‘Has my guinea pig gone to heaven’?
Let me be clear that this article makes absolutely no attempt to advise you how to answer that question from the children that you look after. It sounds so simple at first. But when you really think about it, philosophers, religious leaders, and each member of the human race has battled with this question since the dawn of time! According to the child’s family’s beliefs, the guinea pig may very well have ‘gone to heaven’, but perhaps he has already been ‘reincarnated’ as some other animal, or maybe he is simply ‘dead’? In most cases, the answers to the real questions raised and answered by the world’s great religions are the realm of the parents. You are treading on very delicate grounds if you attempt to answer them yourself.
Children of this age are far too young to understand the differences between the teachings of different religions. Most are not ready to understand the key messages of their own religions, let alone someone else’s. But they are not too young to observe that there is something called ‘religion’, that most people seem to have one, and that religions cause people to behave differently to one another. For example, they may notice that Jasvin never eats meat and is a ‘vegetarian’. They need to learn that this is because of her religion – she’s a Hindu. And they may ask why Alia, who does music time at the library, wears a scarf on her head? It’s called a hijab, and is a sign that she is a Muslim.
Your role as a childcare provider is to introduce children to the concept of different religions, to give them the vocabulary they need to describe the differences they observe, and to encourage them to ask questions.
There are so many religions – which should we ‘do’?
Have you ever looked at one of those religious festival calendars they publish at the council and thought ‘oh my! I didn’t even know that there was such a religion!’ Then you are certainly not alone. So how do you decide which religions you should do with the children? And how do you do them?
Talking about different religions can be difficult, especially if it’s somebody else’s religion, and even more so if you’re not religious yourself. You don’t want to give children the wrong information. You want to give real, simple information that they can understand, but at the same time you don’t want to offend anyone by generalising too much and assuming that all members of a faith hold identical views or practice in the same way.
As with the guinea pig example, it is generally best to steer clear of the messages that religions give other than basic, positive moral codes that tend to be common to most religions (such as the Golden Rule). Instead, focus on religious festivals. Festivals are the most accessible time to learn about any religion.
Start with what you know best. In other words, do your own religion, or the one you know best first. If you’re a Christian, start with Christmas and Easter.
Next, think about the children you look after – if you look after a little boy who is a Sikh, then it may make sense to celebrate a festival that is relevant to him. Get the parents involved and let them steer you in the right direction.
Still not sure where to begin? Then start with introducing Britain’s three biggest religions which are Christianity, then Islam, then Hinduism. In practical terms your goal is to find simple ways to celebrate: Easter, Christmas, Eid and Diwali.
Easter and Christmas: the two biggest Christian festivals
Easter and Christmas don’t just have to be about bunnies, eggs and Santa – it is ok for small children to learn the basic Christian meaning of these holidays. If you live in this country, whatever your beliefs, you do need a basic, working knowledge of ‘Jesus story’ because Christianity is part of our heritage and our culture. There is nothing wrong with making a nativity scene with the children at Christmas, for example or to teach them some Christmas carols.
A completely free day trip is a visit to your local parish church. Whatever their religious background, many pre-school children will have never actually been inside a church. Many churches have open hours when visitors can walk around and admire the art, stained glass windows, unique smells and ancient architecture that make up these beautiful buildings. When I took the children to our local church I made a simple scavenger hunt. The children had to find candles, stain glass windows, the altar, the pews, the organ and the flowers. This gave a nice focus to our visit and helped to teach them some new words.
Eid and Diwali
When I first started researching about Eid and Diwali, I did what most people would do: I went to the library to get out some books. The photographs showed busy street scenes in far off countries, with people who looked as foreign to many British Muslims and Hindus as they did to me. If you look after a Muslim child or a Hindu child, these types of images give completely the wrong impression as they make their religion look like something ‘foreign’ that is celebrated by ‘other people somewhere else’ when in fact, here in the UK, things are often done very differently. How children celebrate Eid and Diwali is not a million miles away from how Christian families celebrate Easter and Christmas, and tend to include a family gathering, presents as well as a trip to the mosque or temple.
British Muslims celebrate Eid, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, with huge festivities and they often give cards to each other with the greeting ‘Eid Mubarak’ which means ‘may you enjoy a blessed festival’. So a good way to celebrate Eid is to get the children to make an Eid card and give it to ‘Alia at the library’.
Diwali is one of the most important Hindu festivals of the year. It is known as the ‘festival of lights’ and the lights refer to the little clay lamps called ‘diya’ which are lit in temples and houses. Many people set off fireworks, and because Diwali is celebrated in late October/ early November, these displays often coincide with Bonfire Night displays. A good way to celebrate Diwali is to make firework collages with the children, or little paper diya lamps. It’s also a great time to try some Indian food.
If you are able to get an opportunity to actually visit a mosque or a temple it is a wonderful and enlightening experience for both yourself and the children.
Like all aspects of diversity, it is crucial that children be encouraged to notice the differences they see and to ask questions about them.
Religion is just one way that people can appear ‘different’ to one another. Encourage children’s questions, keep an open mind, and you can feel confident that you are doing the right thing.
Displaying the right impression
These pictures of British children are all appropriate to display at your home, to discuss with the children, and give the right impression of a racially inclusive setting. To receive your FREE A4 poster by email, sign up for my free quarterly newsletter using the orange box on my website and type ‘poster’ into the message.
Teaching children about diversity helps them to understand that people can be different and the same all over the world. It also helps them to build character that will last for their whole lives. As childminders, if we talk openly with pre-schoolers about the importance of diversity then children are provided with a model of openness that they will learn to imitate.
For more information on teaching diversity awareness to childminded children and for a Diversity Awareness Pack filled with practical activities you can do to promote difficult diversity topics in your setting visit http://kidstogo.co.uk/childminders/Diversity.html .
About Kay Woods and Kids To Go
Kay Woods has been writing and selling childminding resources through her company Kids To Go since 2008. Her products include the Ultimate Childminding Checklist, the Learning Journey Plus for planning, observation and assessment and best practice resources promoting diversity and childminding in the great outdoors (Forest Childcare). She is the author of the Start Learning book set published by Tarquin and she writes the free quarterly Childminding Best Practice Newsletter.
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