Celebrating Skin Tones: A Piece of Racial Identity Development

Young children notice differences and make meaning of what they observe. They internalize messages about skin color and race whether we engage in conversation with them or not. We can influence the way children think about skin color and race by openly talking with them and nurturing the three C’s: curiosity, compassion and critical thinking.

White adults often make a few mistakes when it comes to considering race with children:

1) We think it’s problematic to talk about and notice differences. In an attempt to be “color blind,” we say that people are all the same, but children see for themselves that people look different. In reality, the problem is not noticing physical differences, rather it’s in making false meanings out of those differences– often based on misinformation, stereotypes or prejudice. 

2) We get uncomfortable, and even shush children, when they share their observations about skin colors, rather than taking it as an opportunity to thoughtfully engage them and help shape a positive association with all skin colors. When we silence children, we give them the message that there is something wrong with whatever they’re noticing; we stigmatize it; and we force their questions to go underground, causing confusion.

3) We see ourselves as the norm or standard while we see people of color as having a race. In this way, we uphold white privilege, and skip over noticing our own whiteness–both our skin color and white culture.

  • Children compare their own skin to the baby doll’s skin, putting their name by the doll that most closely resembles their own shade of skin.

To interrupt these hurtful ways of being that perpetuate white privilege, white supremacist culture, and racism, we make a concerted effort at HFP to help children notice their own skin color and place it in a broader context. As part of our commitment to anti-bias education, we’ll make it clear that everybody has a beautiful shade of skin– one more unique physical characteristic along with their other features (hair, eyes, size, etc).

Our classroom is currently made up primarily lighter skinned children. We are taking the time to notice our skin tones and the broader range of skin tones that exist. In doing so, we are helping cultivate a climate of interest and appreciation for the varied colors of people.

  • Children compare their own skin with a range of spices. They sniff spices and get to notice the richness of the scents along with learning a new name for their own skin from ginger to curry to nutmeg.

  • Children each get a lotto card with a child’s face on it. During a circle time activity, they’re invited to place that card by the hand color card that most closely resembles that child’s face- from sunlight to peachy to rosy to raven.

  • Children play a matching lotto game with pictures of children’s faces. Adults encourage children to take a close look at each child pictured to notice specific traits. We use mirrors to notice similarities or different to our own faces. 

Susan will be leading an early childhood workshop discussion “Working Toward Racial Equity” on Feb. 26th, sponsored by the Portland Metropolitan Chapter of ORAEYC (Oregon Association for the Education of Young Children). More Info HERE

Thanks to Katie Kissinger, author of “All the Colors We Are/Todos Los colores de nuestra piel” and “Anti-Bias Education in the Early Childhood Classroom:Hand In Hand, Step By Step” for her inspiring work. 

Suggested Reading: “Why Talk About Whiteness: We Can’t Talk About Racism Without It”– Emily Chiariello


Celebrating Holidays With Intention

In our multicultural society, Christmas, although important to many people, is still not everyone’s holiday. For children and families from other groups—be they Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, pagan, atheist, or anything else—Christmas can be a difficult time. For almost all families, the commercialization of the holiday, with its pressures to buy, decorate, and entertain, adds tremendous complication to already overloaded and busy lives.” -NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children)

We relay our values to our impressionable children. This time of year poses an additional challenge as retailers, commercials, and in some cases extended family and friends, bombard us with messages about how to prepare for Christmas. Inherent in this commercial construction of Christmas underlies the misleading assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas and does so in the same way: feasts, decorations, visits with Santa and numerous gifts under the Christmas tree.

We can guide our children’s thoughts and expectations this holiday season as we choose experiences, rituals and gift-giving that are consistent with our values and let go of those commercial values that are not. As we hold true to our wishes for our families and tease those out from what’s being sold to us, we can gift ourselves a nourishing, balanced and joyful holiday season.

Emphasize Connection and Balance

Whether we are aware of it or not, there is a persuasive Christmas script that can run the show. In an effort to attain this elusive picture-perfect Christmas, we might over-commit to activities, spend beyond our means, consume more sugar and/or alcohol than we truly want, focus children’s attention on material desires and regret subsequent meltdowns, host in pristinely decorated and spotless homes, and forget the experiences of those who don’t celebrate Christmas.

