Sunday, November 4, 2012

18 Tips to Increase Culture in the Classroom

The children helped to create this postcard for an international post card exchange awhile back. We talked about what is cool about where we live, which included various aspects of our local culture. 

One of the areas we are working on as part of our Quality Improvement Plan is promoting more cultural competency in our classroom. As I have been working with a number of other sites to help them with their goals, it has become clear to me that the concept of culture is often misunderstood.

For many sites, when I mention cultural competency folks tend to think directly to the outer rings of the world with multiculturalism and diversity. This is wonderful if you live in an area with a lot of ethnic or racial diversity. However, for most young children in our community this is not true. We have very little diversity when we think of it in this realm. So, although having things like multicultural dolls and various skin color crayons/paints are important,  if you do not have that representative diversity of children in your program those types of things are not as relevant as looking at other areas of culture that are meaningful to the child.

Young children are concrete learners. They need to engage with materials that are relevant to them because of their previous experiences and personal contacts. That is why it is important to realize that when we are looking at cultural competency, there are various levels of culture we need to be aware of.

The most relevant area of culture for a young child is the culture of the child's family. This is an area that can easily be addressed in your classroom though very inexpensive means.  How do you bring the culture of each family into your learning environment?

 Here are a couple of ideas:

1) Family Photos - Ask the parents to provide photos of the various members of their family. Randomly posting photos around the space, putting the photos into an album, or allowing each child to create a place mat or poster. All families are different, so I would expect to see different types of family photos and it is not necessary to have a photo where all of the members are in it together.

2) Parents at Work or Play Photos. If you have an action photo of the parents at work or enjoying a hobby, you can easily print them out, laminate them, and turn them into movable pieces for the children to use in various learning areas. (We are in the process of doing this for the parents, but have already done this with the children in our care). All you need to do to complete them is use a binder clip! I adapted this idea from the ABCs of Crazy.  You can also do this with family pets, grandparents, etc....

3) House Photos - Children love to build things that are familiar to them in the block area. If you provide them with blocks that have photos of their homes, you will be encouraging them to recreate their neighborhoods! You can make these the same way that the people above are made or you can add some velcro to the back of your photos and to your wooden unit blocks to make this work.  You can also add photos of familiar places in your community. The places where parents work or frequent places children visit like parks, museums, and restaurants. (I have also heard about re-using cardboard boxes - like the Capri Sun boxes to create house/building blocks)

4) Children's Favorite Recipe Books - Ask parents to share favorite recipes from home. Include familiar recipes as meals and snacks for the children in your care.

5) Ask parents for old uniforms and hobby gear.  You can add parents for old work uniforms or hobby gear to add to your dress up area. I know in our area it is common for children to grow up in a hunting family. Having a bright orange hunting vest in the dress up area brings that culture into the classroom. We also have a child who has a dad who races dirt bikes. Adding a helmet or racing gear would be relevant to the culture of that child.

6) Empty food containers. If children bring in empty food containers from home, they can be used in the house area for dramatic play. Children are familiar with the containers and foods as they are those that they see and use at home.

7) Favorite Stories. Ask parents to provide you with the names of the books they read with their children regularly. Ask if there are any stories or books from their childhood that they would like to see shared in the classroom.

The next level of culture is the community culture. This is also relevant to the children in your care as they interact with their community on a regular basis. Taking note from some of the ideas above, you can expand the family activities to include those of the local neighborhood, town, community. This is where adding favorite places to visit, photos of local parks and buildings come into play.  Here are a couple of ideas in addition to those mentioned above to add your community culture to the classroom.

8) Event posters. If your community has regular events or places of interest, keep posters or fliers in your classroom.

9) Restaurant Menus. Bring menus from local restaurants into your play area. Families often frequent various restaurants and often restaurants represent a specific culture and are a very relevant way to connect children to that culture.

10) Local Maps. Add some local maps with places children are familiar  - biking trails, snowmobile trails, hiking, etc....

11) Community Helper Costumes. Adding dress up clothing for the children that reflect the helping adults that they come into contact with in their community. This could include mail person, fire fighter, police officer, doctor, nurse, etc...

12) Local Animals. Animals are a part of our community and the children's culture. Having puppets, pictures, figurines, wooden figures of local animals can also help to bring local culture into the classroom.. I

13) Other Local Items. What industries do you have in your area? What is unique about your community. How can you incorporate that into your learning environment? For example, in our area we have a lot of snow. Part of our culture involves snow removal. We have a child sized "yooper scooper" available to the children. We also live in a highly wooded area. We have logs and various wooden cookie blocks made from local wood.

The final level of cultural competency is the world. Expanding upon our local community. This is the most difficult area to make relevant to the children in your care. Again, as concrete learners the distance between areas and differences in cultures if not personally relevant or experienced can often be quite abstract. However there are some ways to bring the world to your classroom in meaningful ways.

14) Add maps or globes. Even though maps are an abstract representation, introducing children to maps can be helpful. Mark off where our community is on the map and add information at various locations where children have traveled or have relatives.

15) Use posters, dolls, dress up clothing, puzzles etc from around the world sparingly. Having a few items from outside the local culture but age appropriate for children will help introduce them to other cultures and traditions. (Having items that represent other cultures is important, but not as relevant as including pieces that are somehow connected to the children in care.)

(image from

16) Multicultural books. There are oodles of books that are appropriate for various ages of young children. One of our favorite series are the Children Just Like Me books. They show real pictures of children all around the world and each of the books focuses on something different- stories, traditions, etc.

So far, the ideas shared have primarily been items to add to your environment. In our program, most of our learning takes place due to intentional placement of materials in the environment. The next couple of ideas involve utilizing parents and community members as resources.

17) Invite parents or community members to volunteer during your program. Have them share a tradition, hobby, or interest of theirs with the children.

18) Take field trips to places of interest. Allow the children to experience local places and events first hand.

Of course, each classroom is going to have different elements that are important because each place will have different children enrolled. Making sure to respect the differences in family culture and allow the children and families to share about their culture is important.

If you have any other inexpensive ideas on how to incorporate culture into your classroom, I'd love to hear about it! Please take a moment to link your ideas up below:


Sara said...

love this. i couldn't agree more about building a concept of culture that is relevant to a child before introducing them to "the multicultural concept of culture". it makes their further learning so much more meaningful

Grace said...

Love this! I am sharing these ideas- thank you!

Anonymous said...

Excellent ideas Amy and I will be sharing some of these ideas when I train on this topic again this month. Sue Ellison

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