Exploring ‘Same’ and ‘Different’ in a Preschool World

By Janet Schmidt

I recently read On the Go to a class of 13 4- and 5-year-old children who were studying transportation. The well-crafted picture book shows how people in different parts of the world get from place to place. I hoped that seeing images that were different from what they see every day would inspire the class to make comments and ask questions about the wonderful diversity in people’s experiences around the world. We would notice similarities and differences together. I was ready to go.

But maybe I wasn’t as ready as I had thought. I opened the book to page one, which shows a photograph of a woman from Ghana with her baby on her back. Before I could even read the first line, some of the children started to laugh and point. Danny,* one of the most popular boys in the class, led the laughter. It was clear to me that they were making fun of the picture. I was disappointed by their reaction, and I knew in that moment that I had to respond. I closed the book, directed my eye contact to Danny, but spoke to the whole group: “This is a great book. You’ll see some things that are new and different, but we don’t make fun of people just because they’re different.”

Since our preschool program includes children with disabilities who are eligible for special education, along with children who aren’t, both teachers and students are familiar with questions and discussions about difference — when it comes to ability. Most staff members practice active anti-bias teaching when it comes to questions and comments about ability. We try to take advantage of the moments that arise when a child asks questions like, “Why can’t he talk right?” with an answer like, “He’s learning to talk, and everyone is learning in our class. You’re learning to cut with scissors.” We don’t expect children to ignore these ability differences, but we expect them to be kind and respectful to each other.

In our preschool, we meet the challenge of building classroom communities made up of children of diverse abilities by planning the curriculum and specific activities so everyone can participate, and by actively facilitating play and conversation among these children. We don’t as readily acknowledge, much less confront, the parallel struggles that are present when it comes to differences of class, race, family structure, and ethnicity.

Back in the classroom, as I resumed reading On the Go, my inner critic was busy telling me that my response to their laughter was weak, that it was more of a reprimand than an exemplary anti-bias response. Even if I ignored that critic and accepted my imperfect response as a good beginning, I knew that this signaled a challenge to me and to the rest of our teaching team. I realized that we could only resolve to respond with some fresh teaching approaches. Danny’s response moved me to action; we would have to bring more cultural content, both familiar and unfamiliar, into our classroom community. It was time to acquaint them with multiple cultural perspectives and images and time to learn more about how people travel from place to place, eat, work, and play in different places around the world. Good multicultural literature would help, but books are two-dimensional and only a part of preschoolers’ authentic learning about human similarities and differences.

Same and Different

In our classroom, where I work as a member of the teaching team as a speech-language pathologist, we try to build on children’s knowledge and experiences. We encourage children to use “same” and “different” to talk about themselves and others. “Look, we have the same snack today!” “Hey, I have blue socks, too!” “You look different with your glasses on.” We try to start with similarities and differences that they can sense directly — like colors, shapes, and sounds — and gradually move toward the more abstract. Learning to respect and appreciate similarities and differences among people is an important foundation for the more abstract concepts of fairness and justice. Somewhere in between is day-to-day social learning: how to be a respectful, contributing member of a classroom community.

In our predominantly middle- to upper-class suburban community, most families live comfortably in single-family homes. The families are generally white, European-American, with two well-educated parents (mother and father) and one or more children. But some of our preschoolers come from families who have recently immigrated to the United States, from families who speak more than one language at home, from single-parent families, from two-mom or two-dad families, from biracial and bicultural families, and from families who are not as financially comfortable as most. There’s diversity, but it’s not always visible.

I’m convinced that children who are different from the majority are aware of their differences, even if it’s not obvious to everyone else. A few years ago, Kayla, a child from a low-income family, brought a favorite doll for show and tell. Elli quickly spoke up. “Why does she bring that doll every time?” Nancy, the teacher, said “Shh, Elli, let Kayla talk.” Nancy and I discussed it later, and agreed that we were shocked at Elli’s comment. From our adult perspective, we knew that Kayla had fewer toys to choose from than most of her peers, and we were sensitive to the issue of socio-economic prejudice. We resolved to discuss it with our early childhood colleagues. Through informal conversations, we’ve discovered that we’re not alone in struggling with this issue, but none of us feels confident about the best approach to take with our young students.