There is much to treasure this season:

  • Time with loved ones
  • Family rituals
  • Annual decorations
  • Favorite recipes
  • Festive music
  • Gift sharing
  • Outdoor excursions
  • Joyful connections

Let’s pause to consider the activities that most nourish us and leave behind those that don’t bring us fulfillment. Sometimes, less is more. We can plan based on the knowledge that what our children most want is our loving attention. Let’s act in accordance to our values, rather than get swept up in what author Jean Staeheli refers to as the “Christmas machine.” *

Challenge Assumptions

Instead of narrowly defining winter celebrations, we can teach our children that there are many ways to honor winter holidays. Assuming every family celebrates Christmas is hurtful. It reinforces a false narrative that there is single experience and it keeps others’ experiences invisible.  A couple of simple shifts in language during December can help to reflect a broader range of family experiences:

  • Wish people “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
  • Call the two-week school closure at the end of December “Winter Break,” rather than “Christmas Break.”

Shifting from dominant culture assumptions takes time and practice. The more we do it, the closer we’ll come to achieving the true meaning of the holidays– goodwill to all.

Consider Families With Less Financial Means 

We can support our children’s understanding that families’ access to material wealth varies. While the holiday season offers some families luxurious social events, feasts and the exchange of multiple gifts, other families are struggling to meet their basic needs.

We can let our children know what we are thankful for (each other, our homes, heating, warm clothes, good food, etc) and we can help them understand that many people don’t have access to these things.

Consider donating to or volunteering at a food bank, donating warm clothing and/or donating some new or gently used toys. These actions will help support our children’s awareness of others and will help remind us that we can all make a difference.

Gift Ideas that Emphasize Connection Over Consumption

These gifts nourish our relationships, produce less waste and are better for the environment:

  1. Trade gently used books or toys that your child is ready to pass on. Wrap them up and swap with another family.
  2. Make a batch of homemade play dough.
  3. Purchase books that feature perspectives and experiences that may be different from your child’s to help boost empathy and awareness. Some of my favorite picture books are here.
  4. Subscribe to a children’s magazine. Here are some recommendations.
  5. Activities: Rollerskating, bowling, family soccer game or card night.
  6. Coupon book: Include a night time family walk, a trip to OMSI, picking what’s for dinner, or an extra bedtime story.
  7. Crafting date: Time to get together to make something.
  8. Baking date: Offer recipes and ingredients and bake.
  9. Gift Certificate for Shared Nature Adventure: Let’s take a hike! Ride bikes together! Sled! Shift the emphasis from stuff to shared appreciation of the great outdoors.
  10. Gift Certificate for Parent Play Time: A coupon for child to pick a half hour of uninterrupted play in which they dictate what you do together.  Set the timer and let the good times roll!

Here’s to a joyous holiday season!

Further Reading:

From Hand-in-Hand Parenting: “Holidays and Meltdowns Go Together like Peanut Butter and Jelly” 

*  “Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season” by Jean Staeheli


Shalom Means Peace In Hebrew: Talking with Children in the Wake of the Pittsburgh Synagogue Tragedy

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” – Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor & activist

As an educator committed to justice, I continue to think about ways to combat confusion, misinformation, and hate and to pave the way for love, inclusion, and equity. I have the privilege of working with both adults and preschoolers, so I get to think of ways to share information with parents of preschoolers and to consider ways to share developmentally appropriate lessons with three to five year-olds.

Over the past week, a white gunman targeted and murdered two black people while they were grocery shopping in Kentucky. Another white gunman shot and killed eleven Jews while they were praying in their synagogue. We are painfully reminded that hatred is real and that unchecked hatred and white nationalism have dire consequences. I feel compelled to speak out and to teach toward change so I’m doing that in the little community I’m a part of. I started by writing a couple of emails to the families in our community. Within them, I included:

“I‘m in the process of figuring out the best ways to include a direct classroom response to the anti-semitic violence of this past weekend. I’m thinking about what is developmentally appropriate and ways to keep things positive. I hope to shine the light on the outpouring of love and support while naming the hurtful act. I don’t plan to share any details of the violence or say that people were killed. I hope to share a bit more on our blog by the end of this week. If or as you have any thoughts or questions, I’d welcome hearing them.”

