Diversity in Early Childhood Programs
By Francis Wardle

Early childhood providers are called upon to do many difficult tasks. One of the most difficult of these is providing our children with diverse, multicultural experiences. Since the beginning of time, young children have been raised by their families, extended families, clans, and communities. Even today, most family child care homes and many early childhood programs tend to be fairly homogeneous and quite similar to the child’s home background. High on the list of criteria parents use to choose child care and early childhood programs are providers and programs who match the parents’ own view of education and discipline, and those who speak the same language and have the same religion (Willer, et. al., 1991). Thus many of our programs – family child care, Head Start, religious programs, and even some neighborhood public schools – are traditional reflections of homogeneous communities in religion, race/ethnicity, language, and socioeconomic status. But now these traditional programs are expected to provide our children with experiences outside of their groups, offering opportunities to teach them to be tolerant, respectful, and accepting of differences. It’s quite a challenge! 

What makes our task even more difficult is the developmentally inappropriate approaches we are often advised to follow in this difficult task – discussions of power, bias, oppression, past injustices, privilege, and inequality (Derman-Sparks, 1989; Gonzalez-Mena, 2002). Not only are these sophisticated socio-political constructs completely beyond the capacity of the preoperational child (ages two to seven years), but, as I tell my college students, if children could really understand these concepts, they would never put up with the powerful, oppressive, and often unfair schools we submit them to for a minimum of 12 years of their lives! (Wardle, 2003a).


What Is Diversity?

One way to look at diveristy is to determine what diveristy is and what it is not: collect positive and negative instances (Ormrod, 1999). Diversity or multicultural education:  

·         cannot be taught directly

·         is not a curriculum

·         is not a lesson plan

·         is not Cinco de Mayo, Black History Month, or Chinese New Year

·         is not people dressing up in costumes, wearing headdresses, or eating tortillas


Rather, diveristy or multicultural education is, a continuous approach to working with children, parents, families and colleagues every day (Wardle, 2003a). This means that  children in our programs must:  

1)       learn about their own backgrounds;

2)       learn about the backgrounds of people who are different from them;

3)       see themselves, their families, and their communities represented throughout the center;

4)       continually be exposed to activities, materials, and concrete experiences that destroy stereotypes;

5)       learn to enjoy, appreciate, and seek out differences;

6)       learn that harassment and intolerance is never acceptable, and

7)       discover that there are usually a whole variety of ways to solve a problem, complete a task, or answer a question (Wardle, 2003a).


Concrete Experience

Preoperational children learn through concrete experiences (Piaget, 1960). Thus, our children need to learn about themselves through being exposed to people, having role models in the center, and visiting people in the community who are like them. By the same token, to learn about and be comfortable with people who are different, young children also need direct, concrete experiences with people who are different from them: children in their program, teachers, and people in the community. Thus homogeneous programs – of one race, ethnicity, religion, ability and/or language – must find ways to expose their children to people who are different. This is needed for all children, not just white, middle-class children. 

For children to develop a sense of belonging they must see themselves, their families, and their communities represented throughout the center or school in books, posters, artwork, family sets, dolls, cooking utensils, environmental print in their languages, photographs, workbook illustrations, etc. (Wardle, 1995). These images must be available throughout the center or school, not just in the classroom, and should also be in parent handbooks, annual school reports, parent training materials, etc. Thus, if you have a biracial, black/white child in your program, that child must be able to play with biracial dolls, puppets, and miniature toys, and see pictures and photographs of interracial families that look like his. When my oldest daughter, Maia, was 4, we read a Christmas story about Jamie, an African American boy. At the end of the book Maia looked at us in puzzlement, and said “But where is the father?  We pointed to the black father, and she exclaimed in disbelief, “No, the father must be white!” (My wife is black and I am white).


