On one of their first days back to school, a group of 3-year-olds at Little Sun People preschool in Brooklyn, New York, spent the morning learning how to write their names. On sheets of construction paper, they filled in the letters with brightly colored squares of cloth from Kenya, Nigeria and other countries across the African continent. 

Next door, their 4-year-old classmates learned about body parts. “Who likes their hair?” teacher Aaliyah Barclift asked the students. Arms shot up. “Who likes their skin? Their beautiful skin?” Arms shot up again. “Yours is like chocolate,” she told one student. “Mine is like a caramel sundae.”

After reading aloud a picture book whose Black protagonist describes all the qualities she loves about herself, Barclift’s students proceeded to make self-portraits. On pieces of round, brown paper, the children drew their eyes and noses and mouths; they completed their looks with strands of textured hair, selected from a pile of extensions Barclift had procured for the class. 

Ninety-eight percent of Little Sun People’s students are Black, as are all its teachers. Amid the increasing debate over critical race theory, Little Sun People is teaching kids about race in preschool – when many parents, as well as experts, say such conversations should start.

Over the past few months, schools have come under scrutiny over how they teach students about race and racism. A recent USA TODAY/Ipsos poll found most parents believe children should learn about the ongoing effects of slavery and racism in U.S. society, but slightly less than half support the teaching of critical race theory – a once-obscure legal framework that examines the same concepts. 

Largely lost from the debate, however, is a discussion about the age at which children should begin learning about racial identity and all its complexities – and about how to introduce those concepts in an appropriate, intentional way. In that same USA TODAY/Ipsos poll, parents were most likely to say children should start learning about racism in kindergarten – the youngest age group they could select. 

Children will be exposed to racism regardless of whether they learn about it in the classroom, experts say. Which is one reason Little Sun People – which uses an Afrocentric curriculum – tries to affirm its predominantly Black students’ identities with every lesson. 

When it does exist, culturally grounded education tends to focus on older students. Many educators assume preschoolers are too young to understand and think about identity, too innocent to learn about the challenges that come with diversity. But experts say children, who begin forming racial attitudes in infancy, should begin learning about those topics as early as possible. 

In preschool, “we have this unique, wonderful opportunity to really be open and talk about race in a way that creates acceptance for all people,” said Rosemarie Allen, a professor of early childhood education at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. “If we don’t shape that learning, then (children) draw their own conclusions based on limited information.” …

Read the full story in USA TODAY.