Inclusion - ‘Wakanda forever!’

Liz Pemberton
Tuesday, October 27, 2020

One boy’s interest in the Black Panther film shows how stories can help build a secure sense of identity, says Liz Pemberton

We know that children enter early years settings with a rich and individual catalogue of experiences that have all contributed to their own personal narratives, and these experiences evolve as the children grow and develop. This is why A Unique Child is one of the four overarching principles in the Early Years Foundation Stage.

Children’s uniqueness is often exemplified in their storytelling, and showing a genuine interest in their stories is crucial in giving them a sense of who they are. However, children’s sense of identity becomes all the more secure when we, as practitioners, respond to their stories in a meaningful way, by building their interests into our planning and giving children the space and time to explore them – as the following example shows.


Me: (Bouncing into my pre-school room, gesticulating and smiling) ‘Good morning everybody!’

Children:(In chorus) ‘Good morning Liz!’ (Each child runs towards me grabbing on to various limbs, laughing.)

T’ziyah: ‘Liz! Liz! You know my nan came on Saturday. I was at her house yeah, and she made nice soup but I didn’t eat it all it was sooo hot but then yeah, my mum and dad let me watch a film on the weekend Liz. I seen theBlack Panther, did you see that movie? He was soooo strong, he was black and I’m black too, but I’ve got shaved hair from the barbers, I saw the barber on Saturday! Then I got the mask from Asda and daddy says I can’t bring it to nursery because he says(T’ziyah pauses for air) and then he said…(T’ziyah re-enacts a fight scene, swiftly positioning his body into a stance that tells me he is ready for war). I LOVED it Liz, but dya know what his name is T’Challa and my name is T’ziyah and we’ve nearly got the same name but the movie was for boys not girls!’

Mariyah: ‘Yes, it is for girls! My mommy says girls can watch it too!’


This interaction exemplifies so much about the nature of children’s storytelling, and I am sure that you will have had similar experiences of an excited three-year-old coming to you on a Monday morning to tell you about their eventful weekend. What is important is our responses to children’s stories.

My response to T’ziyah would inform him directly about how he builds a secure sense of identity as ‘a unique child who is constantly learning and can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured’ (Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage).

Many thoughts and questions can spring to mind when children seek your affirmation as they exchange personal narratives, and in this instance I wondered:

  • Do I affirm that he is in fact black? Is it necessary?
  • How do I respond to this appropriately, so that I support his confidence?
  • I am familiar with the film and I am aware that our shared experience can enable me to build on the learning opportunity.
  • Why did T’ziyah say it is a film for boys? Is he beginning to internalise some sexist thoughts which need to be effectively challenged?

The strength and racial identity of T’Challa, the Black Panther, had led T’ziyah to conclude that he too was powerful. In that short, excited burst of words, with great uses of adjectives and expression, clear intonation and pauses, he had told me about his family, his culture, who and what are important to him and his passion for role play. So, what do I do with all of this information?


At that point, I had known T’ziyah for eight months and knew that I was one of his trusted key workers. Over time our relationship had allowed him to share, and he had learnt ‘to be strong and independent through [our] positive relationships’ (Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage). This will be the case for the children you work with too.

T’ziyah’s comment that Black Panther was a ‘boys-only’ film provided me with the opportunity to foster a positive relationship across the gender divide and challenge his emerging views on girls. We must never forget how influential our perspectives are when helping children to make sense of their world, and it is key that we incorporate these into how we plan activities and extend learning opportunities.

T’ziyah’s exchange presented the perfect opportunity to challenge sexist attitudes through role play. So, we re-enacted a scene from the film, with each of the boys and girls choosing the character they wanted to be irrespective of gender or race – a South Asian girl or black boy could be Black Panther if they wanted. T’ziyah enjoyed repeating the key phrase from the film, ‘Wakanda forever!’.


My response to T’ziyah’s story raises questions about diversity and inclusion, and the enabling environments we create for the young children in our care. ‘Inclusion’ is about more than providing a diverse range of books and dolls. We have to move past resource tick boxes and tokenistic gestures which pay lip service to ‘diversity and inclusion’ with regards to children’s lives.

If we, as a sector, are not willing to challenge the dominant racist, sexist and ableist structures in society, because we are too cautious or afraid to enter into uncomfortable conversations about diversity, then early years practice and provision will remain the same – as will society. Always remember that early years provision is a microcosm of the wider systemic discrimination and injustices that we are experiencing right now in the world.

Acknowledging the enormous diversity within our society is a tiny step in the right direction. Far more important, however, is working meaningfully and collaboratively with families to recognise and incorporate the different realities for their children that take place by fostering truly ‘enabling environments’ within the setting.

It is about talking explicitly about race and acknowledging that T’ziyah has seen himself represented in a film that centres on black superheroes, rather than brushing aside his experience because you don’t know how to talk about race.

Having a strong partnership with parents and carers means using home time as an opportunity to discuss T’ziyah’s day with his mum or dad. Importantly, the conversation should be in front of T’ziyah to further demonstrate to him how important he is and how his family is valued.

Additionally, responding to children’s stories and interests can enable us to create ‘enabling environments’ that deliver the cross-curricular learning that we all seek for the children in our care.

Through our Black Panther role play, T’ziyah was able to develop, for example, his communication, social and gross motor skills (Prime areas), as well as his spatial awareness (Mathematics). It also allowed for active learning, critical thinking and exploratory play (Characteristics of Effective Learning).


I drew on my observations of the Black Panther role play and T’ziyah’s input to plan ‘next steps’ in his learning. As well as avoiding an adult-led approach, T’ziyah’s involvement also gave me a clearer understanding of his interests.

My aim was to build on the role play to extend his creativity and encourage him to tell more stories about this place that he had seen in the film. I wondered:

  • Can this imaginary place be recreated in the local community?
  • Could we visit the local reservoir, which is also a beautiful outdoor location with logs to jump off and vast green to run through?
  • Maybe he can bring his dressing-up clothes from home and wear these as he runs round the reservoir?

Challenges and dilemmas

What should we do if we cannot relate to what our children share with us? How do we ensure a reaction that still supports and values our children and makes them feel unique and valued?

Too often we worry about not getting it right, but this is counterproductive. We encourage our children to take risks and get things wrong, and we must be prepared to do the same.

If we do not have the right language to use when entering territory that feels alien to us, then we mustn’t use this as a reason to not say or do anything at all.

  • Parents are the best people to ask about their children. We must maintain professional boundaries but also build trust, so that we can ask questions that can inform us about the child.
  • Use staff meetings to share best practice.
  • Develop your own CPD by engaging in learning that takes place outside of the traditional routes of reading and writing reflective journals. Although these things are key, widen your pool of knowledge by attending webinars on topics that you feel unsure about, for example, anti-racist practice. Webinars are good spaces to learn and reflect as they do not require you to be sat in a room full of strangers, as may be the case in traditional face-to-face training situations, and they also allow you to absorb the information in the comfort of your own home.


You can attend any of Liz’s specialist ‘Anti-racism in the early years’ webinars by finding her on social media:

Liz Pemberton MA, QTS is an early years trainer and consultant and former nursery manager.

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