I am a former teacher on a mission to address the cultural representation issue that continues to plague the educational space. Although racial diversity within toy aisles has slightly increased over the years, Black and brown children are still vastly underrepresented within educational toys and resources. Children of color need to see their experiences reflected back at them so they can feel valued, connect to new learning, and understand that they are part of this world, too. As an African American woman, and a teacher of primary students who came in beautiful shades of brown, this lack of representation was extremely frustrating. It was impossible to find learning resources that depicted my students and their unique cultural experiences, so it became my mission to create them. Now, with my new company ABSee Me, I am on a journey to promote representation in the early childhood setting!
Growing up, I always knew I would be a teacher. My father was a middle school teacher, so the urge to teach and work with children was just in my DNA. My very first class in my college teaching program was, coincidentally enough, Equity and Diversity in Education. We focused on issues of diversity and learned how to develop a multicultural education – a teaching method that allows students to engage in learning experiences that incorporate the values and perspectives different cultural backgrounds. This type of teaching helps students develop positive beliefs about their own cultures, and those of their peers as well.
As an elementary teacher, I made it a point to implement a multicultural education as best as I could. I searched far and wide to fill my classroom bookshelves with stories that featured diverse characters. We studied different cultures and celebrated holidays from around the world. I tried to give my kids things that were not normally found in the curriculum. Experiences that most of my students, who were then mostly white, would never have in their homes. And my students and their parents loved it!
The year before I left the United States to teach in the United Arab Emirates, I was assigned to a second grade class of English Language Learners, meaning I had students who spoke different languages, followed different religions, and had families from all over the world. That year, I learned how to say "hello" in Tamil, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, Somali, and Hindi. I loved learning about my students' cultures and made it a huge focus in our day-to-day activities. I spent my evenings researching and creating lessons that would hold meaning to my diverse learners, while providing new opportunities and experiences for my students who did not share their cultural backgrounds. I adorned my classroom with hand-drawn posters that highlighted a range of skin colors, languages, and culturally specific content. I tried my hardest to make sure that all students in my class felt valued and part of the learning that we explored every day.
As parents, teachers, and caregivers, we need to be intentional about how we shape the minds of Black and brown children. The messages they hear, see, and feel daily are important in shaping their perception of themselves and the world around them. So often these messages are negative, or if you're in a school setting, absent altogether. The lack of diversity found in materials that educate our youth almost gives off the feeling that these kids don't matter. Their unique backgrounds aren't standard; therefore, they are left learning from materials and content that they don't always relate to. Did you know that children of color now make up more than 50% of children in the U.S.? (Kids Count Data Center) But for some reason, this isn’t reflected in the toys available for them play with and learn from. That's why I decided to create ABSee Me - to provide representation within educational products where the experiences and background of most U.S. children are not mirrored.
Children learn societal expectations around their own culture and other cultures from their environment. Black and brown children need to see positive images and representations of people who look like them to combat negative stereotypes they may internalize from the outside world. Positive representations allow kids to feel good about themselves and develop a strong cultural identity. As children of color develop their cultural identity, they have a better understanding of who they are, which is linked to the ability to develop self-esteem. With a strong cultural identity, Black and brown children can take pride in their heritage and develop a sense of belonging to their community.
When it comes to classrooms and educating our youngest children, representation is vital. Research shows that a child’s identity and lived experiences plays a major role in education. Both influence how children learn, think, and develop. Tapping into students' unique cultures, interests, and everyday experiences is key for them to succeed. As children can connect new learning with prior knowledge of objects or ideas they are already familiar with, they have a much easier time making connections and retaining new information.
Cultivating learning environments where diverse students feel represented and valued enables children to feel connected, make meaning, and even feel more motivated to learn. Seeing others with similar identities depicted in a positive light does a lot for a child’s sense of self and belonging. When they see themselves represented, they feel like they are part of the school community, and of the world, too!
And it's not just children of color who benefit from this representation. All children need to see a range of cultures represented in the classroom or in their environment to develop an understanding and appreciation for other people. When children can identify with a character in a book, in a learning activity, or in a toy box, it helps them empathize with people who are different from them and prepares them to someday thrive in the diverse world that we live in.
As teachers and primary caregivers, we must empower Black and brown children with positive representations so they can see themselves in the toys they play with and in the classrooms they learn from. With representation comes a feeling of not being alone, of belonging somewhere, and of being seen. And all kids deserve to feel this!
On a Mission
My mission at ABSee Me is "to stimulate the development and education of young learners through play. Our products are specifically designed to celebrate diversity and support children in building a positive cultural identity." This statement is written on all my products to show that it’s more than just a puzzle or a game. Each of my products were intentionally created with children of color and their success in mind. My goal is for ABSee Me to make diversity the norm, not a novelty idea, when it comes to educational resources. So teachers like me can actually find resources that reflect the beautiful brown faces in our classrooms, and so that caregivers can empower their children to develop essential learning skills and self-love!
Founder of ABSee Me