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Right from the Start

Right from the Start is the title Of the National Association of State Boards of Education report on Early Childhood Education, and is one of those wonderful phrases that expresses multiple meanings simultaneously. (Everybody Counts, the title of a report on the future of mathematics education by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, is another such phrase.)

In the case of young children, the opportunity to design educational experiences of all kinds that impact them in their formative years (right from the start) and share with them our hopes for the kinds of values and attitudes that will guide them through their lives (right from the start) is a significant challenge. It is a challenge shared by parents in their homes, early childhood educators in preschools and primary classrooms, and, of course, docents in a wide variety of museum settings whenever the “little ones'” come to visit.

Fortunately, when the specific challenge faced is that of fostering multicultural awareness and sensitivity, the field of early childhood education has had an excellent “track record” of concern and commitment. And this dedication has resulted in the publication of numerous resources as helpful to docents as they are to the early childhood educators for whom they were originally intended.

All of the experts are in agreement with what anyone who has been around young children for any period of time has learned through trial and error. And that is that experiences designed for young children must be developmentally appropriate. They must be consistent with what is known about the physical, social, and cognitive development of children at that age. Maria Shoemaker described many of these characteristics in her article. “Watching Children Grow: A Guide to Childhood Development” that appeared in the Autumn 1992 issue of The Docent Educator (pp. 6-9).

She and others agree that, to be successful, experiences for young children must:

  • be concrete and specific
  • provide opportunities for activity
  • accept that children at this stage have short attention spans, little impulse control, and inaccurate notions of time and space
  • be connected to the child’s own reality.

These guidelines are important whenever young children visit a museum, historical site, zoo, or botanical garden. When we add to these guidelines concern for multicultural awareness and sensitivity, two additional challenges result. The first involves the docents’ own attitudes toward differences among and between cultures and how these differences are exemplified in behavior, language, interests, and so forth. The second has to do with the content of a museum (zoo, botanical garden, or historical site) visit. With the latter the challenge is to plan an experience that is culturally affirming rather than one that is unintentionally culturally assaultive.

Both of these challenges require that docents have a sense of culture as an idea rather than externals like costumes, celebrations, and communal activities. Carol Brunson Phillips says it well:

Culture is more than a collection of artifacts and holidays. It is in its broadest sense a set of rules for behavior by which we organize and give meaning to the world.

The ‘enculturation’ process involves all the things that families do to enable their children to know and understand their group’s shared ideas, values, beliefs, and behaviors.

This participation in an idea system gives a child the power to influence his or her environment and to have an impact on the world.

It is important to note that this definition doesn’t limit culture to one’s racial or ethnic group membership but includes gender, religion, socioeconomic class, etc. All of those aspects of culture remind us that the term “multicultural” is broader than the term “multiethnic.”

What’s also critical about this definition is its applicability to both the challenges mentioned previously, the multicultural dynamics of visits/tours and the multicultural content of visits/tours.

When considering the multicultural dynamics of a group of young children visiting an institution, docents must first look inwards to examine their own attitudes. Young children, because the words they use are often more limited than the concepts they can understand, learn more powerful lessons from the attitudes of the docents (and their behaviors that reflect these attitudes) than they do from the specific materials considered during a visit.

What this means very practically is that docents need to reflect upon whether they associate certain kinds of behavior with children from particular socioeconomic classes; whether they have unarticulated assumptions about what would interest a little boy or a little girl; whether they find themselves making judgments when children use nonstandard English; whether they find themselves tensing up a bit when they learn that a group of children from a particular neighborhood, summer program, daycare center, or elementary school will be “their group” to guide for a visit or tour.

This kind of self-examination is often difficult, sometimes embarrassing, and always revealing. However a willingness to engage in such reflection is the first step toward multicultural awareness and sensitivity at the level that young children understand it best — through how they are treated. Young children are very sensitive to the nonverbal messages conveyed by adults. They identify (and respond to) adult frustration, anxiety, and tension even when they don’t have language to describe what they are experiencing.

While personal reflection is an important first step, it is only a first step. What must follow requires, in many cases, even more courage. Docents must be willing to engage in honest and thoughtful conversation about what they have learned about themselves. Initially these discussions can be with other docents, but they can’t end there because docents as a group often don’t represent a great deal of cultural diversity.

As a speaker at numerous national and regional museum symposia, I have found my audiences to be overwhelmingly female, white (or European- American, as my African- American students like to say), economically secure, and well-educated. This is not a judgment, but a fact, and a reasonable one given the history of docent programs, the time commitment required to be a docent, the composition of traditional museum audiences (which might lead one to an interest in becoming a docent), etc. However, no matter how reasonable this fact is, it is not one without consequences when efforts are made at multicultural awareness and sensitivity. What this implies is that docents must be willing to engage in conversations with those whose experiences have been different from their own — different socially, different racially, different economically, different educationally, and so on. The purpose of these discussions is to learn firsthand about cultural diversity and to experience personally that differences in culture (culture, according to Carol Brunson Phillips’s definition) can lead one to make very different decisions about the nature of the world and one’s place in it.

Even this isn’t enough however! The necessary third step in attending to multicultural dynamics in planning experiences for young children is docent peer observation. This process requires docents to invite a colleague to shadow them on tours for the explicit purpose of observing how diversity is respected and encouraged. While there is almost always something at least a bit intimidating about being observed by a peer, and there is the danger that the individuals being observed won’t “be themselves,” the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. An external observer can often see what individuals do not perceive themselves. (Video-taping tours is also a very powerful learning tool in this regard.)

