Inclusion in Early Learning Programs: Why Representation Matters

The children in my class absolutely love reading stories; they cuddle in my lap and on cushions beside me as I spin tales in silly voices about princesses and pirates and going off on magical adventures.

I very carefully choose the books that line our shelves each week. I strive to include different people, different languages, different cultures, because every child should see themselves in our stories.  It can be hard to imagine ourselves in these rich literary worlds if none of the characters looks like us or feel like us or have families like us.

Books introduce children to different narratives and life experiences; there can be a princess who is a boy and girls can slay fearsome dragons. Instead of long blond hair Rapunzel lets down her dark and curly locks, Prince Charming has a dark complexion and loves the prince in a neighbouring kingdom, and the hero of the story uses a walker for mobility.

Incorporating culture, race, language, ability, ethnicity, family structure, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression, and socioeconomic differences in the books, pictures and materials in the learning environment ensures it is a welcoming and inclusive space for all children in the program. Children feel a sense of belonging when their individuality and presence are valued in the learning community (How Does Learning Happen? Page 24).

“Most of the books teachers read to classes don’t feature gender nonconforming characters” explains Meaghan Grant, advocate and mother of a gender expansive child. “Students don’t study famous and groundbreaking trans people. They don’t see themselves reflected in the culture being taught. And for trans kids who have a supportive community and family, that might be okay. But the kids who are cisgender or don’t have supportive families are also not getting the exposure that would normalize their gender expansive peers.”

Grant adds, “Representation is key in inclusion and tolerance. Without representation, a person is always going to be “other””

Creating inclusive learning environments in which children with diverse skills, cultures, family structures, and gender expressions play and learn together supports their development of empathy, respect and understanding for one another. “All children benefit from being in inclusive environments where they are able to participate and collaborate in meaningful ways and form authentic, caring relationships.” (How Does Learning Happen? Page 25)

An environment can foster a sense of belonging in a variety of ways.

Adapting your space so that children of varying skill levels and abilities can freely play and explore together helps everyone to feel that they belong. Our classroom, for example, is a multi-age group so we must be attentive to the inclusion of all of the little ones as well as their older peers. With this in mind, we have lined our shelves with loose parts because there is no right or wrong way to play with these materials, each child can use them in their own unique way. “Every child should feel that he or she belongs, is a valuable contributor to his or her surroundings, and deserves the opportunity to succeed.” (How Does Learning Happen? Page 6)

“We have a family tree (branches) that we display family photos on,” says Ivy Woods, RECE. “This way they can see the varying dynamics that a family can be made up of. We have many children with a Mom and Grandma as parents, 2 same sex parents, Grandparents and Aunt and Uncle playing the parenting role.”

“I personally learn key words for the children whose first language is not English. I also have lots of multicultural books and toys within the program. I sing songs from different languages and I ask the families of songs the kids enjoy so I can learn and sing to them,” says Lena Calheta, RECE. “I also make sure to state when we talk about families that not all are the same and many have different dynamics.”

Modelling respect for everyone in the learning environment is key to creating a sense of belonging in the  learning community according to Kay Kucharzyk, RECE. “A respectful environment is contagious but so is a disrespectful one,” explains Kucharzyk.

Families can be a great resource for materials and information to use to enrich your classroom environment. “Families bring diverse social, cultural, and linguistic perspectives. Families should feel that they belong, are valuable contributors to their children’s learning, and deserve to be engaged in a meaningful way.” (How Does Learning Happen? Page 7)

Little things can make a huge difference for the small people in your classroom. Incorporating pieces of fabric from their culture, family pictures, cooking utensils in the dramatic center like those they see in use at home, and dolls with different skin tones or disabilities, for example, nurtures a feeling of inclusion.

Taking the time to ensure each child can see themselves represented in your program shows them that they fit, they matter, and they belong.

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