Using the 1930s’ “Here and Now” Curriculum to Teach Cultural Diversity in the ’90s

Karyn Wellhousen

Six decades ago Lucy Sprague Mitchell wrote about and advocated a social studies curriculum specifically designed for the developmental needs of young children. Instead of focusing on memorization of material that is unrelated to students’ lives, Mitchell believed that children’s real life experiences and discoveries should form the basis of the social studies curriculum. This concept was labeled the “here and now” curriculum, and this philosophy and method of teaching social studies is still widely accepted today as an appropriate teaching practice for young learners (Greenberg, 1987).

According to Seefeldt (1989), educators have misinterpreted Mitchel#146;s “here and now” curriculum. One misuse of this curriculum is the repetition of prepared units on home and community during the preschool years and primary grades. Instead, teachers need to plan experiences that are current and specifically relevant to the lives of the children they are teaching.
Implementation of the “here and now” curriculum requires teachers to be aware of the individual backgrounds of their students as well as societal trends and changes in the community. For example, in the past teachers may have implemented lessons, activities, or used materials that depicted traditional families and traditional family roles. Today, this practice would not be appropriate due to the diversity of family structures and the changing nature of the roles of family members. Another example would be an investigation of community workers. Many materials still in existence reflect sex-stereotyping of occupations; therefore it is imperative that teachers are aware of these outdated materials and plan units so that equal opportunities for both boys and girls are promoted. Other examples of change which impact the “here and now” curriculum include (but are not limited to): the increasing responsibilities of children; the unpredictability of parental employment; the inclusion of children with disabilities in the classroom; the diversity of family structures and lifestyles; poverty, homelessness, and other social problems; and biased attitudes toward groups of people on the basis of their religion, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic background, attractiveness, and age. Teachers need to keep up with these trends and at the same time be cognizant of individual student characteristics in order to meet the purpose of the “here and now” curriculum. In essence, the “here and now” curriculum is of little use and may possibly be damaging if teachers are planning from the standpoint of even one generation ago.
One of the most compelling curricular needs that is direct and relevant to young students lives and social development is that of recognizing, understanding, and accepting similarities and differences among and between themselves. Many communities are experiencing a rise in violent crimes as tensions between people of different races increase. Unlike most adolescents and adults, children may be more developmentally open to honest questions concerning physical, ethnic, and cultural differences. The sensitive teacher will recognize the importance of this issue for the “here and now” curriculum.

Multicultural Education

According to York (1991), the successful implementation of multicultural education requires attention to knowledge, attitudes, and skills. Teachers must have knowledge of concepts and terminology, different approaches to multicultural education, and an understanding of multiple cultures. Attitudes toward multicultural education and its role in the classroom must be examined and time allowed for changes in thinking, feeling, beliefs, and values. Skills required to use specific activities, lessons, and curricular materials are also critical to program implementation.

Because attitude change is complex and takes time, York (1991) recommends that teachers allow themselves and their programs a one to five-year period of development. Building a multicultural curriculum requires studying, questioning, discussing, and making and evaluating mistakes. This does not mean, however, that teachers should become “experts” before they begin incorporating multicultural experiences into the classroom. Part of the process of understanding multicultural practices comes from trying new experiences, making mistakes, and learning from them. Prescott (1984) suggests changing “things” in the classroom first, such as displays, books, materials, and learning activities, while giving people the time they need to develop self-awareness, attitudes, and communication skills.

Changing the Classroom First

As multicultural education becomes more prevalent, school supply manufacturers, publishers, and others who promote products and materials for early childhood classrooms have begun offering appropriate materials. One of the most innovative additions to traditional school supplies is the introduction of paints, crayons, and markers in a variety of flesh tones. These materials enable children to identify the shade which most closely matches their skin tone and use it in self-portraits. Also, they are able to make skin tone comparisons with other classmates. This simple addition to existing materials can help children approach the subject of skin color more meaningfully and objectively. Further discussion of physical differences and similarities among the children, such as height, eye color, and hair texture could follow.

