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What do young children enjoy doing? Playing, singing and listening to stories! Integrating culture into classroom activities with young learners is not only about teaching content: what music people dance to or what food people eat in other cultures. It is mainly about planting the seed of curiosity, cultivating interest and positive attitudes by engaging in cultural activities, and celebrating children’s own culture as well as others’. In this sense, the teaching of cultural awareness involves helping children to develop an open mind that will stay with them throughout their lives. This article focuses on traditional children’s culture, namely songs, stories and games, as a starting point for fostering cultural sensitivity from a young age.
One of the best ways of bringing other cultures closer to young children is through natural and meaningful activities they enjoy engaging with in their daily lives. People in every culture in the world have their childhood songs, rhymes, stories and games, and so a good starting point is to integrate elements from traditional children’s culture that may be familiar in their own context. Although songs, stories and games vary across cultures, they are all designed to achieve similar aims and convey similar types of messages.
We want to help children become aware that other cultures exist, and in what ways these cultures are similar or different to their own. So that children do not become culture-blind, and to discourage any possible feelings that a difference in culture is wrong, we can use classroom activities to help children to recognize that although people are different, diversity is not bad: it’s just different. We can also help children to recognize not only the differences, but also the similarities, in cultures around the world, particularly those connected to childhood.
Teachers can provide many opportunities for children to interact with other cultures within the walls of their classrooms. The more exposure to other cultures they have, the more children will acknowledge these similarities and differences; this will help them to become open-minded and accepting of others and challenge the idea that we all look the same, eat the same food, dress in the same way and speak the same language all over the world.
Songs and rhymes
Many traditional songs and nursery rhymes have been adapted to be sung in different languages as a form of entertainment or for learning important lessons. Teach songs and rhymes that you think children will recognize, having heard them in a different language at home or school: songs like ‘Three Elephants Went Out One Day’, ‘Incy Wincy Spider’, ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, or ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’. Ask your learners which songs their families sing with them at home or which they have heard at school, and allow them to share their versions. If children can relate to a song because they know the tune of it already, they can quickly pick up the new lyrics in a different language with its own sounds, rhythm and stress patterns.
Learning traditional songs and rhymes will also help learners as they grow older, because it will help them to understand references to the songs and rhymes in popular culture. Developing children’s cultural literacy in this way will therefore help them to comprehend written and audio-visual texts in the future.
The same thing happens with stories, with many stories being similar in a variety of languages, sometimes with slight variations which can be interesting to explore and compare. Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears or Hansel and Gretel are stories that children may know in another language already.
Tell stories that originated in other cultures and languages, like Anansi stories, The Blind Men and the Elephant, or How the Tiger Got its Stripes (and other African tales). Give your learners the opportunity to tell short folktales from their own culture, in English, or even make up their own ‘How the… got its…’ story. Providing opportunities to hear, read or tell these kinds of stories brings children closer to other perspectives and helps them to understand important issues that might be similar or different to those that are tackled in their own culture.
An example from my context is the picture book Handa’s Surprise, by Eileen Browne, which is a powerful story with great insights into a culture different to our own. It has beautiful illustrations, vibrant characters and a storyline which provides a stimulus for discussion about how some aspects of our lives in Argentina differ from Handa’s in Kenya. Where does Handa live? How do you know? How does it look different to where we live? What is she wearing? Why is Handa carrying a basket on her head? Have you seen these animals in our country? Which fruit have you tried? If a boy or girl from our country was the main character, what would she/he look like, what would he/she be doing and what other characters would appear in the story? Compare illustrations in the picture book to real photographs. Blindfold volunteers and have them taste the different fruit in the story. Talk about which songs, stories and games Handa probably sings, reads and plays in her country. Learn about Handa’s country and culture. Then, invite a child to become Handa, sitting in the ‘hot seat’ while the rest of the class ask ‘Handa’ questions: Where do you live? What is your house like? What animals are there in your country? What do you like to eat? How do you greet? What languages do you speak? Exercises like this allow children to experience something new with an open-mind, and start to become aware of the different elements that compose culture.
Put these storybooks on display in the classroom so that cultural variety is visible in the environment and children get used to seeing cultural elements that are different to their own.
Something children from all around the world have in common is that they love playing games: traditional games, playground games, skipping games, choosing games and board games are just perfect for children to engage first-hand with culture. Teach your class to play games that children play in other countries, and encourage them to reflect on similar ones they play in their own context: tag; hopscotch; jump rope; hide and seek; duck, duck, goose; rock, paper, scissors; What’s the time Mr. Wolf?
A sense of belonging and inclusion in the world begins in childhood, and teachers can make the most of their young learners’ inherent curiosity about the world around them. Children are usually interested in learning about other children their own age. Although songs, stories and games may vary across cultures, through them children can learn to see how cultures — and children just like them in other places around the world — are not really that different in the end. Celebrate the benefits of diversity, respecting multiple ways of living, and honour differences as well as similarities to promote cultural sensitivity, respect and tolerance. Children need, and want, to feel that they belong. Give them this gift by allowing them to embrace culture through their own eyes, as well as seeing the world through the eyes of others.