As I consider how to best involve families of young children, I am reminded that while we want to shield children from the intensity of harsh things in the world, there is value in engaging directly with our children and emphasizing the actions that people continue to make for peace and justice.

Some children may be the direct targets of hatred or violence; while most children, if not all in our school community are cushioned from much of it. But most children– if not all– will at least pick up pieces of information from current events in the world around them. Young children may notice that their parents are upset, learn from older siblings, overhear a news report, or witness a conversation in the grocery store. They will likely hear something about the hurtful things in our broader community. When we engage directly with children, we can frame the conversation and influence how our young ones think and learn about challenging issues, and we can empower them to take action alongside the countless people who actively seek peace. And when we talk with children about scary or challenging circumstances, we give them the message that we are interested and willing to talk, paving the way for ongoing conversations.

I used this week’s family share to teach the word “shalom”– the Hebrew word for peace–and to share some ideas about what peace includes: “Being gentle, kind, friendly and loving to all people.” I named that we were going to sing a song, “Shalom/Peace,” at circle and wanted to be sure everyone knew what shalom and peace meant prior to our circle time.

At circle, I revisited what we know about peace and said: People all over the country– no matter where they live in the United States–in Portland, Oregon or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania– have been lighting candles and singing and sending peace to everyone. They are doing this for a really sad reason. Instead of pretending to scare people (like we’ve been playing this Halloween season), someone really scared and hurt people. They used their words and they used their body to scare and hurt people who are Jewish. These Jewish people were in their synagogue, praying, and welcoming a baby. Someone came in and scared and hurt them. While our class is learning that it is always important to be gentle, kind and loving, this person was confused and hurtful. They acted out of hate, instead of love. So thousands of people all over our country are saying “No”– It is wrong to hate and wrong to hurt people. And people all over the United States are lighting candles, singing songs about peace and letting the Jewish people who got scared or hurt know that we care about Jews and we care about everyone’s safety.

Then I lit a candle for peace and introduced our new Shalom/Peace song to spread more gentleness, kindness and love. When it was time to blow out the peace candle, a child suggested we all do it together. What a lovely joyful closing to our ritual!

Here’s to continuing to find ways to involve families in peace activism work. Preserving our shared humanity depends on it. 

Takeaways from Teaching Tolerance:

  • “To ignore such an act of violence is to accept it.”
  • We can teach our children “how hate takes hold” and empower them by providing “ways they can join us in fighting hate.”
  • If we don’t talk about “hate-filled moments,” we “normalize” them.
  • Our children need to hear messages of acceptance, love and pluralism in every arena of their lives.

To Learn More

5 Tips for Talking with Children About the Tree of Life Shooting – Anti-Defamation League

How To Talk To Children About Anti-Semitism – PJ Library “Research shows that one of the best ways that we can help prepare our children to cope with discrimination and intolerance is by being open about it. When we show our children that these topics, though tough, are not taboo, we let them know that they can always come to us with questions or thoughts about life’s scary situations.”

Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide – Southern Poverty Law Center



Anti-Bias Workshop for Parents

A workshop for parents who care about social justice and equity

At HFP, we commit to learning about bias and to deepening our understanding of how bias impacts our lives. We strive to teach our children a healthy respect and understanding of what it means to live in a diverse world. In an effort to help our process, we are pleased to co-sponsor a Parents’ Workshop led by activist, teacher and author, Katie Kissinger.

This workshop is open to the public.

This “retreat-like” format provides a great way to get a basic foundation for anti-bias education and parenting.  We will combine storytelling, goals for children, and strategies for supporting your child’s identity and learning about differences. The session is interactive with the sharing of your own stories about the messages you grew up with regarding identity in six categories: gender, skin color, culture, economic status, sexual orientation and able-ness.  We will have time to explore your questions, hopes and fears regarding this important and very timely topic.  

