How pre-schoolers understand race

By Kerri Wingert - July 2014


Park, C. C. (2011). Young children making sense of racial and ethnic differences: A sociocultural approach. American Educational Research Journal, 48(2), 387–420. doi:10.3102/0002831210382889

Research Design 

Park used sociocultural methods of observation and structured conversation to determine how preschool students engaged in practices related to diversity. She used naturalistic, ethnographic methods in order to see exactly how children were developing in that specific context. So as not to influence children’s thinking, she acted as a “nonparticipant observer.”

Research Findings

Park drew five claims from her findings. First, children most commonly focused on physical markers commonly associated with “race,” especially skin, eye, and hair color. She noticed this focus especially when students were asked to draw pictures of people. Students often tested multiple colors to achieve an effect that matched their own physical appearance.

Second, students learned about diversity through interactions with their peers. For example, during snack time one day, two students engaged in an intense conversation about the possibility of having a multi-ethnic, black/Native American/white American identity. During this conversation, one student informed another that “the white man shot all the Indians.”

Third, though the children were clearly aware of differences, the teachers did not speak about diversity—despite the posters, books, and representations illustrating difference that were present in the classroom.

Fourth, peer interactions seemed to mimic many of the values of the larger society. For example, the children exhibited caring behavior and did not typically tolerate unfairness. However, there were also patterns of exclusion, including a disproportionate number of cases where older white girls actively excluded students of color. According to Park, “Students of color accounted for half of the total number of students (…) observed experiencing exclusion, when they made up only a quarter of the class on most days” (p. 407).

Fifth, students’ patterns of discourse reflected their own agency in learning diversity practices. Rather than dismissing students’ ideas as “cognitive immaturity,” Park argues that students “exercise creative agency” and learn to talk about race as participants as they learn about how to engage in issues around diversity. (For more information about participation in communities of practice, see the glossary.)

Implications for Practice

Park explicitly calls out two implications for educators. The first is that teachers should not think that talking about difference is “developmentally inappropriate” (Kelly & Brooks, 2009, p. 204), as most Piaget-based theories of learning would have teachers believe. Since students already recognize and act on differences, Park claims, teachers should not be afraid to engage students in discussions about those actions and students’ understanding of them.

Second, opening up space for conversations about difference may help advance early childhood multicultural education practice.

A third implication could be drawn for administrators. This article reminds us that early childhood teachers may not always have the training necessary to address issues of race. Quality professional development that helps them identify and teach to issues of diversity may be needed.

Theoretical Basis 

Most studies of race and education operate on statistics that emphasize differences in outcomes, such as studies of the so-called “achievement gap” or the “school-to-prison pipeline.” In this study of preschoolers’ understandings and enactments of racial and ethnic difference, Park takes a sociocultural perspective, seeking to understand the ways that children talk about difference and behave toward others in their preschool. This allows for a more complex understanding of how and why very young students think about difference.


Kelly, D., & Brooks, M. (2009). How young is too young: Exploring beginning teachers’ assumptions about young children and teaching for social justice. Equity and Excellence in Education, 42, 202¬–216.

Related Briefs:

  • Also addresses race as it relates to science learning and identity formation: Matson, C. (2014). Acknowledging cultural activities as intellectual endeavours influences learner identity and power: An ISE research brief discussing Nasir & McKinney de Royston, “Power, identity, and mathematical practices outside and inside school.”
  • Also addresses race as it relates to science learning and identity formation: Ballard, M. (2013). Developing science agency: An ISE research brief discussing Mallya et al., “Extending science beyond the classroom door: Learning from students’ experiences with the Choice, Control, and Change (C3) curriculum.”
  • Also addresses race as it relates to science learning and identity formation: Perin, S. M. (2011). Challenges to forming a science identity for women of color: An ISE research brief discussing Malone & Barabino, "Narrations of race in STEM research settings: Identity formation and its discontents."