In a recent webinar on creating an inclusive learning environment, we were joined by Kayla Warburton, M.Ed, Educator, parent, and customer success specialist at HiMama! She walked us through how to create classrooms that are set up to accommodate all children and she also shared real-world examples of bringing anti-oppressive practices into childcare centers. We also gained valuable strategies for how we can learn to understand our own biases and how to address them so that all children feel welcome and safe in their classrooms.
Anti-oppressive practices in childcare centers seek to recognize the oppression that exists in our society and attempt to mitigate its effects and eventually equalize the power imbalance in our communities. Here are three strategies that you can use to ensure you include them in your classrooms:
1. Ensure a safe space
The first step to including anti-oppressive practices in your classroom is to be sure that the learning environment is a safe one. Introducing topics surrounding oppression can be harmful if done in an unsafe space.
Firstly, consider the physical environment and learning materials.
Ensure each classroom is a physically comfortable space for everyone. One example of this is having mats, cushions, or some sort of furnishing that helps children feel like they can claim a space of their own. This helps them feel safe. As well, ensure equal accessibility for everyone and that the parameters of their individual spaces can be easily recognized by others.
It is also important to consider materials that could help children with unique needs have the most positive learning experience. Items such as headsets, fidget spinners, assist scissors and visual charts are great examples. These learning materials must be accessible so that every child can reach them without having to ask.
In addition to group activity zones, it is important to offer solo spaces. There needs to be spaces in the classroom that are for someone to spend time alone where it is known they won’t be bothered. Try to avoid designating spots or items to specific people unless absolutely necessary.
Secondly, consider the classroom culture.
How can you create a culture of respect in your classroom to help ensure the space remains safe at all times? Remember to model the behavior you want to see, along with other educators and staff so that children can follow your lead. This can be difficult because these are adults whom you may have no control over, but do your best to set expectations and verbally note when something could have been done differently.
If someone comes to you with a concern about the environment, address it immediately. Try not to single a child out; go to the group where you hear/see something taking place that could be harmful to the classroom culture, and address it with that group. You can start by asking questions: Is everyone okay? What are we doing? What are we talking about? Once you’ve identified the issue, you can ask how everyone feels about it: Was it kind or could it have been hurtful to people? Is there another way to go about it?
We also have to consider the language being used in the classrooms.
It never hurts to use inclusive language and be intentional and mindful of how your words affect others. For example, avoid referring to learning materials as associated with a specific gender. Allow children to draw their own comparisons, do not do it for them.
Be very careful with nicknames. Of course, we all know to call children by their names, but as a preschool educator myself I sometimes catch myself saying “sweetheart” or “buddy” when addressing girls and boys respectively. Old habits die hard!
2. Consider group and story time
A book is a perfect tool for opening a discussion. For example, in books about families: children can see that some families have two moms, two dads, one parent, step-parents, grandparents or other caregivers, etc. Educators can ask children if they want to share who is in their family. They can draw family portraits or bring in photos of their families to create a photo album.
It is important to point out similarities between families. For example, you might notice that most families like to celebrate special days together. Most families are sad when they lose someone they love. It is also important to highlight the ways in which we are different. Differences in families that get highlighted can lead to fun and educational group discussions!
Always be aware of representation. The diversity in your classroom/neighborhood/country should be reflected in your books and other learning materials year-round. Go through your old books and don’t be afraid to recycle anything that is outdated. There is no shortage of new options to fill up your bookshelf! If your budget is tight, consider asking parents to donate a family favorite or implement a sign-out book bin to ensure all children have access to books.
For more book and activity ideas, check out my course “Anti-oppressive education practices in the early years” on our HiMama Academy platform, alongside dozens of other high-quality, applicable and meaningful professional development courses.
3. Watch out for hidden curriculum
In your lesson plans, it is important to ask: What content is being left out? How do we ensure we address moral, behavioral, and emotional development? Especially when discussing naturally ‘sensitive’ topics, there is an opportunity for emotional and moral growth, so be aware of hidden curriculum (topics not covered in your lesson plans) to understand what social skills and lessons children may be learning, whether intentional or not.
We have to make intentional choices on what to leave out. Repeating history can be harmful and traumatic, especially with young children. They do not need much detail a lot of the time. Always be sure your lesson plans are age-appropriate.
Always remember to learn, unlearn, and then relearn. This cycle will ensure that we keep the anti-oppressive practices going in our childcare centers!