Puppets which reflect a variety of ethnic backgrounds and especially the cultures of children in the classroom should be available for student as well as teacher use. The puppets should be available to children on a regular basis and in the same context as other classroom puppets. For example, if the teacher makes storybook character puppets available in the listening center, puppets reflecting various cultures should be housed there also. The message the students should receive is “these are new puppets we can use” rather than “these are special puppets because their skin is a different color.” Children will begin to incorporate these new puppets into their play. Teachers may use puppets to resolve conflict and increase understanding by communicating to children through the puppet (Smith, 1989).

Children’s literature has made great strides in depicting diverse cultures in healthy, non-stereotypical roles. Some books include pictures of children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds while others focus on specific ethnic groups with the focus on educating the reader about that culture. Young children have an intense interest in picture books and can learn a great deal through exposure to them (Burke, 1986). Teachers can simply read the books for pleasure or use them to stimulate conversation about various cultures.

Dramatic Play
Dramatic play is a necessary activity in the early childhood classroom as it strengthens social and cognitive skills. As children create and take on adult roles they are learning how they will fit into an adult world. Often children choose a caregiver role in which they feed, bathe, and dress available dolls. It is important that children have access to dolls which reflect the culture of children in the school and community. A supply of multi-ethnic dolls will give children the opportunity to explore physical similarities and differences. However, caution should be taken when implying the “racial correctness” of physical features including skin color. Other props which represent cultural differences can be included, such as realistic play foods, hats, and clothing.

Music is a part of the early childhood curriculum that naturally attracts children. Children’s recording artists often use music to teach children about their feelings and promote their self-confidence. Now recordings are available which encourage children to accept differences and similarities between and among themselves. Rhythm instruments from various cultures, such as the Japanese Den Den and Mexican Guiro, give children authentic multicultural experiences. Teachers can easily expand their multicultural curriculum by including appropriate recordings and rhythm instruments.


The “here and now” curriculum still has a place in early childhood social studies. In order for the curriculum to be accurate and useful, teachers need to maintain a constant awareness of social change and changes in their students’ lives. Today, students can benefit from understanding and accepting the diverse cultures that make up our society. As teachers work towards developing a long-term plan for multicultural education, they can introduce materials which reflect an awareness of diverse cultures. Teachers can begin by making very simple classroom changes which updates the 1930s’ “here and now” curriculum for multicultural education in the 1990s and beyond.

Burke, E. M. (1986). Early childhood literature: For love of child and book. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Greenberg, P. (1987). Lucy Sprague Mitchell: A missing link. Young Children, 42(5), 70-84.
Prescott, E. (1984). The physical setting in day care. In J. T. Greenman & R. W. Fuqua (Eds.), Making day care better (pp. 44-65). New York: Teachers College Press.
Seefeldt, C. (1989). Social studies for the preschool-primary child. Columbus, OH: Merrill.
Smith, C. A. (1989). Puppetry and problem-solving skills. In J. F. Brown (Ed.), Curriculum planning for young children (pp. 213-220). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Wellhousen, K. R. (1993). Children from nontraditional families: A lesson in acceptance. Childhood education, 69(5), 287-288.
York, S. (1991). Roots and wings. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Lakeshore Learning Materials
2695 E. Dominguez St.
Carson, CA 90749

Lakeshore materials include:
People Colors Paints, Crayons, and Markers; Family Puppets (Black, Asian, Hispanic, White); Multiethnic School Dolls; a Multicultural Costume Set; an Around the World Hat Box; Breads from Around the World; and a collection of Instruments from Around the World.

Constructive Playthings
1227 East 119th St.
Grandview, MO 64030-1117

Recommended materials include:
Crayola Washable Multicultural Paints, Crayons, and Markers; Multiethnic Dolls and Family Puppets (White, Black, Hispanic, Asian); Multicultural Rhythm Band Instruments and Chilean Rainstick; and related music—Cassette Tape and Book, Shake It to the One That You Like the Best and Cassette or Record, Multicultural Rhythm Stick Fun.

Positive Images: Multicultural Books for Children
3014 Prospect St.
Houston, TX 77004

In this collection, look for:
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold, Spanish-American Folktales
by Teresa Pijoan De Van Etten, and The Talking Eggs retold by Robert D. San Souci.

Melody House Records
819 NW 92nd
Oklahoma City, OK 73114

Music includes the recommended We’re Just Like Crayons by Stephen Fites.

About the Author
Karyn Wellhousen is Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She lectures, teaches, and writes on various subjects relating to an anti-bias approach to teaching young children.