Black and Indigenous people have dynamic cultures that do not begin nor end with European contact and enslavement. And Africa’s rich and diverse history is an essential part of history in the United States. Therefore, the first—and essential recommendation—in the LFJ article “Talking to Children About the History of Slavery in the United States: A Resource for Parents and Caregivers” is to explore African and Indigenous cultures before any discussion of slavery. To complement that exploration, talking about commonalities across cultures helps children build empathy and understand identity and diversity.
To support these conversations and learning experiences, we offer talking points, activities and book recommendations.
Conversations and Activities About Identity and Commonalities
To set the stage for discussing diverse cultures, help children develop a strong sense of self and identity while recognizing and honoring diversity in the world.
Help children understand that our differences make us special, and the world is better when we embrace our diversity. Because we are different, there is space for new thoughts and ideas and opportunities to appreciate diverse ways of being and living.
Our similarities allow us to connect as families, friends and communities. These similarities are recognized in various ways. Many people who seem very different share many similarities. Our differences should not keep us from also finding our similarities.
Emphasize that we have multiple identities. We are sometimes known by our race and the color of our skin, or by our gender, our family names, or even the groups and clubs we belong to. It’s okay to be proud of our many identities. It is not okay to hurt others because of their identities.
Creative activities foster learning in families—or community learning centers—and can be fun and educational. Encourage and support children to express pride, confidence and healthy self-esteem without denying the value and dignity of other people.
Activity: “Me, Inside and Out”
Consider using this art and writing project as a starting point. Children can draw a picture of themselves and surround their images with words to add their physical descriptions. They can then add more details about who they are, their emotions, how they see themselves. And then in an outer circle they can layer words that reflect aspects of their home culture.
Parents and caregivers can do this project with children, helping them complete their vision of who they are in the world. For example, if the child is not a strong writer yet, let them tell you their thoughts and words, and you can write for them. Help children explore their own identities and identify parts of their lives that constitute their home culture.
Showcase of Self
Similar to the self-exploration activity above, have children create a collage of all things that represent them. Use this as a way to be introduced to new interests. Children should be proud of who they are and able to share all their identities—including their likes and dislikes—that make them special. Use this activity as a celebration of self. Begin helping children shape and share their multiple identities.
Activity: Get to Know You Ornaments
Discuss with children the ways you are similar and ways you are different. Then create a Venn diagram ornament by drawing two circles that overlap in the center. Write your names in the outside circles. Under your names list your differences (add additional overlapping circles for multiple children). Example: Mom likes green beans, Jamie likes broccoli. Where the circles overlap, list your similarities. Example: Mom and Jamie both like dancing in the rain.
Cut out the joining circles. Place a small hole at the top of the cutout and thread a string through the hole to create a loop for hanging. Hang the ornament as a reminder of your similarities and differences. Encourage children to continue this activity with others who they may think they have nothing in common with and those with whom they think they have a lot in common. They can start creating multiple ornaments as they learn more about other children and trusted adults. You may also complete this activity based on what children share about what they have learned about other children from school or community interactions. Use this activity to introduce how the differences and similarities on the created ornaments are equally important.
Activity: Family Meals
Create new stories or share existing stories about the meals you eat as a family. Talk about the importance of each meal for your family. Who introduced the meal to you? How did you learn to cook it? How often do you eat this meal and why?
Then begin to introduce meals from various cultures to your family. Later, safely host a family potluck with other families. Have each family bring a dish and showcase how the dish is significant to their family. Discuss how the foods we eat also represent who we are. See Learning for Justice’s story: “Min Jee’s Lunch.”
Choosing Children’s Books About African and Indigenous Cultures
Children’s books provide an engaging way of giving young people mirrors and windows to make connections with and beyond their own lives. Reading and listening to stories can, therefore, be a wonderful sharing experience for parents and caregivers to help children learn about Indigenous and African cultures.
In choosing books, it is important to recognize that authors sometimes misrepresent history and the authors’ own identities can influence what is presented. Therefore, being conscious of the perspective of the story and the author is important.
To explore African and Indigenous cultures, look for stories that center the experiences and highlight the humanity of African and Indigenous people. Try to find authors who have the lived experiences of the people and cultures about which they are writing.
Scholar Debbie Reese pointed out in an interview with LFJ in 2022 that “Today—more than ever before—children from groups that have been marginalized by mainstream U.S. institutions can find books that affirm their existence.” Reece, for example, curates the website American Indians in Children’s Literature, which provides recommendations and analysis of Indigenous people in children’s books.
We include a short list of books below along with links to websites with reviews and recommendations.