The major portion of this article so far has been spent on the multicultural dynamics of visits to museums, zoos, botanical gardens, and historical sites because for young children these dynamics often are the multicultural content of the visit. Because their sense of time is focused on the present, it is difficult for them to understand abstract concepts like culture and society. Because they have short attention spans and are physically active, it is difficult for them to just look at something. So, what they are coming to visit is often less important than how they are treated while they are visiting . . . at least as far as multicultural awareness and sensitivity are concerned.

However, even given all the above, there are times when a visit to an institution may have a focus that is specifically multicultural. A collection of Native American artifacts, or a zoo tour highlighting animals used for transportation around the world, or a display of inventions and discoveries made possible by women scientists, or the Tahitian paintings of Gaugin come to mind. When opportunities for such visits or tours exist, the first question to consider is whether they are suitable for young children. If that question is answered in the affirmative, the next question that must be addressed is how to deal with content in a “culturally affirming” manner.

This notion of cultural affirmation can perhaps be understood through a consideration of its opposite, cultural assault. A culturally assaultive environment is one in which a focus on differences, albeit well-intentioned, “hurts minorities’ feelings and makes them feel left out,” according to Clark, DeWolf, and Clark (p.5). In their provocative article, they provide a list of elements that characterize a culturally assaultive classroom. I have adapted the list to museum settings.

Culturally Assaultive Practices to be Avoided

  • Discussing cultures only from the perspective of the past, thus limiting a culture to a particular time and place, such as the “Indians” at the first Thanksgiving
  • Emphasizing differences rather than similarities between groups, for example, a focus on exotic foods, clothing, housing, etc., rather than the fact that all human beings need food, clothing, and shelter
  • Using language that objectifies a group (“sit like Indians”) or symbols that emphasize group characteristics and ignore differences within groups (i.e. – sombreros, rickshaws, etc.)
  • Planning exhibits that focus on ethnic minorities and other groups only during certain times of the year (Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Women’s History Month, etc.) rather than infusing exhibits with cultural diversity throughout the year.

In considering these practices to be avoided, it’s important to remember that when such practices are incorporated into tours or visits, it’s not because of a desire to misrepresent or embarrass members of various cultures. Rather, it is simply the result of a lack of awareness of how such practices are culturally insensitive. (But here, as in every other significant aspect of life, ignorance is no excuse.)

In the past, many of these practices have characterized educational experiences with young children because their (the children’s) lack of sophistication makes it very tempting to simplify concepts in ways that ultimately do more harm than good.

To turn these well-intentioned but culturally assaultive practices into culturally affirming activities, docents need to find ways to infuse attention to cultural diversity in every visit a young child makes.

Possibilities include:

  • Encouraging children to find connections between the content of the visit and their own lives, for example, discussing the daily activities of children in historical or ethnographic exhibitions or noticing families, pets, friends, etc. depicted in works of art
  • Focusing on the processes that undergird the exhibition rather than the products; for example, what it’s like to explore someplace new or what’s hard and what’s easy about making something
  • Asking children to imagine how interesting their lives would be if various aspects of diversity were present, for example, if they had to care for a particular zoo animal or if they had a particular plant in their backyard
  • Emphasizing on tours questions that have multiple “right” answers (rather than those with only one correct response), for example, “How many ways could you show someone you were happy?” or “What name would you give this plant, animal, tool, art work, etc.?”
  • Addressing the issue of differences directly when dealing with content that is strikingly different from the children’s own lives, for example, listing similarities and differences between and among the specific children on a particular visit or discussing with children times that they like to do the same thing as everyone else and times that they would rather do something different.

These suggestions are only a beginning, only a start, for docents concerned about fostering multicultural awareness and sensitivity among young children. However, such a start must be made if their visits to zoos, museums, historical sites, and botanical gardens are to be “right from the start.”

Books on Multicultural Sensitivity

Two very practical and powerful books on the topic multicultural sensitivity are:

Teaching and Learning in a Diverse World: Multicultural Education for Young Children by Patricia Ramsey (New York: Teachers College Press, 1987) and Anti-bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children by Louise Derman-Sparks (Washington. DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1989). There have also been numerous articles written on this topic in Young Children, the publication of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Three helpful resources used for this article were: Nurturing Diversity for Today’s Children and Tomorrow’s Leaders, by Carol Brunson Phillips (January 1988, pp. 42-47), Meeting the Challenge of Diversity, by Jones and Derman-Sparks (January 1992, pp. 12-18), and Teaching Teachers to Avoid Having Culturally Assaultive Classrooms by Clark, DeWolf, and Clark (July 1992, pp. 4-9).



Sister Eileen Rice. O.P.. is a college instructor and Director of Teacher Education at Siena Heights College in Adrian. ML Formerly a secondary school principal and junior high and elementary classroom teacher. Sr. Eileen Rice was named the Phi Delhi Kappa Professional Educator of the Year in 1987. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Siena Heights College, a Master’s in Mathematics Education from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in Education Administration from the University of Michigan. Sister Eileen Rice has been a presenter at numerous workshops for educators, parents, and students, and authored an article entitled, “The Impact of Learning Styles, ” which appeared in the Autumn 1992 issue of The Docent Educator.

Rice, O.P., Sister Eileen. “Right from the Start,” The Docent Educator 3.2 (Winter 1993): 10-11.


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