Black History Month: Social Justice and Toddlers

February is Black History Month and a time for us to consider with deep intention how we are preparing children to be accepting, equitable community members who recognize their privilege and biases in an effort to make the world a more just place. Even in our youngest classrooms, such as the Silver Room.

That sounds like a lot! How do you even do that with toddlers?! Do we really need to?! 

Yes. The answer is yes, we need to, even with toddlers–especially with toddlers.

“Children not only recognize race from a very young age, but also develop racial biases by ages three to five that do not necessarily resemble the racial attitudes of adults in their lives.” (Winkler, 2009, p. 1)

The materials, media, and conversations children are exposed to shape their view of the world. While the close adults in their lives help structure this exposure, children are also constantly absorbing information from the wider cultural milieu. Because children are constantly taking in information from media and systems that privilege whiteness, we must work harder to ensure we introduce them to diversity and acknowledge imbalances. 

  “Children pick up on the ways in which whiteness is normalized and privileged in U.S. society.” (Winkler, 2009, pg. 3)

Metaphorical mirrors provide us with opportunities to see our own identity reflected in the environment, while windows allow us to “look into” someone else’s reality. White children have lots of mirrors in their materials. As teachers, we are intentional about providing more mirrors for children of color (which double as windows for white children) by:

  • Seeking out books/media that feature, center, and normalize characters of color
  • Finding books/media that specifically talk about diversity, prejudice, and justice
  • Using materials that show a wide range of people and cultures!

One student’s family provided us with some wonderful books featuring Black children just being children. It’s important for White children to see that White is not the default, that children of all skin colors grow and learn in similar ways. Story illustrations, artwork on walls, dolls, music, and clothing are all ways to show White children the variety of life. This is especially important when most of the people they see are White. 

Some of Silver Room’s favorite books with Black characters:

  • Boogie Boogie Y’all by C. G. Esperanza
  • Rosa Loves Cars by Jessica Spanyol
  • Brown Sugar Babies by Charles R. Smith, Jr.
  • Be Boy Buzz by bell hooks
  • Curls by Ruth Forman
A teacher reading Boogie Boogie Y’all.

On the wall we have posted pictures of the artists from our Black History Month Playlist, including Aretha Franklin, Outkast, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Alicia Keys, and Michael Franti. We made copies of each picture for children hold as we listened to the music of each artist. We talked about their skin color, the way they wore their hair, their clothes, and how special their music is. We noticed the crowds of people cheering, the back up singers and all the instrumentalists who helped create this music. 

  • Student: “I hold ‘Reefa (Aretha)”
  • Student: “Steewie (Stevie)”
  • Student: “Bah!”, excitedly as he gets Bob Marley’s picture.

It’s not enough to just have materials that present diverse material, though, we need to talk about diversity and equity with our children. 

A Silver Room Story: We have a racially diverse set of baby dolls in the room. At the beginning of the year, we noticed that there was a child who would consistently only use the white or white-appearing dolls. This child showed no malice toward the other dolls but had an internal bias that made them select a light-skinned doll each time. 

One day, we sat down together with a Black doll and a White doll and talked about them. We talked about things that were the same (presence of features and body parts) and things that were different (skin, hair, eyes). We talked about whether both babies needed food, a blanket, snuggles, love. We cared tenderly for both. We did this again another day. And another. 

We began to notice this child playing with multiple babies of different skin colors, caring for two babies equally. Now, they are back to typically playing with one doll, but they no longer only choose white ones. 

Stories like this happen every single year and show the influence of mainstream whiteness, the importance of adult observation, the power of conversation, and the inherent compassion of children.

Silence about race does not keep children from noticing race and developing racial biases and prejudices, it just keeps them from talking about it. (Winkler, 2009, pg. 4)

Black History Month has helped us evaluate and refocus our energy toward incorporating diversity and anti-racist practice in the Silver Room, and has been a new lens to look at identity and expression.

The children of the Silver Room are particularly interested in emotion, facial expressions, and checking on one another. Looking at faces and examining both affect and features, ours and others, was a way to talk about race in line with current interests.

One student emotively reads “Five Little Ducks” to himself, making a pained faces and sad sounding “oh no”s when the mother loses her ducks.
Friends run over to check on a crying peer. This leads to a several minute discussion of the different facial expressions on our wall.

Books, our diverse set of baby dolls, and our poster of racially diverse and expressive faces have been key resources. They allow us to talk about people and their needs or feelings as well as what they look like, rather than only focusing on skin color. We want to discuss race in a humanizing rather than objective way.

Right now, we are leaning into the children’s natural observation skills and curiosity.  Many times, White adults feel embarrassed or lost when children comment on skin color. In our work with children, we want to foster an environment where children feel safe and supported in asking why?  We needn’t create shame around diversity. Instead, thinking and talking about the differences between people helps us foster more respect and understanding toward others. We have taken time to examine our own skin as well as that of others. Acknowledging whiteness as a part of racial diversity, rather than a default, is important for a group of mostly White children.

Using skin tone tempera paints, we look at different skin colors and then match a small amount to our own arms. We notice there is a lot of peach/pink/beige on the table! While conversations about why this might be are a little too deep for some of our youngest, opening our eyes to the whiteness around us is an important part of this learning journey.

Another provocation used skin toned markers on white paper. Many times, children are not encouraged to color in skin because it may look messy or distract from facial features, and the result is often a default background of white paper.  We want to introduce an attention to skin color at the beginning of the children’s move toward representational drawing. 

The first day, we used markers and cutouts of expressive faces. The children were interested in coloring on both the background paper and the faces.

The next day, we laid out the same provocation with the addition of mirrors. The children were just as interested in drawing on the paper and faces, and also liked finding their faces in the mirrors and coloring the glass. This led to conversations about how our skin looked. We compared our hands, the face cutouts, and baby dolls’ skin to the markers we were using.

These are all small lessons get the ball of social justice rolling. And we will continue to move it forward all our lives. 

Reflection by Zoe Wolfe and Susan Missett-King, Silver Room Co-Teachers


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