Early Childhood Education Journal

, Volume 44, Issue 2, pp 97–105 | Cite as

Young Children’s Curiosity About Physical Differences Associated with Race: Shared Reading to Encourage Conversation

  • Kristen M. KempleEmail author
  • Il Rang Lee
  • Michelle Harris


Many have called for re-examination of the “colorblind” philosophy to which some early educators have, tacitly or explicitly, adhered (e.g. Boutte et al. 2011; Derman-Sparks and Edwards 2010; Husband 2012). It has been argued that, while colorblind approaches may appear to be politically neutral, they actually exacerbate racial oppression. In this article, we advocate for a direct and active approach to raising conversations about race with younger preschool children. Based on the developmental nature of young children’s concepts of self and of other, our focus is on initiating discussions about concrete and observable physical aspects of human diversity associated with race. Young children notice and are curious about differences in skin color, hair texture, and facial features. Because these differences are salient, are accessible, and are of interest to young children they can serve as an effective starting point. We suggest shared reading of high quality illustrated children’s books, incorporating the principles of dialogic reading, as a potent springboard for discussions about race with very young children. Our purpose is to equip children, very early in their schooling, with a color-filled appreciation for and comfort with physical diversity of appearance. On that foundation, children may better proceed on the course of developing anti-racist attitudes.


