Adapted from Acorn Hill Waldorf Kindergarten
Children are constantly picking up on what is OK to talk about, what is off limits, and how adults react to the topic. Here's how to begin or continue a discussion about race with your child.
Like many other topics, race can be challenging for adults to discuss among themselves, let alone with their children. But while open dialogue about race is limited in our society, that doesn't mean you can't make decisions and set the tone for discussions about race in your home. Talking with young children about race is an opportunity - one you may or may not have experienced when you were growing up.
Some well-meaning parents feel if they do not address the topic of race, their children will be "color-blind." But the reality is that race does have meaning in our society. Your conversations with your child will depend on your own racial identity, the racial make-up of your family (immediate and extended), and your values regarding race—both those you express and those you imply.
Like other crucial conversations you might be beginning to have with your child right now, race discussions should start early and evolve as your child grows.
What They Understand
Kids under 24 months do not understand the adult meaning of race: the historical implications of it or how the history and current meaning of race affects our society, but babies and toddlers are beginning to notice differences in appearance. It might be that the child simply looks longer at or perhaps points to a person who looks different from the people she's most used to seeing in her everyday routines. During these moments, the child looks primarily to the adult to gauge their own interest and reaction—toddlers this young are still reliant on their parents' opinions and actions to shape their own. This goes without saying, but how you act around and discuss people from your own culture and other cultures is what your child will first consider appropriate. Toddlers internalize the beliefs of their family and immediate society, a process that will continue throughout their development.
As the children grow, so does their awareness and their misconceptions about race. Studies have shown that by three years old, children are choosing playmates by race and by ages 4-6 their racial prejudices peak. By ages 5 and 6, children are already holding many of the viewpoints that the adults around them have on race. Not speaking to them about the topic means that they are making their own assumptions, and forming their own biases
What to Say
Say something! Your child's understanding of race begins both with what you will talk about and what you do not discuss. Children learn that when they ask a question about someone's race and they are shushed, it's not something they can discuss and is therefore taboo. Talking about race normalizes the topic and makes it less scary for kids.
As any parent who's caught their toddler staring at someone in the checkout aisle or pointing to a passerby in the mall will tell you, racial observations may be embarrassing. It really is important, though, for you to address your child's observations and take that moment to acknowledge the differences they are taking note of.
When your child points out (or later asks questions about) people with different skin color than his, address it. For example, if your child is white and asks why an African-American child's skin is brown, explain, "Grownups and kids have all different skin colors. Some have tan and some have brown." When possible, use accurate ethnicity language with your child: "She is white (or Caucasian)/African American (or black)/Latinx (or Hispanic)/Asian-American," etc.
Though toddlers likely won't ask questions about race, children in preschool or grade school will have the vocabulary to articulate observations. Your child might ask why a person has skin a different color or hair a different texture than his. When he does make an observation or inquire about a race, answer the question and give correct information, which may mean doing some homework yourself. Think about and take responsibility for the stereotypes and assumptions we all have about race.
These are some basic ways you can prepare for a lifetime of conversations with your child about ethnicity and diversity
Self-reflect. Take some time and think about your own racial identity, the assumptions you hold, and what lessons you would like to teach your children about race. Talking with friends, family, and other parents can be really helpful. Look for other parents who are interested in open dialogue about race in their families. Talking with other adults will also give you clarity and increase your comfort level when answering questions if this is a challenge for you. Remember, this is often a scary process for adults. Understanding and challenging that fear will be helpful in conversations in your family.
Don't avoid the topic. Particularly in white families, some parents decide to not discuss racial differences. This reinforces that it is a taboo subject for your children. When you have had early conversations about appearances, for example, as your child gets older, you can also begin discussions about racism.
Work on Empathy. Developing empathy comes from knowing your own feelings and beginning to understand feelings in others. How you interact with other people and respond to situations works on shaping that within your child. It may seem small and simple, but it is laying the foundation for how they treat, advocate for and think of others. Here are some Teaching Empathy Tips.
Look at your environment. Self-reflecting also means taking inventory of the images, stories and people that your child sees on a daily basis. Looking at your child’s toys, books, media influences, family, friends and neighborhood/community allows you to see areas for growth or conversation.
Read Books. Books are wonderful because they serve as windows into another’s world, reflections into your own, and give children the ability to connect with others. They also serve as good talking points for bringing up discussions about differences, injustice, and provide ways to celebrate and normalize diversity. Our Early Childhood Library offers a great selection of titles.
Any opportunity students have to create is a moment of empowerment. When explored through hands-on activities, the subject often goes from being frustrating and mysterious to relatable and tangible. Not only can this change a student's understanding and perception, experiences like this change the way students think of themselves as learners. A student who is struggling with math concepts presented numerically will often find a visual representation of the idea easier to grasp - for example in a mosaic.
