A blog post by IFF’s Early Childhood Education team
Close your eyes and think back to your first childhood memories – reminisce on your favorite food or meal; recollect the language your grandparents spoke and the expressions your caregivers used; remember the holidays you celebrated.
A child’s cultural background plays an important role in informing their social, emotional, and cognitive development. Culture is infused not only in the foods, languages, and customs that surround us, but also in the spaces we inhabit. As Loris Malaguzzi, educator and founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach, states, “the space has to be a sort of aquarium which mirrors the ideas, values, attitudes, and cultures of the people who live within it.” Thus, when a child’s social and physical environment is at odds with their self-identity, due to cultural differences, it can hinder their learning and development.
“In Southwest Detroit, we look at vibrant, warm, and welcoming environments, and as caregivers, we bring that into our classrooms. Creating familiarity in the classroom setting encourages children to feel secure and have a sense of belonging. All Detroit children deserve this.”
Najwa Dahdah, founder of Empowered Community Learning Center – a bilingual early childhood program that provides care in both Spanish and English – spoke to us about the importance of culture, diversity, and inclusion in early childhood education spaces. “Your environment, your home, your community says a lot about who you are, who you identify with, and how you develop a sense of self and an understanding and appreciation for culture and differences,” says Ms. Dahdah. “In Southwest Detroit, we look at vibrant, warm, and welcoming environments, and as caregivers, we bring that into our classrooms. Creating familiarity in the classroom setting encourages children to feel secure and have a sense of belonging. All Detroit children deserve this.”
Following a 2015 IFF research study that found a 28,000 gap in early childhood education slots in Detroit, Hope Starts Here was created, bringing together organizations across the city to increase quality access for all children. Additionally, IFF’s Research and Sector-Based Strategy teams dove deep into understanding the child care landscape in Southwest Detroit, where three of the top 10 high-need neighborhoods in the study are located – Chadsey, Vernor Junction, and Springwells.
Rich in history and culture, Southwest Detroit – generally defined as the two-mile geographic area west of downtown – is often defined by its long-standing, diverse community of Detroiters including Mexican Americans, Arab Americans, African Americans, and Caucasians. With authentic relationships with community development organizations like Congress of Communities, IFF collaborated on a child care survey to better understand the unique needs of parents in this area. The survey, and subsequent engagement with Southwest Detroiters, unveiled critical learnings and insights, including:
- Cultural values around the care of young children, particularly from birth to age two, in a home setting with family caregivers influences enrollment in center and more formal programs.
- Cultural values that inform decisions around moms entering the workforce influence timeframes and ages when young children might be cared for/educated in center-based programs.
- Center-based programs must hire and train teachers to be culturally and linguistically competent in the care of young children.
- Home-based caregivers value places and spaces to take children for play groups that are accessible and connected to a larger center or school.
- Federally- and state-funded programs must value local culture and community over enrollment numbers. Enrollment initiatives must be guided by the values of families and be intentional in outreach.
- In the design of early childhood spaces and facilities, programs that feel and look like homes resonated more with parents and families.
“We know the importance of physical space, but we must also put children and families first by acknowledging and honoring the diverse cultural perspectives and values to inform their learning environments. ”
So, how can we, and other CDFIs, build and advocate for culturally sensitive early learning spaces? IFF’s Learning Spaces program, which recently supported Spanish- and French-speaking providers in Grand Rapids, provided a tangible starting point, including:
- When partnering with providers whose primary language is not English, it is critical to leverage translation services to ensure that we are effectively communicating technical terminology and comprehensive project details.
- When designing spaces, environments, and facilities, it is important to incorporate murals, art, valued artifacts, etc. that display important cultural markers for children and families.
- When possible, utilizing quality and licensed contractors and vendors who reflect the ethnic, racial, and cultural background of providers allows for relational connections that can be leveraged to advance facilities work.
As we partner to increase access to early childhood education across the city, we can’t take a monolithic approach when creating quality early learning facilities. We know the importance of physical space, but we must also put children and families first by acknowledging and honoring the diverse cultural perspectives and values to inform their learning environments.
As Dahdah says, “let’s be intentional about recruiting and training bilingual communities to increase our work around equity, diversity, and inclusion. Regardless of our differences, we each bring a world of knowledge and experiences that can increase the quality of programs, improve the physical spaces where our children learn, while strengthening the Southwest Detroit community and our city’s future.”
This blog is part of a thought leadership series sponsored by The Kresge Foundation.