Diversity Shared reading Anti-bias Anti-racist Preschool 


  1. Aboud, F. E. (2003). The formation of in-group favoritism and out-group prejudice in young children: Are they distinct attitudes? Developmental Psychology, 39(1), 48–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bainbridge, J. M., Pantaleo, S., & Ellis, M. (1999). Multicultural picture books: Perspectives from Canada. The Social Studies, 90(4), 183–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Boutte, G. S. (2008). Beyond the illusion of diversity: How early childhood teachers can promote social justice. The Social Studies, 99(4), 165–173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Boutte, G. S., Lopez-Robertson, J., & Powers-Costello, E. (2011). Moving beyond colorblindness in early childhood classrooms. Early Childhood Education Journal, 39(5), 335–342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Clark, K. B., & Clark, M. P. (1947). Racial identification and preference among negro children. In E. L. Hartley (Ed.), Readings in social psychology. New York, NY: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston.Google Scholar
  6. Clark, K. B., & Clark, M. P. (1950). Emotional factors in racial identification and preference in Negro children. The Journal of Negro Education, 19(3), 341–350.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cochran-Smith, M. (1995). Color-blindness and basket-making are not the answers: Confronting the dilemmas of race, culture, and language diversity in teacher education. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 493–522.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Committee for Children. (2004). Woven word: Early literacy for life. Seattle: Committee for Children.Google Scholar
  9. Corr, C. A. (2003). Bereavement, grief, and mourning in death-related literature for children. OMEGA–Journal of Death and Dying, 48(4), 337–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cristol, D., & Gimbert, B. (2008). Racial perceptions of young children: A review of the literature post-1999. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36(2), 201–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Damon, W., & Hart, D. (1991). Self-understanding in childhood and adolescence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Derman-Sparks, L. (1989). Anti-bias curriculum: Tools for empowering young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.Google Scholar
  13. Derman-Sparks, L. (2008). Why an anti-bias curriculum? In W. Au (Ed.), Rethinking early childhood education (pp. 7–12). Milwaukee, WS: Rethinking Schools.Google Scholar
  14. Derman-Sparks, L., & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-bias education for young children and ourselves. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.Google Scholar
  15. Derman-Sparks, L., & Ramsey, P. G. (2006). What if all the kids are white? Anti-bias multicultural education and young children and families. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
  16. Duimstra, L. (2003). Teasing and name-calling: Using books to help students cope. Teacher Librarian, 31, 8–11.Google Scholar
  17. Earick, M. E. (2009). Racially equitable teaching: Beyond the whiteness of professional development for early childhood educators. New York, NY: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  18. Favazza, P. C., & Odom, S. L. (1997). Promoting positive attitudes of kindergarten-age children toward people with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 63(3), 405–418.Google Scholar
  19. Glover, R. J., & Smith, C. A. (1997). Racial attitudes of preschoolers: Age, race of examiner, and child care setting. Psychological Reports, 81, 719–722.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gregory, R. J., Canning, S. S., Lee, T. W., & Wise, J. C. (2004). Cognitive bibliotherapy for depression: A meta-analysis. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 35(3), 275–280.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hinchey, P. (2004). Finding freedom in the classroom: A practical introduction to critical theory. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.Google Scholar
  22. Husband, T. (2012). I don’t see color: Challenging assumptions about discussing race with young children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 39(6), 365–371.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Katz, P. A., & Kofkin, J. A. (1997). Race, gender, and young children. In S. S. Luthar, J. A. Burack, D. Cicchetti & J. Weisz (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology: Perspectives on adjustment, risk, and disorder (pp. 51–74). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Kelly, D. J., Quinn, P. C., Slater, A. M., Lee, K., Ge, L., & Pascalis, O. (2007). The other-race effect develops during infancy. Psychological Science, 18(12), 1084–1089.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kemple, K. M., & Lopez, M. (2009). Blue eyes, brown eyes, cornrows and curls: Building on books to explore physical diversity with preschool children. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 37(1), 23–31.Google Scholar
  26. Lee, G. L., & Johnson, W. (2000). The need for interracial storybooks in effective multicultural classrooms. Multicultural Education, 8(2), 27–29.Google Scholar
  27. Lee, R., Ramsey, P., & Sweeney, B. (2008). Engaging young children in activities and conversations about race and social class. Young Children, 63(6), 68–76.Google Scholar
  28. Mendoza, J., & Reese, D. (2001). Examining multicultural picture books for the early childhood classroom: Possibilities and pitfalls. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 3(2), 1–31.Google Scholar
  29. Nicholson, J. I., Pearson, Q. M., & Quinn, M. (2003). Helping children cope with fears: Using children’s literature in classroom guidance. Professional School Counseling, 7, 15–19.Google Scholar
  30. Page, P., & Regan, K. (2008). “Character” building: Using literature to connect with youth. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 16(4), 37–43.Google Scholar
  31. Prater, M. A., Johnstun, M. L., Dyches, T. T., & Johnstun, M. R. (2006). Using children’s books as bibliotherapy for at-risk students: A guide for teachers. Preventing School Failure, 50(4), 5–10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Pulido-Tobiassen, D., & Gonzalez-Mena, J. (1999). A place to begin: Working with parents on issues of diversity. Emeryville: California Tomorrow.Google Scholar
  33. Ramsey, P. G. (2009). Growing up with contradictions of race and class. In E. L. Essa & M. M. Burnham (Eds.), Informing our practice: Useful research on young children’s development (pp. 13–21). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.Google Scholar
  34. Salend, S. J., & Moe, L. (1983). Modifying nonhandicapped student’s attitudes toward their handicapped peers through children’s literature. Journal for Special Educators, 19, 22–28.Google Scholar
  35. Strasser, J. (2000). Beautiful me! Celebrating diversity through literature and art. Childhood Education, 77(2), 76–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Ullucci, K., & Battey, D. (2011). Exposing color-blindness/grounding color-consciousness. Urban Education, 46(6), 1195–1225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Wardle, F. (1992). Supporting biracial children in the school setting. Education and Treatment of Children, 15(2), 163–172.Google Scholar
  38. Whitehurst, G. J., Epstein, J. N., Angell, A. L., Payne, A. C., Crone, D. A., & Fischel, J. E. (1994). Outcomes of an emergent literacy intervention in head start. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(4), 542–555.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Whitehurst, G. J., Falcoo, F. L., Lonigan, C. J., Fischel, J. E., DeBaryshe, B. D., Valdez-Menchaca, M. C., & Caulfield, M. (1988). Accelerating language development through picture book reading. Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 552–558.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Whitehurst, G. J., Zevenberger, A. A., Crone, D. A., Schultz, M. D., Velting, O. N., & Fischel, J. E. (1999). Outcomes of an emergent literacy intervention from Head Start through second grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(2), 261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Zevenbergen, A. A., & Whitehurst, G. J. (2003). Dialogic reading: A shared picture book reading intervention for preschoolers. In A. van Kleek, S. A. Stahl, & E. B. Bauer (Eds.), On reading books to children: Parents and teachers (pp. 177–200). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar

