The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has announced the expansion of its Early Childhood Education Initiative (ECEI) with a $1.5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Structured to be joyous and fun, this museum-based curriculum is designed to help young children of all backgrounds develop healthy racial identities and other social skills. Bridging the fields of early childhood education, human development, museum education and developmental psychology, ECEI programming encourages young children to be comfortable with human diversity, recognize unfairness and develop the capacity to stand against prejudice. In addition to the on-site programming, the grant funds national outreach efforts and digital instructions and resources for research-based publications, adults, educators and young children from birth to 8 years old.
“The work of early childhood education has the power to affect what society will be in the future,” said Spencer Crew, interim director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “If we want to end racism, we must begin to have purposeful conversations with children about racial identity and promote anti-bias values from birth. With an appreciation for differences in early childhood, young children can develop into adults who actively challenge bias, stereotyping and all forms of discrimination.”
The Kellogg Foundation’s Thriving Children initiative funds efforts like ECEI that support quality learning experiences for all children, including the promotion of racial equity in early childhood education. “In this way, the goals of the museum and the mission of the foundation are perfectly aligned,” said Carla D. Thompson, vice president for program strategy at the Kellogg Foundation. “This is an excellent match.”
The programming operates from the premise that young children need adults to provide accurate language for identifying racial identity and racial bias. Young children even need guidance to develop their concepts of fairness, which is the first stage in challenging racial prejudice and discrimination.
“Children are remarkably good observers who pay close attention to human behavior,” said Esther Washington, director of education at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “There is a common misconception that young children are ‘color blind’ and untouched by prejudice. Research shows that from infancy, children are developing mental maps that lead to their baseline racialized identity and social status before the age of 6. Early childhood education has the power to guide racial and social identities to a healthy place.”
All ECEI programs are tailored to the different ages and developmental stages of early childhood (birth to 8 years old). Programming themes and projects change each month—there is always something new for children.
Early Childhood Programming at the Museum
Cultural Cuddles programs invite children from birth to 12 months of age to bond, play and discover color. Alongside their favorite grown-ups, children can explore art materials using different colors. A 6-month-old baby recognizes skin color and notices when a color is familiar or unfamiliar. Talking to a baby about colors, including skin colors, can create a comfort level to later discuss racial identity.
Toddling Treasures are programs created for children 13–35 months of age. Toddlers by the age of 2 are able to use racial categories to reason about people’s behavior. Talking to children about how everyone is the same but also different, enhances critical thinking skills and allows children to see others as unique individuals.
Cultural Kids is for children ages 3–5 years old. In this program, children listen to stories and create artwork that engage the senses. Because children at this age are able to begin to understand the complex social construct of race, the program introduces skin color with parents and explains how children get their color from their parents. The goal is to show how every person’s skin is different, every family is unique and there is beauty in diversity.
Friends for Freedom
Friends for Freedom are programs created for early elementary students, children 6 to 8 years old. With an adult, children look at museum objects, read a featured picture book and have guided conversations and to explore personal meaning and fairness. Because children ages 6 to 8 years old are able to have conversations about injustice and unfair treatment based on identities like race and gender, this program centers on the differences among people and teaches children to respect and embrace differences. This programming helps children prepare to act against bias and unfairness.
In addition to the regular scheduled programming mentioned above, the museum offers “pop-up” versions of these programs in the galleries and classrooms on the second floor. The pop-up schedule is available at the museum’s information desk.
Sing-alongs, concerts and story times for children and workshops and panel discussions for the adults invested in early childhood education are offered quarterly, and the schedule is available on the museum’s website at https://nmaahc.si.edu/events/upcoming. Interested participants should check the website frequently for updates.
More information about the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Early Childhood Education Initiative is available on the museum’s website. A schedule of upcoming events at the museum, some of which require pre-registration, is on the events page of the museum’s website. ECEI’s programming is often most suitable for small classes and fills quickly.