Challenging Stereotypical Thinking

Preoperational children are primitive thinkers who have difficulty holding more than one piece of information at a time in their minds (Wardle, 2003b). As Developmentally Appropriate Practice so accurately points out, development progresses from simple and primitive to complex, organized, and internalized (Bredekamp and Copple, 1997). Because young children think in simple terms they tend to think in stereotypes. For example, young children believe that women wear long hair and dresses and work in traditional female occupations, while men wear short hair, wear pants, and engage in traditional male occupations (Aboud, 1987). Thus, one of our tasks in supporting diveristy is to continually challenge young children’s simple thinking about:          

  • gender – boys can dress-up in dresses; girls can become mathematicians; 
  • religion – no one religion is the ‘right’ religion for everyone;
  • race/ethnicity/culture – every child can become anything she wishes: an Asian boy can become a basketball player, an African American boy a scientist, a white girl a doctor, etc. Further, children can comfortably belong to more than one racial or ethnic group (Wardle 1999) 
  • income/poverty – many famous people have overcome poverty, neglect, and difficult situations to become successful and fulfilled; 
  • language – children can learn two or more languages at the same time. For some reason, we are unwilling to recognize that very young children can learn more than one language. We should look at bilingual and multilingual students as having a tremendous asset, not a deficit.


Group Belonging

 All people are comfortable around people who are like them. This notion has lead to the self-segregation of students in many of our middle and high schools (Tatum, 1997). While our children need to feel comfortable and to be around people who are like them, they also must enjoy investigating and exploring differences, newness, and what is unfamiliar. One way to encourage this behavior is to expose our children to the new and diverse; another is for teachers and administrators to model a joy and enthusiasm in discovery, exploration, and uncertainly.   

Some approaches to diveristy and multicultural education create in the child a sense of solidarity and loyalty in the child’s identity group at the expense of a dislike or distrust of other groups. Students in schools that practice what James Banks calls a single group studies approach to multicultural education (1997) often compete against other minority groups for time, attention, and exposure for their own groups (Wardle & Cruz-Janzen, in press). Further, approaches that teach children that all prejudice, bias, and hatred emanate from white people avoid addressing harassment and intolerance of minority children toward children from other minority groups, and harassment of multiethnic and multiracial children from all sides (Cruz-Janzen, 1997).  

Clearly we have an obligation to teach all children in our programs that any kind of harassment and intolerance toward any child or person is totally unacceptable. While this belief is fairly well accepted regarding minority children, it also applies to behaviors by minority children toward children from other racial or ethnic groups and to all children toward children and people with disabilities (Wardle & Cruz-Janzen, in press).


There Is More Than One Way to Skin a Cat

Finally, a basic concept of diveristy is the idea that almost everything humans do can be done in a variety of equally acceptable ways: grow crops, build shelters, create families, educate children, and make beautiful art. We must continually help children realize this multifaceted approach to life and help them discover a variety of ways to address issues, especially ways different from the ways that are familiar to them. We need to help children see a variety of perspectives on issues and problems. We can do this by asking children if they can come up with alternative approaches, by reading books about innovative methods, by using a variety of possibilities when modeling behaviors to children, and by encouraging children to think creatively and divergently.


Ways to Include Diversity in Early Childhood Programs

Since diversity and multicultural education must occur all the time in early childhood programs, we need to look at ways that we can make our curriculum and instruction as multicultural and diverse as possible (Wardle & Cruz-Janzen, 2003). There are a variety of ways to do this, and I will discuss some here.            

Probably the best way to support young children’s own secure identity development and at the same time expose them to diversity and tolerance is to take the children into the community, and to bring the community into the program.


Going into the Community

We must find all sorts of ways to expand the young children’s view of their world beyond the confines of the school or early childhood program. “One of my great joys as a child growing up in communities of the Bruderhof was walking over to the woodworking shop to observe Harry, our carpenter, repairing windows, carving intricate patterns, and sawing wood. I loved the smell of fresh wood, the care and deliberation of the craft, and Harry’s gnarled, kindly hands and face. In traditional villages children were exposed to a diveristy of adults, not just caregivers, teachers and heroes. Young children’s lives must be rich with the variability, humanity and culture of lots of people” (Wardle, 2003b, pp. 132). Clearly, the kind of trips children take into their communities depends on a variety of factors, including the child’s developmental age and safety. But programs must make every effort to take their children out into the community on a regular basis. Here are some ideas.


