Diversity means differences that come in the forms of race, culture, language, religion, age, abilities and many more. It is an important topic that needs to be taught with tact due to a myriad of reasons often tied to contextual sensitivity. Researchers and educators across the world are outlining ways that best help impart diversity in academic institutions, workplaces and even at home. Such is the importance of diversity to the world.
Blessed with various races, religions and cultures, Malaysia is home to diverse people who live in harmony. Everyone here exercises mutual respect and tolerance. This should not come as surprise given that Malaysians are exposed to diversity daily, so much so that it has become second nature to them.
Sustaining and enhancing multicultural awareness becomes imperative in the Malaysian context. The very diversity we are enjoying now should not be taken for granted, but to be instilled at a young age. This means, early childhood education plays an important role in nurturing diverse, rich minds.
In this article, we have outlined some practical ways to teach diversity to young children and subsequently, increase multicultural awareness both in multiracial and homogenous countries.
Ways to Teach Diversity and Increase Multicultural Awareness Among Young Children
1. Read books and watch animation with diverse characters
Many adages describe reading to be humankind’s most powerful tool to gain a better understanding of themselves and the world. But of course, the world has progressed so much that animation is also considered a learning tool.
In developing diversity, reading, as well as animation, serves as a free and great tool to enrich learning experiences, especially in young children. Studies hypothesize that a rich representation – of culture, religion and abilities – in literature contributes to the healthy growth of emotional intelligence in adults and children alike.
Exposure to multicultural reading materials including picture books with diverse characters allows children from different backgrounds to strengthen their bond as they appreciate and respect each other’s different beliefs and practices. Born out of this is cultural sensitivity – a commodity for future leaders to thrive in the 21st century. In other words, the more aware children are, the more critical they become in understanding world issues to contribute as global citizens.
2. Celebrate cultural festivals
Celebrating cultural festivals is probably the easiest and most exciting way to learn about and appreciate different cultures. In countries like Malaysia, cultural festivals, such as Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Deepavali, Kaamatan and Christmas occur throughout the year, giving children opportunities to immerse themselves in cultures while having fun in doing so.
Some preschools go the extra mile to ensure that their students not only celebrate these festivals, but also learn about different cultures and practices. Implied learning can be opted because children are not able to distil complex concepts. Activities such as singing songs, dancing along and storytelling are a few examples of what children can do.
Fun and educational approaches to teaching diversity to children can also be stretched to asking them to participate in exciting challenges. #20Qdeeds20Days is a challenge that imparts character education to young children through performing small acts of kindness such as sharing, helping, giving, and many more with their beloved family and friends in conjunction with Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Ramadan.
3. Set a good example
When faced with differences and challenges, children think about the best course of action to take. Their responses to these scenarios usually reflect their immediate environment. Therefore, parents and teachers must be cognizant of how they present themselves to impressionable young children.
In the topic of diversity, grownups must embrace diversity themselves first before expecting children to possess it. Positive behaviours such as showing constant support for diversity and empathy will be emulated by children. Some ways to take advantage of this are confronting prejudice or stereotypes when you see any and using respectful language when describing differences. For already culturally diverse households, parents can expose their young children to diversity simply by practising their beliefs and values, and actively affirming their cultural roots.
4. Choose a multicultural learning environment
Children spend most of their time at school, so it is important to choose the right learning environment for them. Specifically, one that cherishes and nurtures diversity. From the actual physical environment to the curriculum offered and fees, parents ought to consider how the preschool embeds cultural experiences for children.
Karen Stephen of Parenting Exchange suggests asking questions such as, “Do their books reflect diverse characters?”, “Do their songs include examples of different styles of music?” and “Do they have instruments used worldwide, such as drums, rhythm sticks, rain sticks, and maracas?”
United We Stand, Divided We Fall
Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, once said, “We may have different religions, different languages, different coloured skin, but we all belong to one human race.” And he could not have been more right. Children of today will become the world’s leaders and respectable global citizens in the future. Parents and teachers are responsible to equip young children with cultural awareness and sensitivity. They can start by providing reading materials with diverse characters, celebrating cultural festivals, setting a good example, and choosing a multicultural learning environment.