like for early childhood teachers? The Spoke. http://thespoke.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/quality-professional-learning-look-like-early-childhood-teachers/
Explore our ‘Celebrating Culture’ category on the ECA Shop that features children’s books, ECA publications, Learning Hub modules and research-based resources.