One never knows when a powerful teaching moment presents itself. In spite of all the lesson planning, the real times an educator can seize the opportunity to teach young children often come unexpectedly. It happened during chapter reading. We had just begun Little House on the Prairie where Ma, Pa, Laura, Mary, and baby Carrie moved from the big woods of Wisconsin to Kansas. In the 1870’s Kansas was Indian territory. Throughout the book there are times that Laura talks about Indians. She knows that she and her family have moved into Indian territory, and she is curious. She wants to see a papoose, yet she does not know anything about Indians.
The conversation went just like this:
“Jennie, are all the Indians dead today?”
“No, not at all. There are many Indians today. Just as many. Probably more”.
(A long, silent pause.)
“Oh. So do they hurt and kill people?”
“Oh, no. Do you know that most Indians were gentle and friendly when Laura and Mary and Ma and Pa lived? And, the Indians today are the same way.”
“Do they have guns?”
“No. Indians are just like you and me. They wear the same clothes, go to school, and do the same things we do. They have beautiful black hair, too!”
“Where do they live?”
“Everywhere. They live in Groton, Pepperell, Ayer, Dunstable… everywhere. Just like you and me and everybody.”
We talked about clothing, school, and all the things that preschoolers can understand as the same and different.
When an Indian came into Laura’s house, she was scared because he was different with darker skin, a feather in his hair and a fur around his middle. He didn’t talk, yet his eyes sparkled at Laura. The children realized that the Indian was just like ‘Gloria’, our beloved classroom puppet. I have a hard time referring to her as a puppet because she is very real to everyone in the school. Gloria is different. She doesn’t talk, but her eyes sparkle, too. She isn’t scary or mean. She is kind and shy. Maybe the Indian was shy, and that was why he didn’t talk. He smiled with his eyes.
We talked about how somebody who is very different can seem scary, like the Indian and like Gloria, yet they are not. The children not only understood, they came to the same conclusion on their own.
The depth of conversation was clearly about acceptance. If I can help children to use their critical thinking and ‘see people’, then I have given them a life-long skill. After all, aren’t all of us the same, yet different? Ma and Pa certainly are. Whether it is the food we like, or the color of our skin, diversity in all of us. Teaching preschoolers about the many differences and the many similarities that we all have, small or large, is an important step toward preparing them to be good citizens and contributors to our world, grounded in giving and kindness.