Throughout history, people have used pattern art to exhibit and explore mathematical understanding. The oldest known mosaics date as far back as the third millennium B.C., and were used to embellish Sumerian architecture. Sumerian wall decorations, an early form of mosaic, contain examples of tessellations. The Greeks and Romans refined this ancient technique to the point where a mosaic artist could reproduce a painting. Roman artists used bits of naturally colored marble as tesserae in their mosaics, and predominantly used them in floor decorations of such spaces as temples and baths.
The overlap between the beautiful art of mosaics and math may not be obvious at first, but the merging of the two creates a synergy that enhances each subject, giving more meaning to the art and greater context to the math concepts being taught - creating a truly rich learning experience. Some math concepts taught through mosaics include counting, geometry through area and perimeter, ratios, fractions and fractals.
Mosaic art assists in the development of:
- Manual dexterity
- Spatial and visual organization (basics of geometry)
- Fine motor skills
We begin with very simple pattern concepts in the early grades that
grow into complex mosaic art in the high school.
Honoring and celebrating are wonderful ways to teach children about the diversity that makes our world such an amazing place. Part of our school's commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice is to ensure that our curriculum, classroom activities and celebrations include a wide range of diverse and inclusive topics, and one way we do this is by connecting to monthly observances that are held in the wider culture of the United States. Diversity, equity, inclusion and justice work is brought to the students in the everyday classroom, but in addition, the monthly observances give teachers - from Early Childhood through High School - a touch point to making sure specific topics are being offered to our students. Here are just a few examples of monthly observances we share:
Hispanic (or Lantinx) Heritage Month – September 15-October 15
Our high school students studied and presented on artist Frida Kahlo. Our Early Childhood Lending Library increased their stock of books about Latinx/Hispanic heritage and culture. Teachers read these books in class with the children and the children can take them home to read. It is important for children to have books in which they can see a reflection of themselves as well as a window into the world of another. Check out our Early Childhood Lending Library Catalog. Many of these books are in our Lending Library and almost all of them can be found in the public library.
Disability Awareness Month – October
So much of what Early Childhood aged children learn is from their environment and through play. We expanded our toy collection in honor of Disability Awareness Month to include inclusive and diverse dolls. Children can now play and care for dolls of all skin tones who have glasses, Down syndrome, a port-a-cath and asthma among others.
Native American/Indigenous Peoples Heritage Month – November
Our Grade Five class honored indigenous peoples as part of their daily blessing. Grade Three raised over $6,000 in a fundraiser for Lakota Waldorf School, our sister school on the Oglala Sioux reservation in South Dakota. And, our Early Childhood explored stories of local peoples and planned a visit by indigenous storyteller, Genot Picor, for an active presentation of story and movement about the peoples of the Great Lakes region.
Black History Month – February
Professor Peter Boykin presented at the High School about his family history which included the dismissal of his African American great-great-grandfather from West Point Military Academy after being wrongfully accused of staging his own assault. A book on the subject, Assault at West Point, was later made into a movie and a special ceremony at the White House with former-President Clinton, honoring Johnson Chestnut Whittaker and returning his bible, where he had kept his journal and which had been held by the government as evidence. The students were very engaged during his presentation and were eager to talk about what they could do personally to continue to strive for equality. We will be inviting Mr. Boykin to return to speak more about his family history and the future strive for equality during Black History Month.
We're proud of the long-standing efforts of our school community to recognize and honor all people. We look forward to honoring these months as well as others throughout this year and in future years, and we invite you to participate and share your thoughts, suggestions and celebrations with us!
· March - Women's History Month
· April – Earth and Ecology Month
· May - Asian Pacific Heritage Month
· June - Pride Month
When my husband, Ryan, and I made the commitment to send both of our children to a Waldorf School through High School (Marcus, Shining Mountain Waldorf School Class of 2019, and Kalea, RSSAA Class of 2022) we weren’t too sure that it would provide our kids a solid foundation in math and science, as we were both educated to become engineers through the traditional public school model. Boy, were we wrong! Little did we know at the time just how well-prepared our children would be to pursue a scientific path.
I remember when our son, Marcus, who is now 21 and a junior studying Astrophysics at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, would come home from his Waldorf kindergarten and my husband would ask him what “he learned today”. We would be regaled with his circle time songs, told about the rocket ships he built and how he flew to the moon, and all the tunnels he dug in the sandbox. As he went through the lower grades, we saw him devote his free time to marble runs, Legos, and domino effects. He didn’t pick up reading until the middle of second grade, but once he did, he was off, and would alternate his free time between reading and building. He started private piano lessons in first grade and started playing the violin at school (with more lessons) in fourth grade. He loved his middle school science blocks, especially the Rube Goldberg Project, which he spent weeks working on. In high school, he picked up the nyckelharpa, a Swedish folk instrument, and switched from both classical piano and violin to folk fiddle music and composing his own music, complete with lyrics.