·         Walking Around the Neighborhood. On these walks children might collect natural objects representing the season of the year; observe environmental print of all kinds – traffic signs, advertisements, names of buildings, numbers on houses, etc. (Vukelich, Christie and Enz, 2002); make rubbings of interesting textures, signs and artwork; find the number on a house; discover the smallest yard, etc. On these walks I suggest a camera be used to record the things students observe. With young children the teacher should take the pictures, but at the direction of the children (as a record of their point of view); older children can take their own pictures. Following the walk, the pictures can be developed or downloaded into the computer (depending on the camera used) and used to create wall newspapers, journals, class books, parent newsletters, etc. 

·         Visiting Parents’ Places of Work. Not only does visiting a parent’s place of work expand each child’s view of the world, but it gives the child whose parent is visited a great sense of pride and belonging. When children return to the program, they can chart parents’ occupations, create a community map of work locations, and study various occupations. 

·         Visiting Unique Community Resources. Every community has its own unique community resources. Teachers need to become familiar with those resources and then to use them to expand their children’s worlds at  their individual developmental levels. In Denver where I live, we have the Black Cowboy History Museum, many wildlife refuges, living historic farms, the Museum of the Americas, and a variety of charming parks.        

·         Field Trips to Complement a Curriculum Theme or Unit. One very popular approach to structuring a curriculum is by theme (Wortham, 2002). The theme might be: Community Helpers, My Family, My Five Senses, I Am Growing Up, My Community, Building and Constructing, Designing a Park or Neighborhood, Caring for the Environment, and Grandparents are Great (Cromwell, 2000). Each of these themes lends itself to all sorts of rich community visits. Community visits should occur early in the study of a theme – thus creating in children a meaningful, concrete experience around which to develop their knowledge and skills (Katz & Chard, 2000).  

·         Caring for the Community. Part of the idea of diversity is the idea of community. A central notion of community is the sense of collective responsibility. Children – especially five years old and older – can become responsible for caring for part of a community – a park, the street in front of the center or school, etc. They can plant flowers, pick up trash, or write an “Adopted by _____ Class” sign. 

·         Pair with a Senior Center. Pairing an early childhood program or class with a senior center provides wonderful benefits both for the seniors and the children. Children can engage in a variety of activities, from painting pictures and singing songs, to sending letters, illustrating greeting cards, and doing dances.


Visitors to the Program/School

There is a whole gamut of possibilities for bringing the community into the program or school. Here are some examples. 

·         Parent Visits. Again, when parents share with young children, they not only bring their culture into the center, but they create tremendous pride in their own children. Parent activities depend on the children’s ages and the parents’ interests and skills. Possibilities include helping children to cook a meal or desert, talking about the country from which the parent came, demonstrating a folk song or dance, reading a children’s book from his/her culture, telling a folk tale, or showing children how to make a craft item or toy the parent used to make as a child.

·         Visits of Interesting Community People. Every community has a collection of unique, rich characters. These characters should be invited to share with the children. Care must be taken not only to make sure they are effective with young children, but that people who are invited challenge stereotypes: a wheel chair athlete, a female lawyer or mechanic, a black college professor, a male cook, and an Asian football player (Wardle 2003a). 

·         Visitors from Other Schools. As I said earlier, most early childhood programs and neighborhood schools are fairly homogeneous racially, ethnically, linguistically, and religiously. To expose children to diversity in all these areas, a school or classroom should match up with a school or classroom that is radically different from their own. Then children should exchange between the two schools for a variety of formal and less formal activities. 

·         Internet Correspondence. Kindergarten and elementary programs with adequate technology resources can find similar programs in another country with whom to correspond. Children learn about the different ways other children live their own age lives, go to school and are entertained, which is a tremendously powerful tool to learn about all sorts of difference.



Supporting diversity in early childhood programs is a two-pronged process: helping children to feel good about themselves, their families, and their communities, and also exposing children to differences, things that are unfamiliar, and experiences beyond their immediate lives. In doing so we must make sure these experiences are real and concrete, and that they continually challenge young children’s stereotypical thinking. We must insist on tolerance and respect toward all who are different. Finally, this process must be continuous and ongoing, not simply addressed on convenient occasions and implemented as an add-on to the curriculum. 


Francis Wardle, Ph.D., teaches for the University of Phoenix (Colorado) and is the executive director for the Center for the Study of Biracial Children. He has just published the book, Introduction to Early Childhood Education A Multidimensional Approach to Child-Centered Care and Learning, available from Allyn & Bacon, www.ablongman.com.



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