Today I spent a fantastic hour of mindful interaction with children about skin color. Thanks to my coteacher and the other assistants in my room, I was able to have supportive conversations with one or two children at a time about skin color, our unique shades and marks, and how to notice and celebrate each others differences. We noticed freckles, scars, spots, and how the bottom of our arms look different that the tops. How on earth was my arm freckled and rosy tan but my legs were like tea with milk? (Bless those children for noticing and accepting that difference in my body without laughing or judging. As adults we know its because my legs haven't seen the light of day in months whereas my driving arm gets the brunt of the sun peaking out of the clouds with a similar effect as a fork in the microwave...) We discussed melanin, the sun, and how our family history impacts how our skin looks. Yes, even with three and four year olds, we talk about it.
To begin our celebration and exploration about diversity, we always read Karen Katz book, The Colors of Us. I love this book because it talks about skin tones in such an interesting, thoughtful, and developmentally appropriate way with children. They are more flavors than colors per say. We get to name our skin colors interesting things like "creamy peanut butter" and "speckled almond milk." We also think about nature browns and tans like "autumn leaves", "pinecone", and "acorn". After we read the story, I bring out the schools large collection of multicultural paints and let children paint directly onto their bodies to find the "right" combination of colors that make our skin tone. They are so excited about the prospect of painting on their bodies that their energy sizzles with excitement.
Out of 18 children, only two that came to me asked why I didn't have white as an option. This is the conversation I had with my three year old with a light complexion:
Child: Where is the white?
Me: What would you need white for?
Child: For my skin. My skin is white.
Me: Really? I have this index card that we are documenting our skin shades on. The index card is white. Lets put it next to your skin to compare. If its a match, I will go to the art closet and get some white paint. (He looks at me reassured about the plan. If I am wrong, he will get the white paint. If I am right, I will help figure out what we need. His trust is tangible. I place the card next to his arm and hear the innocent and astonished gasp.)
Child: They are not a match. (He shakes his head from side to side) Oh dear.
Me: You're right. The card is white but your skin is darker. Skin, even light skin is all different shades of tan. (We look at the paints and I point to one of the lightest colors). Well, lets start with the milky peach. That is light. (I place a dab on top of his arm)
Child: No! Nope. That is wayyyy too light. You need to add a darker paint. (He continues to hold his arm in my hand, so trustful and open to my help).
Me: Indeed, we do. Lets add some chocolate milk, olive, and cinnamon. (I gently add on the colors. He watches with intent fascination).
Child: Don't forget to blend it.
Me: I won't. Here we go... (we add and mix, blend and adjust until...)
Child: My color! Look, it matches.
Me: Yes, five different colors made up the color of you! How exciting.
After children find their skin tone they are invited to explore what other shades and tints would look like on their skin. Children mix the dark brownie batter brown with olive and cinnamon and proudly display their deep color to each other. Other children blend walnut with caramel and peach for another. With each blend they are celebrating all the colors. Their families colors, their grandmas and grandpas. The college students colors too. It is because of these conversations that I leave work feeling like I have made a difference in the world. Here are some other comments from my class when asked, "What do you know about skin color?"
"We all have different skins."
"Some skins have freckles. My mom has lots of freckles but I only has this one (shows us the one under his arm) My mom said she hid one there on me."
"Skin holds our body together."
"Different skin needs sunscreen and sun hats or it gets red and itchy."
"Sometimes skin has scars. They are reddish if they had band-aids on them like soonish. But sometimes they look purplie like on my dads knee."
"Some people has ink on their skin. Like tattoos and they are colorful like a rainbow."
"Yeah like art on your body. But they has their own tan under the art too. I like it but I only have the tattoos that wash off. See my butterfly?"
"I have white skin but not white. It's not really white but its called white. Why is it called white?"
"No matter which tan your skin is, we is all friends."
"It would not be okay to exclude someone or be unkind to someone because their skin ins't the same as yours. But it would be okay to be unkind if they take your toy. Because that isn't fair."
"Being kind is being a good friend. All of us has different skins but we is all friends."
And that is a reflection of our school culture. I love it. Children have the right to celebrate their skin color. They have the right to talk about, question, clarify, and discuss it. Let's make time to talk about it and paint it on each other. Its beautiful and mindful. It made me feel lucky to be a teacher today.
Brittany Courchesne is an early childhood educator, teacher mentor to teachers in training, public speaker, and blogger.