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Critical Conversation with Young Children: Ages 3-7

Today on Instagram Vera the Tutu Teacher posted the question:

What will you say tomorrow, about today?

It got me thinking.  What will I say?  Ultimately I’ve decided it’s not about what I will say, but what have I been doing to support developing these conversations.  Context is so important when developing understanding of difficult topics with children.

I do not believe in shying away from having age appropriate conversations on difficult topics, or protecting children from all the realities of our world.  I believe in having careful discussions developed to explore these topics with the guidance of a book, or series of books.  History will forever cycle if we do not engage young children by empowering them with the knowledge to know more and do better.

What happened today in the United States was pivotal.  Parents and educators are grappling with how to have conversations with children.  The depth of those conversations really depends on the age of the children involved.  However, the framework for having conversations can be developed in the early years (age 3 and up).  There is a tendency to want to sugar coat difficult conversations or avoid them altogether.  I’m an advocate for proactively preparing children with a background to engage in dialogues so they are better able to process the world they live in.  With a framework in place, you provide them with a context for understanding and navigating difficult experiences.

Kids are perceptive and even if they don’t understand what is going on, they understand the adults in their lives are shaken.  It’s a lot like grief.  The concept of death and finality is quite foreign to a young child, but when the adults in their lives behave so drastically different then their expectations, they understand the tragedy from that perspective.  This experience is no different.  The adults in their lives will be visibly shaken.

How do I advise parents to have conversations and how do I tackle this in my programs?  

The families and kids I work with in my programs are familiar with what hate looks like and how powerful leaders control countries and do really terrible things.  They understand that race, religion, sex and difference can all be reasons that people have been treated poorly, or even killed.  The kids I work with speak the Language of Kindness, they know what it means to show empathy and they understand in age appropriate ways that the world is not perfect.

This is not a conversation you can have in one day.  It is not a topic you can read about only once.  It is so much bigger then that, and this is so important to understand when you are teaching young children about diversity, inclusion, race and ultimately… hatred.  This means the conversation I can have tomorrow will look a lot different than the conversation you might need to start tomorrow.  

I’m a strong advocate for having important conversations and I build those topics into my programs progressively.  Just as you cannot have a full conversation tomorrow, I can only provide you with a snippet today, but I will build out my resources to support those who are interested in learning how I develop these topics with parents, caregivers and children.

An Overview of How to Develop Conversations Around Power, Race, Diversity and Division with Young Children

I refer to my biographical history picture books as ‘The Change Makers’.  These books feature people throughout history who tackled a topic of social injustice and made a difference.  I typically read 1-2 of these books a month, building each topic to support the next.  The goal of each book is to foster important conversations and draw attention to topics of social injustice or inequity.  The beautiful thing about a picture book, is that it provides enough context to have age appropriate conversations without overwhelming a child.

Leading into the fall, I knew I wanted to prepare the kindergarten kids and families I work with the tools for having conversations around social injustice, race, religion, difference of opinion, country leadership etc.  To do this I prepared a series of books that established topics to build out a dialogue.  Using biographies and history as my guide, we read stories together and did activities to support our learning.  For this blog I will only summarize the books we read and the themes we addressed.

Picture Books:

  1. Little People Big Dreams – Rosa Parks by Lisbeth Kaiser & Marta Angelo
  2. Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousfzai
  3. A Poppy is to Remember by Heather Patterson & Ron Lightburn
  4. A Tree in the Courtyard by Jeff Gottsfeld & Peter McCarty
  5. Little People Big Dreams – Anne Frank by Ma Isabel Sanchez Vegara

Using  These Books to Introduce Topics/Ideas:

  1. People were/are treated differently because of the colour of their skin.  Rosa stood up against this because it was unfair and wrong.
  2. Girls were/are prevented from going to school because they are girls.  Malala stood up against this and told the whole world her story.
  3. Wars happened and people died because of things like skin colour, religion, gender etc.  Every year we reflect on the two Great Wars using the Poppy as a symbol.  Wars happen when the leaders of a country do not have the same values.  When those values treat people with unfairness or cause them harm, countries fight.
  4. Children are affected by War and hatred too.  They have to hide from the leaders who don’t like them simply because of the colour of their hair, their skin or the things they believe in (religion).
  5. One of the most famous children to be affected by one of the most intolerant leaders to date left a legacy of stories written as a journal.

How These Topics Will Support Your Conversations Around the Crisis Happening Now

By weaving these stories together children will understand that race is a cause for unfairness and injustice.  They know that leaders have treated people brutally and their decisions have lead to war.  They understand that it’s important to uphold certain values and when those values are not held, hatred, fighting, and ultimately war can and does happen.  Kids are not abstract thinkers and history provides them with concrete examples of what happens when injustice prevails.

Specifically for the families and children in my programs, I can encourage them to make links between what we have learned and what is happening.  How the leader of a government is not following the rules so people are beginning to fight.  We can talk about how people are being treated unfairly because of the colour of their skin.  Using this framework we can have ongoing dialogues linking our background knowledge with what is happening to make things more understandable.  Most importantly, we can develop conversations to support ensuring these young children understand the past in order to make sense of the present and change the future.