By CELA on 15 Mar, 2021

We know that educators want to do much more than paper chains and hand prints when it comes to celebrating Harmony Week. So, how can educators go beyond throwaway craft to do something really meaningful with children that could help to make Australia’s future more inclusive?

By Adeline Teoh

Former Prime Minister John Howard initiated the first Harmony Day in 1999. Designed to dissolve racial tensions and unify multicultural Australia, the day overshadowed the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

While Harmony Day and Week are effective in their celebration of cultural diversity, they do little to address racial discrimination at its core. Given that we are living at a time when racism is headline news – from movements such as Invasion Day and Black Lives Matter – there’s a great opportunity for early education and care to lead the way in addressing racism and helping children to better understand the world and its people.

Celebrating difference but sharing experiences

Early education and care Director Karthika Viknarasah runs two Western Sydney centres that serve many refugee and new migrant families – not just with childcare but also practical matters including navigating Centrelink and the public transport system. For their demographic, diversity can be isolating if the families don’t integrate into the community as early as possible. Early learning, therefore “gives the children a shared experience to draw from,” she says. “It’s a really good place to start building friendships.”

Racial harmony is modelled in three ways: through the diverse staff, who have 12 languages between them; the artefacts in the centre including toys, books and posters; and with input from parents, starting as simply as a ‘hello’ poster with blank space and a marker so parents can write a greeting in their own language.

“We also have different kinds of foods available. It’s not just bread, it’s rice and noodles and poppadums, all kinds of multicultural food so it becomes normalised for children to talk about the food that they eat at home as well,” says Karthika.

If your centre does not have the benefit of multicultural staff or families in its community, you can still expose children to cultural diversity through books and media, such as familiar songs in different languages. Consider also “what kind of dolls you have in the home corner,” prompts Karthika.

Addressing race

Karthika says that although diversity and inclusivity may be the norm, racial discrimination does arise. It’s key for educators to directly address it with the child in an “open and friendly” manner, allow them to ask questions and explore their feelings but also role model appropriate behaviours to increase understanding.

Children may be curious without meaning to offend. “They may ask why a child has a particular colour skin,” says Karen Whitehorn, director of Punchbowl Children’s Centre in south west Sydney. “We manage this by providing diverse stories, pictures, engaging in conversations about differences and inclusive practices. We find this helps break down barriers and is conducive to a respectful environment – breaking down stereotypes.”

Whitehorn’s centre is also located in a multicultural community and she has found building partnerships with families, including members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, has resulted in better curriculum decisions “that encompass respectful interactions, learning experiences, the environment and resources”. It’s also important that “educators reflect on their own biases and often discuss how we feel and why,” she adds.

Beyond tokenism

Harmony Day/Week can feel a little tokenistic when it’s focused on ‘share a dish from your culture’s cuisine’ or ‘coloured hands’ craft activities. For centres looking for greater depth from the event, the core tenets of race education are:

  • Exposure: Normalise diversity. If your immediate community is not particularly multicultural, consider the kinds of books, toys and media you have in your centre to display diversity. Context is also important; if you’re encouraging children to dress in their national attire, explain that this is for a special occasion and not everyday clothing so that other children understand the context and are not tempted to see it as a stereotype of their culture.
  • Modelling: Model inclusion by inviting diverse contributions to your service, from policies and curriculum to décor and the songs you choose to teach.
  • Education: Address racism directly but with an educator’s approach. Ensure the wronged child knows you support them and seek to untangle the discriminatory behaviour with kindness. Let them ask questions; it’s not unusual that they have heard things in their environment, including from the media, that has shaped their views. As an educator you have a chance to engage with children and support their critical thinking skills.

Harmony Day and the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is recognised annually on 21 March.

Further reading:

Resources to help educate children on diversity and racism

Resources for educators to learn more about diversity and inclusion

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Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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