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BLOG: Talking about race in the early years

There has been a great deal in the media recently on the subject of race. Families may have been discussing issues of race at home, and young children will be picking up messages about race. What does this mean for us in the early years? Race affects everyone - adults and children. We know that children's early experiences can affect the rest of their lives. Early years practitioners have both a legal and moral duty to take into account a child race and ensure every child develops a positive sense of self and is able to fulfil their potential.  

Race is a social construct. There is only one race - the human race but society has separated people according in to different groups and uses specific words to describe each group as we have seen used in the media recently - white and BAME - Black Asian Minority Ethnic.

Why do we need to be proactive and talk about race in our settings?

Every setting is different - some may have children from many different backgrounds with different skin tones and colours. Others may not be so diverse.

Whatever our setting, we need to remember that we live in a world that is diverse. Children will see, hear, and learn about race in many ways – through their own lived experiences, TV programmes and other media, books, through conversations at home and in settings. We need to acknowledge this and ensure that children are receiving positive messages around race. We also need to challenge negative messages so children and adults respect and value themselves and each other.

Everyone's experiences are affected by race. Some people from BAME backgrounds may experience discrimination and racism. The Steven Lawrence inquiry report by Macpherson (1999) said 'racism in general terms consists of conduct or words or practices which disadvantage or advantage people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. In its more subtle form it is as damaging as in its overt form'.  

As early years practitioners we often like to think that race plays no part in young children's lives. Some settings say 'young children do not notice race and we treat everyone the same here'. However, if we take a 'colour blind' approach in our settings we can unintentionally disadvantage all children. We need to acknowledge that everyone notices the colour of a person's skin and that race is an important part of an individual's identity. We might be surprised at how early children start to notice skin colour. Katz and Kofkin (1997) found that babies of six months old looked longer at a face of a different skin colour than they did of an unfamiliar face who had the same skin colour as them. More recent research by Professor Kang Lee of the University of Toronto says that two of his recent studies (2017) indicate that racial bias may arise in babies as young as six to nine months of age. So rather than treating everyone the same, we need to see people as individuals and treat people equally.

What can we do to support all children and ensure we are giving positive messages about race?

Children will ask questions and make comments. We need to think about how we respond to these. We need be proactive and talk about race in an accurate and age appropriate way because, if we don't, children will pick up messages from other people and places. We also need to be aware of our own attitudes and biases. We all have them and professional discussions in training, staff meetings and supervision can help explore these and what they mean for practice. Having a diverse staff team reinforces positive messages to children and families as does talking to parents about their experiences and sharing what we are doing in our setting.

Many settings have some amazing resources and we need to think about how we incorporate race into all areas of the curriculum e.g. having varied skin tone crayons and paint; doing self portraits; pictures, art work and material from all around the world; role play resources e.g. hair extensions, a variety of combs, hair coverings and hair magazines in the hairdressing corner; a variety of different music styles; resources for hair and skin care e.g. sand hats, hair coverings; positive images and use of language in books; use of children's photos e.g. on table mats, in maths games; using persona dolls, taking about feelings and much more.

We need to use resources well. It is possible to use resources in a negative way e.g. thinking that acknowledging black history month is all we need to do; practitioners making negative comments when putting out resources or not sitting down and using them in a positive way. Whilst no early years practitioner would consciously do anything to disadvantage children, we need to be aware of our actions. Children also pick up messages from what they don't see and hear and this can be damaging for all children's development. We need to actively recognise and celebrate difference and diversity.  

Acknowledging race is an important part of our role as early years practitioners in which ever part of the country or whatever setting we work in. We need to think about how we incorporate it into every aspect of our work e.g. policies and procedures, planning, every area of the curriculum, the learning environment, recourses, teachable moments. Everyone needs to talk about race, it is not just one person’s role. We need to talk together as a staff team, with children, families and others. Sometimes we will make mistakes and get things wrong. It is what we do with these mistakes that is important so we learn from them and constantly reflect on, audit and evaluate our practice. Most importantly we need to empower children to respect and value themselves and each other and ensure they develop a positive sense of identify and feel proud of who they are.

About the author

Rosalind Millam is a trainer, consultant and author. She is a CPD registered presenter and has written a book on Anti-Discriminatory practice published by Contiuum. For more information about her visit -


Further resources from PACEY

Take a look at our 'Promoting positive diversity' spotlight which has lots of other ideas and additional resources you can encorporate into your setting. We also have a variety of dolls available in the PACEY shop which you could use in your setting.

Brilliant blog to the point and refreshing to read. All early years practitioners should read this.
07/06/2021 22:20:38

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