Children’s Books

  1. Cisneros, S. (1994). Hairs ~ Pelitos. New York, NY: Knopf. Illustrations by Terry Ybanez. Describes, from a young child’s perspective, the diverse texture, color, and even smell of family members’ hair.Google Scholar
  2. Fox, M. (1997). Whoever you are. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace. Sandpiper. Illustrations by Leslie Staub. Carries the theme of how people are different yet basically the same.Google Scholar
  3. Hamanaka, S. (1994). All the colors of the earth. New York, NY: Morrow. Illustrations by S. Hamanaka. Celebrates outward physical differences while suggesting the basic ways in which children everywhere are the same in needing and deserving love.Google Scholar
  4. Hooks, B. (1999). Happy to be nappy. New York, NY: Jump at the Sun/Hyperion. Illustrations by Chris Raschka. An ode to the versatility of nappy hair.Google Scholar
  5. Intrater, R. G. (1995). Two eyes, a nose and a mouth. New York, NY: Scholastic. Photography by R. G. Intrater. Describes facial features captured in close-up photographs of adults and children of various racial and ethnic backgrounds.Google Scholar
  6. Katz, K. (1999). The colors of us. New York, NY: Holt. Illustrations by K. Katz. On a walk through the neighborhood, Lena notices the different shades of brown reflected in the skin of the friends she sees: ginger, peanut butter, coffee, honey.Google Scholar
  7. Pinkney, S. L. (2002). A rainbow all around me. New York, NY: Scholastic. Photography by Miles C. Pinkney. While the text described the colors of the rainbow, the close-up photography celebrates a wide variety of children.Google Scholar
  8. Rotner, S., & Kelly, S. M. (2010). Shades of people. New York, NY: Holiday House. Photography by Shelley Rotner.Points out that “…people come in many different shades. Not colors exactly, but shades” and “…you can’t tell what someone is like from the color of their skin”.Google Scholar
  9. Tyler, M. (2005). The skin you live in. Chicago: Chicago Children’s Museum. Photography by David Lee Csicsko. With rhythm and rhyme, this book invites room for conversation about friendship, acceptance, self-esteem, and diversity.Google Scholar
  10. Walsh, M. (2002). My nose, your nose. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. Illustrations by M. Walsh. Invites readers to tell what is unique about themselves.Google Scholar

Additional Resources

  1. Teaching tolerance: A project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Founded in 1991 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Teaching Tolerance is dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation’s children, and its website provides classroom activities, teaching kits, and links to professional development opportunities.Google Scholar
  2. Derman-Sparks, L., LeeKeenan, D., & Nimmo, J. (2014). Leading anti-bias early childhood programs: A guide for change. New York: Teachers College Press. This book focuses on the leader’s role in initiating and sustaining anti-bias education in programs for young children and their families. This work is not only about changing curriculum, but requires thoughtful, strategic, long-term planning that addresses all components of an early childhood program.Google Scholar
  3. Denevi, E., & Pastan, N. (2006). Helping Whites develop anti-racist identities: Overcoming their resistance to fighting racism. Multicultural Education, 14(2), 70–73. This journal article provides details of a white affinity group called AWARE (Association for White Anti-Racist Education) for white students interested in becoming actively anti-racist.Google Scholar
  4. Gonzalez-Mena, J. & Pulido-Tobiassen, D. (2011). Teaching “diversity”: A place to begin. This online article provides tips for teachers working with families and young children, to help children to celebrate and value diversity and to be proud of themselves and their family traditions, as well as to teach children to respect and value people regardless of the color of their skin, their physical abilities, or the language they speak.Google Scholar
  5. Johnson, L. (2002). “My eyes have been opened”: White teachers and racial awareness. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 153–167. This research article describes themes identified in life-history interviews of six White teachers of racially diverse classrooms. This article can be used to help teachers examine their own perceptions of race.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Kupetz, B. (2012). Do you see what I see? Appreciating diversity in early childhood settings. This online article provides suggestions for responding supportively to young children’s comments and questions about human differences.Google Scholar
  7. McIntosh, P. (2009a). White privilege: An account to spend. Wellesley, MA: National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum. This publication encourages readers to think about using unearned advantage—privilege—in a constructive way, in order to weaken unjust systems of advantage and discrimination.Google Scholar
  8. McIntosh, P. (2009b). White people facing race: Uncovering the myths that keep racism in place. Wellesley, MA: National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum. This publication explores the reasons why conversations about racism and privilege are difficult for many white people.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kristen M. Kemple
    • 1
    Email author
  • Il Rang Lee
    • 1
  • Michelle Harris
    • 1
  1. 1.University of FloridaGainesvilleUSA

Personalised recommendations