A new toolkit is now available to teachers to help them explain race to preschool children as young as three years old.
The Building Belonging toolkit, designed by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) for early-learning teachers, was launched on 7 October and is available to download on the AHRC website.
The materials include an e-book, All My Friends and Me, which has characters with names of Indigenous, Persian, Chinese and African origin.
The guide points to a 2015 survey which found that 72% of early childhood educators reported difficulties teaching about cultural diversity and responding to ‘prejudice and significant issues’.
However, some say the toolkit – which contains answers to potential questions from children like: “Why are there black people?” and “I don’t like brown people” – may do more harm than good.
Dr Susie O’Brien, a columnist with the Herald Sun and Adelaide Advertiser newspapers, said there were concerns that the program was too advanced for young minds.
“Preschool children should not be pressured to become cultural warriors on the lookout for racial prejudice in the sandpit or home corner,” she wrote on Tuesday.
“As I see it, kindergarten kids don’t see difference in the same way as older children or adults. In their eyes there is no value or judgment that comes from having lighter hair or darker skin. So why should we ram it down their throats?”
However, National Children’s Commissioner, Megan Mitchell, denied the toolkit was a social program, saying that all resources and activities were age-appropriate.
“Early childhood professionals tell us that children notice difference from a very young age. They are curious about the world, and the people that they meet,” she told The Educator.
“They are learning all the time, and asking questions about what they see and experience. Sometimes they make negative comments about another child or person – 43% of surveyed educators told us that they had experienced this.”
Mitchell said the Commission had heard from educators that there were limited resources available to support them to appropriately respond to, and discuss, children’s questions and comments about cultural diversity and difference.
Meanwhile, a new study from the University of Washington has found that children aged 7-12 rate gender as more important than race, and that their perceptions of both are woven together with personal and societal influences.
“Kids are thinking about race and gender, and not just in terms of being able to identify with these social categories, but also what they mean and why they matter,” said lead author Leoandra Onnie Rogers, assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University.
Mitchell said that while children often notice, and point out, ethnic and cultural differences in their peers, this does not necessarily constitute racism or prejudice.
“I don’t think that children at such a young age are racist or prejudiced. They do notice difference, after picking up clues from their environment, and sometimes they say certain things about other children or families who look or act differently,” she said.
“If a child says something negative, adults need to feel confident to respond in a constructive way. Many educators and parents are doing this really well already, but for those who are not so confident, the Building Belonging resources can provide them with some guidance.”
Mitchell said the feedback from educators and peak early childhood bodies has been very positive, adding that the resources have been downloaded over 11,000 times in the six weeks since they were launched.