This blog post was contributed by Pauline Slot (University Utrecht)
It is Monday morning. The children slowly arrive at the preschool in The Netherlands. Emin and Enes immediately dive into the house corner upon arrival. The girls always meet up and like to play together. They are completely absorbed in their pretend play and speak alternately Turkish and Dutch. They have a lot of fun together.
Every child wants to feel that they are seen and heard; that they belong. This applies to Dutch children and also, perhaps even more, to children from different cultural backgrounds or who speak a different language at home. How do you ensure that all children have the feeling that they belong in the group?
Looking at the example described above, what would be the best way to respond? Let the children keep on playing? Or show interest in their pretend play and their use of language (both Turkish and Dutch)? Maybe ask another, Dutch, child to play with Emin and Enes and see what happens? Or tell the children that speaking Dutch is mandatory? In order to answer this dilemma, we first have to find out why the children speak Turkish while playing.
From security to inclusiveness
People look for like-minded people and that also applies to children. Try to imagine being a Turkish child going to the preschool for the first time and only speak a few words of Dutch. Everything is new and exciting. You cannot completely comprehend what is happening. You look for support, familiarity and recognition and find this with a child who speaks the same language. Support, familiarity and recognition is essential for the well-being and sense of security of a child. Only when a child feels safe, he or she can develop and learn the Dutch language.
Four tips to promote inclusiveness:
- Acknowledge the home language of children as part of their identity. Be open and use other home languages when this is functional, for example to make a child feel safe, or to learn from each other, for example how to say “chicken, cow or sheep” in different languages. Also, explain that the majority language is the language of all of us.
- Talk to each other about differences and similarities between people. It can be about visible characteristics, such as hair or eye colour. Also, try to go a little further by talking about things that are not immediately visible, such as a hobby or something that a child likes to do. Do this with an open and gender-neutral attitude (avoid stereotyping based on gender or cultural background). This can improve and enhance empathy in children.
- Provide play or activities where children work together as a group and encourage children to help each other and work together. This way everyone can experience that they belong.
- Take a critical look at your materials and toys. Can all children from different backgrounds identify with this? Are there people from different backgrounds in the books you read? Are there multiple skin tones available for colouring or painting?
Many groups include children from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. To ensure that every child feels seen and heard, it is important not only to pay attention to the differences between children, but also to reflect on the similarities. It is important to give children the message that all (other) home languages are important and contribute to who they are and where they come from. At the same time, Dutch is the language that connects all children in preschool. For this reason, it is also important that children speak Dutch with each other. Explain this to children and use the home language as support to learn from and with each other. Show interest in the different home languages and use them while learning Dutch. For example, make a list of commonly used words in all different languages spoken by the children and display this on the wall at preschool (ask parents for help to make this list).
Diversity means acknowledging that there are differences between people. Inclusiveness means embracing those differences and ensuring that everyone belongs. As a pedagogical professional, be aware of this as and try to remember why children do what they do, so that you can support them even better.