Last reviewed 4 October 2019
Rebecca Fisk considers how to promote genuine cultural diversity in Early Years.
What do we mean by cultural diversity?
Let us start by thinking about what we don’t mean. Some early years settings, particularly those in areas that lack diverse cultures, but with good intentions, have a tokenistic idea of cultural diversity. This often manifests as only planning for cultural input through specific activities related to a particular religious or cultural festival. Take the example of Chinese New Year celebrations; while activities to highlight awareness of cultural diversity are important, staff should be mindful that they are not ‘shallow’ activities such as colouring-in a picture of a Chinese New Year dragon. This activity does not represent the traditions and customs of Chinese New Year in an experiential way and can therefore be seen as tokenistic. Asking advice from the Chinese community, and seeking genuine resources used in such a festival, will contribute to better authentic experiences for the children.
It is essential to consider how cultural diversity becomes embedded, for example, in daily routines, the learning environment, provocations, resources, and dialogue with families. Embedding cultural diversity involves a commitment from all staff to reflect on their practice, attitudes and experiences. They should encourage children to explore identity, community, religion and language.
What does the EYFS say?
The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) states that children should learn to develop a ‘positive sense of themselves’. Reflecting their cultures and those of others in the setting can support this personal development and respond to a child’s uniqueness whilst ensuring they have experience of the similarities between themselves and others too.
Terminology is important. BME stands for Black and Minority Ethnic and describes those from cultural backgrounds other than White British, which in the UK is the majority ethnic group, and includes Gypsy Roma Traveller children and families. EAL is a sub- set of BME and stands for English as an additional language and recognises the fact that many children learning English in this country already know one or more languages and are adding English to that repertoire. Bilingual refers to children who have access to two or more languages at home and at their education or childcare setting. It does not necessarily imply full fluency in both/all their languages. (Bray 2015)
It is important to actively encourage the use of child’s languages in order to stay as connected as possible with their cultural heritage, wider family and community in this country and abroad. Practitioners can actively promote bilingualism to parents, for example, by asking parents to share a story in their home languages, using the pictures, if no dual-language books are available. It is important to reassure parents that whilst children are learning words in both languages, they are likely to have less vocabulary in each when younger, and that speaking in more than one language is not going to harm a child’s cognitive development.
An audit as a starting point for reflecting on cultural diversity
An audit could be a good place to start when considering inclusive practice for cultural diversity by reflecting on your routines and environment with fresh eyes and check if the environment includes:
resources sourced from or made in different places in the world, such as fabrics in the home corner from Africa, South America and India
songs in different languages, such as lullabies from around the world at sleep time
books from your local library with non-stereotypical images of people from around the world, and those written in dual-language text
real object provocations for play, such as ceramic pots from different parts of Europe [which can be easy to source from other people’s travels and found in local charity shops and car boot sales]
meal menus which represent a wide range of foods and cooking methods
experiential learning linked to the local cultural diversities in the community, including arranging for visits from or too places of interest such as a local place of worship
Asking the parents and children about what could be included in this audit can be a powerful way of developing partnership with families and taking a positive step towards true inclusion for cultural diversity.
Department for Children, Schools and Families (2007) Supporting Children learning English as an additional language - Guidance for practitioners in Early Years Foundation Stage Primary National Strategy
Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009) Building Futures: Believing in Children - A focus on provision for Black children in the Early Years Foundation Stage
Department for Education (April 2017) Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage: Setting the Standards for Learning, Development and Care from Birth to Five Available from: https://www.foundationyears.org.uk/files/2017/03/EYFS_STATUTORY_FRAMEWORK_2017.pdf
Bray, S & Fisk, R (2015) Celebrating Cultural Diversity through a Generous Learning Environment North Somerset Council Early Years Team Training Course
Muller, L-M (2019) University of Cambridge How to support multilingual families in the very early years Pages 16-20 in IJBPE Volume 6 Issue 4 July 2019 in International Journal of Birth and Parent Information: communicating new thinking and best practice in the critical 1000 days in Conjunction with Early Education: The British Association for Early Childhood Education