The Early Childhood Education Initiative supports understanding and development of each child’s healthy racial identity, their joy in human diversity and inclusion, their sense of justice, and their capacity to act for their own and others’ fair treatment.
In partnership with families and educators, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is in a unique position to support the youngest members of our society by providing age-appropriate programming for children; resources for adults at the museum and online; professional development opportunities for educators; and research-based publications.
It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.Frederick Douglass Abolitionist, Author and Educator
We are thrilled to welcome our youngest visitors to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Early Childhood Education Initiative offers programming from children from birth to 8 years old and the adults in these children’s lives.
Museum Programs for Young Children
We are excited to offer programs for our early childhood audience in the museum. Pre-registration is required for programs and includes an entry pass to access the classroom and gallery spaces.
Cultural Cuddles are programs created for families with infants and pre-toddlers. Cultural Cuddles invites parents, grandparents, and caregivers with children birth to 12 months of age to bond, play, and discover during this 60 minute class. Each program includes a museum experience designed especially for this age group, art material exploration and play. Cooing and crying are welcome!
Cultural Cuddles classes are for children ages birth to 12 months old only. Single strollers, tandem strollers and baby carriers are permitted.
Cultural Cuddles class size is limited to 10 children. One adult is required for every child. (One additional caretaker is welcome to join). Pre-registration is mandatory.
Cultural Cuddles is offered every Tuesday and the second Saturday of every month except January, May, and August.
Toddling Treasures are programs created for families with children 13-35 months of age. Parents, grandparents, and caregivers with their Toddling Treasure are invited to this 60 minute class to express themselves through song and dance. Each program includes activities that strengthen movement and individual expression. Scatting and skedaddling are welcome!
Toddling Treasures classes are for children 13-35 months old only. Single, tandem strollers and baby carriers are permitted.
Toddling Treasures class size is limited to 10 children. One adult is required for every child. (One additional caretaker is welcome to join). Pre-registration is mandatory.
Toddling Treasures is offered every Thursday and the third Sunday of every month except January, May, and August.
In addition to our regular weekday programming above, we often offer “pop-up” versions of these programs in our galleries or classroom. Please be sure to check in with the visitor desk when you visit NMAAHC to see what pop-up programs may be scheduled.
Race is not real. Biologically, we are all members on one race, the human race. But in a world of racial inequity, racial identity is very real. Each of us has a racial identity,and racial beliefs affects all of us. We live in a time where there is still such pain, confusion, fear and anger about racial identity, it is no wonder that families struggle with what to tell their children. How can we support our children’s pride in their racial heritage and yet not support a sense of superiority or inferiority. How do we teach “We are all the same in our humanity, and we are all different is the ways that make us unique”? Here are some ideas to spark conversations with young children as they come to discover their racialized world.
#1 Why talk with very young children about skin color and racial identity? Aren’t they too young to care about such things?
As parents and teachers, we have the opportunity to shape children’s first attitudes and understandings of physical differences between people. Children are very good observers. (Think about newborn babies staring at the faces of people who hold them). Much of how young children figure out the world, even before they have words, comes from observing and listening. Children are not color blind and skin color is one of the most obvious things about humans. Babies as young as 6 months old pay attention to differences in skin color. They find the differences in human faces interesting and a useful part of figuring out who is who.
Children watch the adults around themselves for cues about the world. Anything children see or experience, but that the adults will not talk about, teaches children that the subject is dangerous, that the adults are afraid. Silence keeps children from understanding and learning. We live in a world where racial identity is important – children need tools to name and to feel proud and safe in theirs.
How have you talked to children about skin color? What have you said or left unsaid? What feelings do you want your children to have about their own and other people’s racial identities?
- Silence forces children to figure things out on their own, with their limited understanding of the world.
- Silence robs children of a vocabulary to talk about, or to ask questions about, what is confusing or troubling.
- Silence teaches fear – that the subject is so dangerous the adults won’t even talk about it.
- Silence forces children to rely on other children and on media for information and for emotional context.
Side bar: We have feelings too.
When our children start being interested in physical differences between people, it usually brings up big feelings in adults. We have long histories of racial distinctions being used to injure, to treat people as less than fully human, to give permission for cruel injustice. We want to protect our children for as long as we can from having to face the terrible impacts of racism. Yet if we don’t talk with our children – someone else will.
So what to do? Take a deep breath. Remind yourself that all you need to do now is give some simple information. And if words won’t come, tell your child you need to think a little first. You might want to say “When I was little no-one talked to me about skin color, so I need to think about how to talk with you. But we will talk tomorrow”. And tomorrow – after you have had a chance to be calm – begin the conversation.
Shouldn’t we wait until a child asks questions before we talk about skin color and racial identity?
Children can’t ask questions unless they have the words to form their ideas. Without a vocabulary to use, most children simply pick up on the tension, the unease, and the fear about skin color that permeates our society. If adults have been silent about skin color, children may well see it is an unsafe subject to bring up.
Families and teachers have the opportunity to create a positive, joyful tone for children’s first attempts to understand human skin colors and other physical differences. Children rely on their adults to give them vocabulary to name the world they live in.They need simple ideas to explain the ways we are all the same and ways we are all different. And if their trusted adults don’t talk about what is obvious to them (people look different!), they will turn to media or to other children for explanations and for the attitudes behind the explanations.