Conversations and Activities About Indigenous and African Cultures
In exploring Indigenous and African cultures, the following key points—adapted from LFJ’s Teaching Hard History: American Slavery frameworks—should be emphasized in conversations. Help children to understand that:
- Africa is a continent that has always been home to many people, nations and cultures.
- African and Indigenous people were leaders, doctors, teachers, skilled artisans, farmers and artists before they were enslaved.
- Indigenous people have a variety of cultures and have always governed their own nations in the lands that are now the United States.
- The rich cultures of Indigenous people persisted despite the colonial invasion. Many people are now working to support the resurgence of Indigenous languages and ways of seeing the world.
If the book you are reading is set in the past, make connections to the people and culture today. Emphasize that Indigenous and African cultures are not “stuck in time,” but are dynamic and changing today.
Exploring the commonalities between children’s home cultures and the diverse cultures of Indigenous and African people will help children make connections and see themselves in others. In discussing other eras, cultures and nations, focus on similarities with children’s lives first before moving to discuss differences.
Talking about “cultural universals”—such as art forms, music, social organization, celebrations and basic needs—encourages children to recognize how people are bound together by similarities, regardless of group membership. Help children learn about music, arts, religion and food from a selection of nations. They might compare and contrast those experiences, asking: “What is the same about these traditions?” “What is different?” “How are these the same as and different from my culture?”
Activity: “Cultural Universals”
Using illustrations in children’s books to highlight cultural universals and make comparisons can work well with young readers. They can identify some aspect of culture in the story and relate it to their home culture (for example, clothing, music, art, community roles). You might together create an artwork of a cultural artifact from the book along with a related one from your own culture.
Activity: “[Character] Inside and Out”
This activity can help young people connect with the people and cultures they read about. Similar to the “Me, Inside and Out” activity, children can complete the same process for a character in the story they’ve read or listened to. Recognizing similarities between themselves and a character helps build understanding and empathy. To further develop this idea, a letter or note to the character helps children take a role in connecting to a story.
Activity: “My Story Reflection”
To foster literacy skills in addition to learning about cultures, help children talk about story elements, such as setting (when and where), character (who), plot and conflict (what happened), and theme (meaning or message). For example, you can discuss how the place, culture and time—the setting—adds meaning to the story. Think about the role the place plays. Talk about people in the stories and their roles in their communities. Make connections to roles today—leaders, doctors, teachers, artisans, farmers, soldiers, caregivers and more.
Creating a foldable project together can be an enjoyable way to organize responses to reading. One simple format involves using a file folder that can be folded like opening doors and then adding art and writing. You can add more to the folder by drawing and writing on it directly or by creating responses that are then glued into the folder in sections or that can fold out.
Some response ideas include:
- a drawing of the character(s) (see activity above) or character collage
- a map of the place
- a drawing of a cultural artifact
- a note to the main character
- a timeline of what happened
- a writing about the story’s message (a sentence or more, depending on the child’s ability)
- a reflection about the story that includes thoughts and feelings
- a creative response such as an artwork or a poem inspired by the story
Creative technology tools, like Padlet, can also be a great way to complete a story reflection project together.
Remember, there is joy and inspiration in reflecting on stories and creating art together. These activities are not meant as assignments for children but ideas for parents, caregivers and children to do together, a “reflective sharing,” while exploring African and Indigenous cultures.
Emphasizing the fullness of life and cultural experiences of African and Indigenous people can help children to later recognize ongoing racism and injustice in a nation built on a history of slavery. And as Debbie Reese pointed out: “A strong sense of justice can form in a young child’s mind when they read books that tell the truth. When they grow into adulthood, that sense of justice can guide them in how they vote and where they work.”
- Son, You Are A King by Tená V. Baker
- Not Quite Snow White by Ashley Franklin
- Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match by Monica Brown
- Family Pictures by Carmen Lomas Garza
- Just Ask!: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You by Sonia Sotomayor
- The Story of You by Lisa Ann Scott
- Silent Music: A Story of Baghdad by James Rumford
- “Min Jee’s Lunch” by Elizabeth Kleinrock (short story and video)
Resources for Children’s Books:
Social Justice Books, A Teaching for Change Project reviews multicultural and social justice books, including a resource section for talking and teaching about Africa.
American Indians in Children’s Literature provides recommendations and analyses of Indigenous people in children’s books.
Rediscovering African History, published by Our Ancestories, is a series of children’s books about pre-colonial African legends that provides activities for children to explore specific cultures.
Africa’s Great Civilizations, is a PBS series with episodes that explore various African cultures.