by Alix Tonsgard

Increasing the quality of early childhood programs has come with much effort to create environments that are safe, welcoming, and respectful of children and families of all abilities and backgrounds. Providing children with an informed international perspective isn’t simply an important educational opportunity, but a way to provide greater understanding and empathy for others.

Young children are driven by an innate need to understand how the world operates. Noticing and being interested in differences is one manifestation of this drive to learn. These differences can pertain to objects and surroundings but also to people. In fact, earlier on than most people realize, children become aware of and intrigued by the difference in the way people look and behave.

Research conducted by Phyllis A. Katz, while working as a professor at the University of Colorado, found babies as young as six-months of age would stare at photographs of adults who were of a different color than their parents for significantly longer periods of time. There was clear evidence that children notice all types of differences, in race, ability, and more. When a young child makes comments or asks questions about such things, it is their way of attempting to make sense of their observation and thereby make sense of their world.

As a result, cultural diversity is a particularly important concept to grasp during childhood. Understanding that people are not all the same will enable your children to embrace and value the things that make each person or group of people different. Learning about other cultures helps children understand and feel engaged in the world. They become interested in how other people live, their cultural norms and values, different religions, and languages. I think it helps them see the beauty of different cultures and appreciate the differences and similarities in how others live.

Alix Tonsgard is an early learning specialist at the DuPage Children’s Museum.