Side bar: Remember, it’s a conversation not a lecture!
Anytime you are talking with a young child about complicated things, it’s a good idea to start by finding out what they think. Children have almost always tried to make sense about what they see and experience, and often have really interesting ideas about why the world is the way it is. It’s also important to stop after every new idea you offer and check out how your child feels and thinks about what you have said. Give new information in small doses, in simple language. If the child is done – let it go. There will always be another opportunity to continue the discussion another time.
#2 What do young children need to know about skin color & racial identity?
Here are some straightforward, clarifying, ideas that help young children understand and feel comfortable with human physical diversity. Exactly what words you use is not as important as sharing the feeling that this is interesting stuff to think about! And letting your child know they are beloved exactly as they are.
We are all the same. All people have skin. Skin keeps our insides in! Skin is wonderful stuff.
- We are all different. Our skin comes in many colors from dark, dark brown to light, light cream.
- We get our skin color from our birth parents who got their skin color from their birth parents. Our skin is a mix of colors from our families. In the same family, people may have different shades of skin – and they are still a family!
- No one has black skin (black like shoes, or like licorice), but they may call themselves Black. Other people may call them black too. People who call themselves Black may have skin that is from very dark brown to very light cream. What they mean is that they are part of a big, big family that once-upon-a-time came from countries in a big, big place called Africa. (People may also call themselves African Americans).
- No one has white skin (white like socks or like cow’s milk), but people may call themselves White. People who call themselves white may have skin color from very dark tan to very light cream. What they mean is that they are part of a big, big family that once-upon-a-time came from countries in a big, big place called Europe. (They may also call themselves Euro-Americans). Some came a long time ago, some came recently.
- There are also people whose big, big, once-upon-a-time families came from places all over the world. They may call themselves, Latino or Asian or maybe they use the names of the countries their families came from, like Mexican American or Japanese American. And these people may have skin that is from very dark brown to very light cream.
- Lots of people are parts of big families that are a mix of places from all over the world. They have many different skin colors. There is only one way to know what they call themselves. You have to ask!!
Side bar: What did you think about skin color and racial identity names when you were little?
What are your earliest memory of thinking about differences in skin color? What do you remember noticing? How did you feel about your skin color? About other people’s skin colors? What, if anything did you hear adults saying? Did you ask questions? If not, why not?
#3 What do young children need to know about struggles for justice?
Even very young children hear about terrible things happening to people in our world. And, far too many children experience terrible things happening in their communities and schools or in their own lives. When bad things happen, children need safe adults who will help them understand what is going on, give them truthful, simple information and emotional support. Here are some more simple concepts that help children understand the world we live in and helps them to feel safe and be strong. Again, it doesn’t matter exactly which words you use, it’s the ideas that count!
Almost everyone wants a world that is fair, where all people are treated with kindness and no one is hurtful or mean to others.
- But sometimes, people are not treated fairly. Sometimes children quarrel or want the same toy or don’t want to play. That’s OK. That’s just part of learning to get along and be friendly. But sometimes people are treated badly because of the color of their skin or where their family came from, or for the language they speak or the kind of body they have. That is never OK.
- Saying someone can’t cry because he is a boy is not OK (and it’s not true – boys DO cry). Saying someone can’t run fast because she is a girl is not OK (and it’s not true – girls DO run fast). Saying someone can’t play because their skin is a different color is not only silly – it’s hurtful and mean and it’s not OK. Saying someone can’t sit next to you because they say words differently than you do – is not OK. It’s hurtful and mean and you miss out on making a new friend.
- When someone treats another person badly because of who they are – it’s called injustice. That means it’s hurtful and not fair.
- If someone is mean or unfair to you or to someone else, you can do something. You can help turn unfair into fair. You can tell people to stop! You can explain that unfairness hurts. You can be a friend to someone whose feelings are hurt. You can ask a grown up to help you. There are lots of things you can do.
- Sometimes, hurtful, unfair things happen in our world. But there are always people who will do something about it. Sometimes they talk to the person who is doing the unjust thing. Sometimes they write letters, or sign petitions (that’s a letter signed by lots and lots of people saying – “ Something unfair is happening. Here’s what we want you to do!”). Sometimes they march in the streets carrying signs saying what should happen to make the world fair. Sometimes they go to meetings and talk to lots of other people to get ideas to fix the unfair and change it to fair.
- When mean, unjust thing happen, there are always people who work hard to take care of each other and to make things better. Here are some things our family has done…to help make our world safe and fair…
Side Bar: Reminder: These are conversations – not lectures. Find out what your child thinks and feels. Check in after every new idea to see how much does and doesn’t make sense to the child. No judgements – no hurry. You will have many opportunities to grow the conversation as your child grows.
- Why Museums Should Care About Young Children
- Let’s Talk! Talking about Race with Children
- Let's Talk! Teaching Race in the Classroom
- Early Childhood Racial Identity – The Potential Powerful Role for Museum Programing
For inquiries, please contact NMAAHCearlychildhood@si.edu