Like most of you, I wear many hats - I am a parent, an early childhood teacher educator, and a student. Here, I write from the perspective of one raised within the traditions of a ritualistic religion, and want to link reflections on my home life, my work within early childhood education and the use of religious and cultural artefacts in early years settings.
At home, I have a drawer filled with items our family uses to help celebrate the various holy days and festivals. The drawer is filled with a few remnants of Halloween - home-made things to hang on our door to let children know we were offering treats.
There are also other decorations and tools for the festivals we observe. I have displayed items that remind us we are a Jewish family in a Jewish house. There are mezuzahs on our doorposts, a pottery chamsah on one wall, a few Chanukah menorahs and Jewish-themed books both in Hebrew and English.
There are reminders of the many places that we have lived, because these contribute to the culture of our family. And there are photographs of our nuclear family, extended family and close family friends, because they too are important to our family identity and culture.
As an early childhood educator visiting early childhood settings, I have found that some settings do not put away their cultural tools or maybe, like me, do not put them all away; rather, they leave some on display. Either approach could be appropriate.
However, I think it is important that practitioners reflect on how they use and display cultural symbols and tools both during celebrations and afterwards, when they are not in use.
Extension of home
Both the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage (CGFS) and the Early Years Foundation Stage refer to settings as 'extensions of home'. The CGFS suggests that practitioners support children by 'ensuring the environment, furnishings and room organisation reflect things familiar to them and reflect their family, ethnicity, religion and culture' (QCA, 2000, p31). The new EYFS refers to the indoor environment as being a 'second "home"' for some children (Enabling Environments 3.3: The indoor environment).
Furthermore, in A Unique Child 1.2: Reflecting on practice, practitioners are asked to consider how a family arriving at a setting would know it is welcomed and valued. One of the ways is by having 'signs, symbols, photographs or objects relating to the lives of families who use the setting'.
Practitioners use their knowledge of culture and tradition to support the families and children. This approach to welcoming families comes in various forms: a welcome sign in different languages, photographs depicting a variety of family structures, actual photographs of the families using the setting, dolls representative of various cultures, letters to families describing the festivals that are celebrated in the setting, and books, clothing, and other materials that represent the diversity of the children in the setting.
The curriculum plans might also explore the traditions of the community. A parent might share a Christmas recipe and bake it with the children. Another might tell the story of Kintaro Boys' Day and leave a giant carp flag to display. A visitor at Chinese New Year might bring hanging decorations and leave a display of the Kitchen Gods.
Children might take a field trip to a local restaurant, learn about a specific cuisine and the artefacts used in preparation. As a follow-up, children and practitioners might create a version of this restaurant in their dramatic play area. There are numerous opportunities to exchange cultural knowledge.
How might the children and families who use your setting consider the setting as an extension of home?
What do we do with the artefacts of these cultures when we have 'finished' using them? Let's take as an example the Christmas tree. Artificial trees can be deconstructed and stored for another year; live trees can be recycled, trees made of recycled materials can be recycled again.
However, when it comes to less familiar artefacts of festivals, we may not know how to store them, giving them the proper respect needed. The Practice Guidance for the EYFS reminds us that there is a need 'to understand that people have different needs, views, cultures and beliefs that need to be treated with respect' (p38). I would like to suggest that we take the time to learn how to take this additional step in caring for the artefacts of all children and families in our work.
In our house, we have certain religious artefacts that are reserved for display only at specific times of the year. Displaying or using some tools on every occasion would be inappropriate, even if it were a festive occasion. In my mother's house, there are two sets of dishes, for both dairy and meat meals: the fancy service and the daily service.
The good service was used when we celebrated festivals or on other special occasions. As children, we learnt to lay the table using the service appropriately; we both treated these dishes with care and also enjoyed the privilege of being able to use them.
In settings, practitioners can use the knowledge of particular families and children to learn how to care appropriately for the unfamiliar artefacts. Children can follow the example of practitioners modelling respect for all artefacts. And, when we learn that an artefact is not displayed year round, we can involve the children in packing and storing these items. This would help children make sense of 'their' environment by providing an opportunity to engage in meaningful work and contributing to their knowledge and understanding of their world.
I was inspired to write this article after visiting settings and seeing shelves filled with artefacts of 'others'. My concern is that these jumbled displays send a message that contradicts the other messages in the environment.
So much thought goes into the development of curriculum, the arrangement of the environment, and the attention to creating a 'second home' for young children and their families. Please take a critical look around your setting and check for the way cultural and religious artefacts are shelved when they are not in use.
- Rachel Friedman is a senior lecturer in Early Years, Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford Brookes University
A jumble of artefacts of 'others' on a nursery shelf, evident but displayed and treated with little respect. They are:
Kintaro - a Japanese folk hero.
Mezuzah - plastic, metal, wooden case, traditionally affixed to the doorways of Jewish households; contains parchment with prayer inside.
Chanukah menorah - nine-branched candelabra used in the festival of Chanuka, Jewish festival of light.
Chamsah - a Jewish hand-shaped symbol used to protect against the evil eye.
Kitchen Gods - a God and his wife whose images are displayed or cleaned prior to Chinese New Year.
AFTER THE FESTIVAL
I have always felt a sense of joy at the build-up to Christmas - and sadness afterwards at the sight of the trees lying by the rubbish bins and the lights being taken down.
The After-Christmas Tree by Linda Wagner Tyler (Picture Puffins) tells how a family recycles its tree by attaching bird-feeders and other animal-friendly treats to it before moving it outdoors. As they do so, the children can gently say good-bye to Christmas and to one of their main artefacts of the festival.
Sharing this, or a similar, story at nursery can also help children say goodbye to Christmas. It is particularly helpful when there has been a huge build-up to the festive period followed by a long holiday, and children return to find their environment is not as they left it.
Such a story gives children the valuable opportunity to reflect on their experiences at Christmas or on their time off from school. It might also lead nicely into both a discussion of what to do with festival artefacts when the festival is over and allow time for the children to participate in meaningful tidying-up.