Let’s create a more equitable world for our children, families and community.  

When: Tentatively scheduled for Fri., Sept 22nd, 6:00-8:30 p.m. (Pt 1)  and Sat., Sept 23rd, 9:00-4:00 p.m. (Pt 2). * Participants are expected to attend both Pt 1 and Pt 2.

Cost: $75/person or $125/couple. (We may have scholarship funds available).

Instructor: Katie is an activist and leader in anti-bias work in early childhood education. She is author of All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color and Anti-Bias Education in the Early Childhood Classroom.








To reserve a spot, please email Susan@hawthornefamilyplayschool.org.


We Know Kindness, Inclusion & Love. HFP at the Women’s March on Portland.

HFP parent at women's march in Portland, OR

I was proud to carry a sign, claiming half of my heritage. Muslims are becoming increasingly vilified, scapegoated, and stereotyped  in this country, emboldened by top-down rhetoric. I wanted people to see a person, that for all intents and purposes, looks an awful lot like white privileged class, but who in fact stands to be a victim of Islamophobia. Stereotypes are wrong, hurtful and divisive. By claiming my heritage, in the face of animosity, I’m personalizing the stereotype, and sharing the vulnerability that my family and I stand to be hurt by the onslaught of anti-Muslim propaganda. – Mitra Anoushiravani, HFP President.

Kindness, inclusion and love are at the the core of the best early childhood curriculum.  Early childhood educators teach relationship-building, problem solving and respect. We teach that every classmate is valuable and we make space for varying perspectives, expressions and experiences.  We hold compassion and respect as the foundation for all learning.

Sadly, these basic practices affirming our shared humanity are grossly lacking in the current national leadership. So, when I was invited to speak at the Women’s March Pre-Rally for Children and Families, I knew that I would mirror what I teach in the classroom:


Some people say hateful messages.
Sometimes people say hurtful things to people who seem “different.”
But we know, those messages are wrong.
ALL people are important. ALL people belong. ALL people are equal.

Sometimes people say that boys are more important than girls.
But we know, girls are as important as anybody.

Sometimes people say hurtful messages about gender. They tell us we can either be a boy, and act one way, or a girl, and act a completely different way.
But we know, there are many, many ways to be human.

Sometimes people tease and say mean things about being gay or lesbian.
But we know, loving people is a good thing, no matter if you love someone who is the same sex as you, or not.

Sometimes people say that people with dark skin, or black skin, don’t matter as much as people with light skin or white skin.
But we know, Black Lives Matter.

Sometimes people say that immigrants and refugees don’t belong.
They say immigrants and refugees should leave.
But we know, immigrants and refugees belong and we welcome them.

Sometimes people say mean things about people who are Muslim or Jewish.
But we know, that people who are Muslim or Jewish are good people, just like everybody else.

Sometimes people say hurtful things about people with disabilities.
But we know, there are many good ways to be human.

Sometimes people say mean things about people who have little or no money.
But we know, the amount of money someone has– has nothing to do with how important they are.

We have good minds. We think well.
We have strong hearts. We love deeply.
We have powerful voices. We can use our words.

When someone says or does something that is hurtful or mean,
We can say: “No,” “Stop,” or “That’s not fair.”


We know: ALL people are important. ALL people belong. ALL people are equal.

Throughout sharing this speech, I had the privilege of  leading the crowd in three chants: “Black Lives Matter.” “I’m strong. I’m loud. I make my family proud.” “LOVE, not hate. THAT is what makes us great.” Thousands of protesters cheered in solidarity, reminding us that there are millions in agreement with valuing and protecting our shared humanity.

Thanks to Families for Peaceful Protest for orchestrating an entertaining and inspiring rally.

Photos below are of HFP students, parents, alumni, Love 4 Urban Art dancers and participants for “Blank Like A Girl” empowerment piece.
         Image may contain: 1 person, eyeglasses, closeup and outdoor