We did all we could to keep Marcus off all screens while he was in the lower school, especially video games, which can be so addicting to adolescent boys. He did not receive his own computer until the end of 8th grade and by the end of high school he had taught himself how to code, writing simple programs that played April Fools’ tricks on my laptop. Though he never took a formal music editing class, for his Senior Project he wrote, composed, produced, and published his own album, using a local non-profit music studio to teach himself the editing process.
He did not take a single advanced placement or college course, only the standard Waldorf math curriculum through calculus, but was able to place out (via the college’s testing process) of the first two semesters of calculus when he entered Pomona College as a freshman.
An experience that really drove home how remarkable the math education he was receiving was happened when we were visiting some friends with a daughter the same age, and he was talking to her about 11th grade math and the parabolic equations they were deriving and working on. He had written a very simple program on his tablet that graphed the parabolic equations and was showing this to his friend, who said she knew the equations but had no idea what the parabolas meant as they moved in response to different inputs. She had been taught to “plug and chug” the formula, but he knew exactly how the formula worked and what it really meant.
He has taken that deep-seated understanding of science and math that he learned in the Waldorf high school and has taken up his studies at Pomona with enthusiasm, curiosity, and joy. He is currently a straight-A student in his major and this semester is taking Einstein Physics (Relativity), Quantum Mechanics, and a math class called Combinatorics. Last summer he was selected by NIST (National Institute of Science and Technology) to join their SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) in the Applied Math lab. His job was to use Python Coding to support a team of mathematicians in building an online interface for first responders. When I asked him where he learned to do Python coding, he told me he hadn’t, but he had used another coding program to build an open-source platform for users of the popular video game, Minecraft. In fact, his platform had gotten him into a contest with 99 other Minecraft programmers to compete in an online game to win a real Lamborghini! I’m not sure what he would have done if he won, but the fact that his “fooling around for fun” on these programs even got him a chance to win a $200,000 car was quite surprising. He self-taught himself Python programming “on the job” and ended up finishing his part of the project earlier and was assigned to build out a larger portion of the interface by his two mentors.
I share this experience with our son not only because, as his mother, I am incredibly proud of him, but because I am convinced that his Waldorf education is the source of his success.
Marcus did not attend fancy science camps in the summers, he did not get additional tutoring outside of school, and he didn’t have the “latest and greatest” toys, technology gadgets, or computers. We did invest in private music lessons, which we believe were beneficial to his mind as well as his soul. He is truly a “math/music” person, he loves to learn, he can teach himself anything, and he is passionate about physics and math. As a junior in college, he is not sure yet what he wants to do after graduation, but it doesn’t matter. He will find his way, as all Waldorf graduates do.
In doing some research for this blog, I came across two interesting articles that also support this connection between Waldorf education and success in STEM disciplines. They can be found here:
State of Sciences Event Brings Creativity in Focus. This article shares research on how successful scientists tend to have interests and strengths in multiple subjects, including the arts, and how the arts and their other interests contribute to their success in the sciences. We have certainly seen that in Marcus.
Arts Foster Scientific Success. This article shares the paper that the first article was based on - that studying the arts fosters scientific success.
And finally, I will leave you with some remarks from Thomas Sudhof, who was the 2013 Nobel Prize Winner in Physiology or Medicine. He is currently a Professor of Neuroscience at Stanford University and a graduate of the Hannover Waldorf School in Germany. This quote comes from remarks he delivered at the Waldorf 100 celebration on May 18, 2019, in San Francisco. I agree with him wholeheartedly!
“And thus, I think that the emphasis in Waldorf education on implicit learning—on the arts, on things that you do manually, on language—is actually a very good thing because that emphasizes the strengths of the child during that stage of development. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t start some explicit learning early on, but I believe one shouldn’t emphasize it. One can still learn things like math and physics in later years in high school, whereas in early years during elementary and middle school, you can learn skills, like in music or language, that are much more difficult to pick up later. And so, in my own experience, I actually learned virtually no science before I came to high school because that’s the way the Waldorf school curriculum was. I don’t think it has hurt me. And I think that it’s more important to develop the strengths and the individuality of the child, and to develop things like language and art in early times and then to move on as the child develops and teach them explicit skills later on. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t emphasize what’s called the STEM disciplines in the United States, which is science, technology, engineering, and math. We should emphasize them, but we should emphasize them late in the school curriculum in my personal opinion, and I think that is what the Waldorf school curriculum exactly tries to do.”