Children become aware of cultural and social differences as early as 2 to 5 years of age, according to an Ohio State University Fact Sheet on helping children develop cultural competence. Activities designed for children to develop cross-cultural awareness and acceptance of diversity are necessary tools for preventing stereotyping and prejudice from developing in children.
The OSU Extension fact sheet instructs parents to be open and honest with their children about differences. For example, a child might comment on how his classmate speaks a different language. This presents a "teachable moment," an opportunity to respond and help shape the child's attitudes toward diversity. The parent can respond, "Yes, his parents are from India and they speak Indian. They are also learning English as best they can. You can try to help your classmate if he does not understand something, and maybe you can learn Indian and be bilingual someday."
The BYU School of Education Diversity section recommends promoting awareness and appreciation for other cultures by marking holidays. This can be done in the classroom and the home. Christian families might teach their children about Passover, white families can educate their children about Kwanzaa, and non-Asian families can learn about Chinese New Year. While it helps to know a family who celebrates the holiday, a trip to the library might provide all of the information needed to have a small celebration and learn about other cultures.
This activity works well with children who already know and are comfortable with each other. Ask for a volunteer and write the volunteer's name on the board. Ask the group for a list of words describing the volunteer. You might get suggestions such as "tall" or "smiles a lot." Ask the volunteer to tell the group something about himself. For example, he might say, "I like basketball." Now you have enough to draw a Venn diagram. Draw two circles that overlap in the middle. Write the volunteer's name in one, and "basketball player" in the other. Go down the list of qualities the group suggested, and discuss whether all basketball players are tall and have a nice smile. The kids will see that people belong to different groups, and that people in any one group are not the same. This exercise is a good introductory activity to fight prejudice and promote cross-cultural sensitivity.
The pipe cleaner activity also promotes awareness of how we are similar in spite of our differences, but requires more time and thought than the Venn diagram. Pipe cleaners is one of the activities included in a handbook of cross-cultural activities for children published by Penn State University. Use the pipe cleaner activity when you have at least 30 minutes. Buy long pipe cleaners in several colors. Spread them out on a table, and instruct the children to each choose any four pipe cleaners. Then ask each child to craft a representation of something important to her with her four pipe cleaners. Have a list of categories written down ahead of time. For example, religion, family member, school, work and friends. As the group, "If your pipe cleaner creation has something to do with religion, please stand." Then they sit back down, and you continue down the list. The kids will see different groups standing each time, and each child will belong to more than one group. They learn that we share similarities and differences with others, a necessary concept for cross-cultural awareness.