Can racism be nipped in the bud?

Encouraging toddlers from different ethnic groups to play together could stop prejudice forming, says Justine East
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The Independent Online

Even when children are still in nappies, they may be racist, according to Lord Ouseley, the former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality. Toddlers from different ethnic backgrounds should be encouraged to "play together from day one" to stop prejudice developing in these formative years, he recently suggested. This could also help them "unlearn any racist attitudes and behaviour they may already have learned," he said.

Jane Lane, an early years equality adviser, agrees. "There is a view that children do not learn their attitudes until they are about five," she says. "But people in the early years know that children at a very early age - at the age of three - are categorising people. I am not talking about white children; I am talking about all children."

An experiment for a BBC series last year by development expert Robert Winston appears to back these claims. He found that some children as young as four had absorbed racist stereotypes and identified black people as potential troublemakers and criminals, while children from all backgrounds appeared to prefer white people, associating them with success and trustworthiness.

The recommendation that staff at nurseries and other children's centres should intervene to ensure that children mix goes further than current thinking and guidance, which concentrates on making sure that they simply cater to all ethnic groups. But some organisations are already ahead of the game, going out of their way to ensure that racism is not an option for young children.

The Sheffield Children's Centre provides for babies and toddlers, as well as older children, and focuses heavily on celebrating ethnic diversity. On a daily basis, 15 languages are spoken so that children think nothing of hearing and using multiple languages, and so that they don't differentiate between children who predominantly speak English and those who predominantly speak Urdu, for example.

A wide range of festivals are celebrated so that the children see there is no "one way to be", and the centre also focuses on different cultures in its creative sessions. Recent examples include Bengali storytelling and drama, Icelandic sagas, Irish traditional music, and Morris Dancing. "One five-year-old wound up making a tape and a CD of Bangladeshi traditional songs, playing and singing herself," says a spokesperson.

The centre believes that true multi-culturalism among young children can only really work when families and the local community get involved. As such, it has produced books about family and community life, which families of the children are encouraged to read, and which are also loaned out to other centres. These are about their daily lives in England, what they do, where they go - and they don't hold back from including any experiences of racism and oppression.

For day centres and primary schools that don't know where to start in actively preventing racism among young children, a growing number of organisations are on hand to help. Melanie Machan, senior content producer for BBC Schools, Learning and Interactive, points out that they have recently re-launched a website which links to important events across a number of faiths. "The idea is to give teachers and parents an overview of the event, as well as ideas to teach children about the importance of other faiths and religions," she says. "For people working with younger children, there is guidance on things like making an Easter card or learning about Divali clothes. The activities are very practical so that children from a very early age can get involved."

Dave Bookless, who heads up the UK arm of A Rocha, a nature conservation organisation, adds that it's not only day centres and primary schools that can prevent racist attitudes forming. "Our work is in a large nature reserve in Southall and is about getting local children to learn about and enjoy it. The offshoot of this is that you get children from all backgrounds mixing together," he says. "If you think about it, nature and the environment is the common ground for these children. They find that their experiences of this space - which they may not have encountered before - are very similar, and it breaks down any barriers that there might otherwise have been."

Even toy manufacturers are getting involved in the cause. Vtech, a leader in age appropriate learning toys from birth onwards, has started building ethnic diversity into its manufacturing. "One of our latest products, V.Smile Baby, an infant development system aimed at children between nine and 36 months, has been created to include characters from a broad ethnic mix," says a spokesperson.

Nevertheless, not everyone agrees that a heavy focus on ethnic diversity among very young children is a good idea. Margaret Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations believes that forcing them to play with children from other backgrounds could be counterproductive. Children do not tend to notice different skin colours until the age of six, she believes. "I think we should be cautious about making this an issue for young children. Artificial attempts to force the issue could even be detrimental.

"My experience is that children just play together, regardless of skin colour, and that's how it should be. Since around 1975, when I first got involved in nursery education, I have never seen children segregating to play."

Meanwhile, Chrissy Meleday, chief executive of Early Years Equality, the national custodian for racial equality in the early years, says: "We believe that integration in the early years is a process of cultural negotiation and should not be one of forced assimilation."

She points out that there are a myriad of influences in children's lives other than playmates - including media representations of different people, and family and community perspectives: "Any approach to promoting racial equality should therefore be very holistic."