Often these unexpected comments at inconvenient moments provide good opportunities for authentic learning experiences, if we stop and take advantage of them. Shortly after reading Katie Kissinger’s book All the Colors We Are, which explains how we get our skin color, I was present when some children were playing with a wooden dollhouse and various people and animal figures. Peter, who is white, picked up a baby figure with brown skin and showed it to Cassie, a biracial child and said, “Cassie, this one looks like you!” Peter noticed this similarity and pointed it out in a friendly way. I wasn’t sure if I should do something to make sure that Cassie heard the comment, to make sure she was OK with it, but I simply said, “You’re right, Peter, that baby’s skin is almost the same color as Cassie’s.” Peter had opened a new path in our exploration of human similarities and differences. Comments about skin color are OK, even though they may make us feel uncomfortable. While unkind comments about skin color (e.g., “Your skin is dirty brown”) required an anti-bias response, observations like Peter’s were welcome.

I felt prepared to facilitate conversation among the children as we embarked on a project that followed from the book. First, we prepared to mix paints to create each child’s skin tone. Danny immediately informed us that he was “white.” But as we blended colors like peach, mahogany, and terra cotta to match each child’s unique shade, he and his classmates were fascinated to learn that everyone’s skin tone was some mixture of our paint colors. The children began to make predictions like, “I think you’re peach and bronze mixed,” and some of them proudly repeated their own unique formulas to the others.

Over the next two weeks, we would return to the project until it was complete — a unique face created from paper, the individually mixed paint, yarn for hair, and facial features cut out and drawn on the paper. We organized the completed faces from darkest to lightest, and we made a graph of our eye colors. We discovered that we were all different, but that we all had common features and similarities in skin tone. I noticed that the children were engaged and involved, asking questions and making observations. Nancy and I agreed that we would start exploring the concept of similarities and differences within our own group earlier in the next school year, and we’d create a classroom community where respectful comments and questions about other people would be practiced and encouraged.

Mapping the World

All the Colors We Are explains that we get our skin color from our ancestors, from melanin, and from the sun. A few weeks after we read the book and completed our skin color project, we took out a big world map and a small globe. We read the book On the Same Day in March, by Marilyn Singer (about weather around the world), mapped the locations from the book, and then marked places on the world map where students and staff members have traveled or would like to travel. Lively discussions ensued about languages, family connections to specific countries and other parts of the United States, and travel experiences.

The children asked if we could learn more about the countries mentioned, and Sarah asked whether we could learn more about “the whole world.” I think that Sarah and others were beginning to grasp the idea of a world outside of their own experiences. They have seen images of different kinds of people living different kinds of lives, but they’ve also seen the similarities among people.

And they’ve discovered some of the similarities and differences among the members of their own class, including the concept that everyone has the same responsibilities — to share, play fair, and treat each other with respect.

As with all good early childhood teaching, we need to dive deeply into the content of what we teach so that we can prepare ourselves to share the developmentally appropriate details with our students. We have to operate on parallel tracks when it comes to anti-bias teaching. On one track, we can discuss with our colleagues the complexities of our classroom communities and the experiences we have with bringing a more multicultural perspective to our students. On the other track, we can continually prepare ourselves for authentic, age-appropriate multicultural and anti-bias teaching — starting with encouraging and engaging their curiosity about human similarities and differences.

Young children, of course, don’t always ask nice and easy questions. Maybe if Danny’s reaction to the picture from Ghana was, “Look at that beautiful baby riding on his mom’s back,” I would have been pleased. But I wouldn’t have been moved to action and reflection about my own evolving practice. I don’t know what comments await me next week, but I’ve become more confident in the process of learning about how we’re both “same” and “different.” And although that “exemplary anti-bias response” is elusive, practice makes us more effective (if not perfect).

* All students’ names have been changed.

Janet Schmidt (janets@igc.org) has been an early childhood educator for nearly 20 years. She currently works as a speech-language pathologist in the public schools in Wellesley, Mass.