I’m lucky. A classroom of wiggly, wonderful 3-year-olds is just down the hallway from my office. Last week, I got to sit in during circle time. Now, if you go in nearly any school in December, it's filled with excitement. It's palpable in the air; the room seems ready to explode with almost no reason at all. This day — this classroom, this circle — was no exception.
At this time of year, the 3 and 4 year old children at this nursery school learn about Festivals of Light, including Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali and Kwanzaa. The teachers present each festival with excitement, respect and delight. Since kids learn experientially, they are taught about the festivals in circle time, as through crafts, cooking, singing and games. Parents are invited in to help share in the learning and celebrating.
With a short reminder on what they learned last week about Christmas, the circle teacher started explaining another Festival —Hanukkah. The moment the word Hanukkah came out of her mouth, the simmering excitement was revealed full-force. There was no holding back.
“We have a Christmas tree!” proclaimed one girl.
“We have Hanukkah at my house!” shouted another.
“We have Christmas AND Hanukkah at MY house!” said a third, jumping with glee as she gave her announcement.
If you look around this circle of kids and talk to their parents, you notice many different faiths, cultures, races and traditions. The teachers know it. The parents know it. But the little kids probably don’t know it yet — at least not in an organized way. But they're on their way toward figuring it out.
How they figure it out matters quite a bit. 3 and 4-year-olds are just beginning to realize the complexities. At this point, they certainly know if they are a boy or a girl. But they still have a long way to go toward understanding how they are alike and how they might be different from others. They can’t yet understand things like religion, skin color, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation.
Add a few more years though, and they will have grown leaps and bounds in their understanding of how different people can be — even while living in the same community. They’ll know the ins and outs of those Festivals of Light and a whole lot more about this great big world.
Kids are sponges for learning. It’s fun for them. They are always in learning mode, soaking in facts and the attitudes of those around them. How the grown-ups (teachers, parents, and neighbors — i.e., us) in their lives teach them about differences includes the words used, but also the subtle — and not so subtle — perspectives we hold ourselves. They learn the facts as well as other things such as
- respect (and prejudice),
- compassion (and callousness),
- cooperation (and disagreement),
- love (and hatred),
- politeness (and rudeness)
- fairness (and discrimination)
After sitting in on circle time, I thought how glad I was to see the group learn about our differences with excitement, respect and delight. I thought about what it would be like if all children in Scarsdale grew up enjoying their own family traditions, as well as learning to respect the traditions of different families. I hope each child is growing up that way in our diverse village.
And then I got carried away and thought about what it would be like if all the kids throughout the United States, and even the whole world, were raised this way as well.
I hope we can build bridges toward a climate where we can raise kids who tolerate and respect each other while enjoying each others' differences.
Special thanks to the Greenville Church Community Nursery School children and staff for inspiring this article.