Children's Literature to Help Young Children Construct Understandings about Diversity: Perspectives from Four Cultures

By Potter, Gillian; Thirumurthy, Vidya et al. | Childhood Education, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Children's Literature to Help Young Children Construct Understandings about Diversity: Perspectives from Four Cultures


Potter, Gillian, Thirumurthy, Vidya, Szecsi, Tunde, Salakaja, Manana, Childhood Education


   He ate and drank the precious words,
   His spirit grew robust,
   He knew no more that he was poor,
   Or that his frame was dust.
   He danced along the dingy ways,
   And this bequest of wings,
   Was but a book. What liberty
   A loosened spirit brings.

(Emily Dickinson,
cited in Saxby & Winch, 1987, p. 3)

The power of children's literature in enhancing young children's understandings of critical issues in their social worlds is often left untapped by early childhood educators. We live in a complex world. Diversity and differences are the norm, not the exception. Children deserve the opportunity to engage in experiences that enable them to appreciate this diversity and difference while, at the same time, being aware of sameness. Well-chosen children's literature can be a rich resource for educators as they support young children's quest to better understand the world around them.

CHILDREN'S CONSTRUCTION OF UNDERSTANDINGS ABOUT THEIR WORLD

Over time, many early childhood educators and parents worldwide have come to recognize young children's skills in the construction of new knowledge. Recent research on brain development has sent educators scrambling for ways to engage children in a variety of learning experiences. In addition, increasing diversity challenges teachers worldwide to find appropriate cultural experiences that are meaningful to all children. Potter (2008) asserts, "Early childhood educators have long talked about individual differences. Now, in this rapidly changing and increasingly diverse society, those differences are challenging teachers as never before" (p. 68).

Social constructivism acknowledges all learners as members of a culture that serves as a lens through which the members view their world and make sense of it (Rogoff & Lave, 1984; Vygotsky, 1962; Wertsch, 1985). Young children's cultural identity is affected by such factors as ethnicity, race, gender, religion, socio-economic status, and family education levels, and children's perceptions of the world are colored by these factors. In order for children to construct understandings of their world, teachers must build on the unique knowledge that children bring from home and address their social concerns in order to build bridges between the familiar and the new (Moll & Gonzalez, 2004). Children's literature is a powerful resource that teachers can use to help children enjoy their known world and then travel beyond to explore the unfamiliar. Therefore, an appropriate selection of children's stories should be part of the socio-cultural constructivist repertoire of early childhood educators.

THE POWER OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE IN LEARNING

Stories have a universal appeal to children and adults alike. In general, literature reflects experience of life and, if the literature has integrity, it offers images of life as vast as human society and culture (Saxby & Winch, 1987). When the image of life is within the sensory, emotional, cognitive, social, and moral experiences of a child, it is children's literature (Glazer, 1986). When the text and illustrations are presented in a way that a child can understand them, it is children's literature. And when the text enables a transaction between it and the child so that the child can take from the text in proportion to his life experiences and perceptions of his world, it is appropriate children's literature.

Children's literature can give children wings (Saxby & Winch, 1987). It can enhance their language development, foster their intellectual development, and support their aesthetic and creative abilities, not just through beautiful illustrations, but also through imagery evoked by the language. It can support children's personality development by offering an opportunity to explore cultural identity and diversity, enhancing self-esteem, providing a sense of security, and explaining trauma, feelings, and emotions.

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