Dr Sharon Colilles considers how play allows young children to develop, learn and explore socially constructed ideas about their ethnic identity.

Early childhood is a time for building a positive self-identity, a time when children need to explore who they are, and a time for understanding and making sense of their place in the world.

Dr Sharon Colilles

2022 marks the 10th anniversary of the Froebel Trust’s work for championing a Froebelian approach to early childhood education. As I write this piece, I am reminded of Friedrich Froebel’s pioneering beliefs that he wanted to “educate people to be free to think, to take action for themselves”. Early childhood is a time for building a positive self-identity, a time when children need to explore who they are, and a time for understanding and making sense of their place in the world.

I am guided by ideas that affirm and validate children’s culture - as well as ideas that settings should link what children already know and value what they do not yet know - to help them in the educational process of identifying with themselves and others.

Shared here are ideas about how diverse children’s knowledge and participation in play-based sociocultural activities can inform the implementation of a culturally reflective and inclusive curriculum.

Play can be a meaningful way in which young children develop, learn, and explore socially constructed ideas about their ethnic identity. Froebel described play as "the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in the child’s soul”. Therefore, the central importance of play cannot be underestimated, it is a valuable resource in which children will build upon and interpret ideas about ethnicity.

Play can be used as a mediation tool for connecting ideas about how groups of children choose to share and co-construct knowledge about their ethnicity with peers and practitioners.

When children enter early years settings, they do so with rich cultural knowledge gained from their home & community. This knowledge is developed from shared language, values & beliefs, and accepted experiences in social relationships. However, when in the setting educators determine what knowledge harmonises best with the curricula.

The adult role:

When thinking about the influence of the interactional nature of play pedagogy, adults have a key part to play in advocating for and developing inclusive practice.

Start by examining play-based pedagogic approaches that may already exist or may need adapting for the children that you work with. Develop practitioner knowledge about children’s ethnic identities by speaking to parents and carers.

As educators we understand the significance of reflection. So, reflect on the established learning experiences that are offered in the setting regarding inclusion. Where possible create space in curriculum design so that children can explore their ethnicity in their play. Then observe and examine the wonderfully unique individual perspectives and ethnic information that children choose to share in their play repertoires.


Resources enable children to reconnect with their cultural identity as well as enabling them to participate in and connect home-setting cultures in reconstruction of ‘knowledge’ about ethnic groupings.

Adults can respond to the complexity in children’s play by utilising culturally appropriate resources such as children’s storybooks and skin-coloured paints which respond to and mirror their interests. Along with these resources don’t forget to use those open-ended questions to engage in meaningful dialogue. The language and resources used to talk about racial and ethnic difference is an essential ‘toolkit’ that young children use in learning to understand similarities and difference to self.

Co-constructing a curriculum that gives status to ‘children’s voices’ affords us amazing opportunities to engage with their unique perspectives – So do celebrate what they have to say!

This article was first published in June 2022.

About the author

Dr Sharon Colilles is a trustee of the Froebel Trust. She is Senior Lecturer in early childhood education at the University of the West of England in Bristol and an associate trainer and researcher for the Centre for Research in Early Childhood Education (CREC) and British Association for Early Childhood Education (BAECE). She has a diverse career background, working initially in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as a policy manager, owning a private day nursery, assessor for the award of EYPs, participating in the review of the Teacher Standards, and more recently working as project assistant for the development of Birth to Five Matters Guidance.

Sharon’s PhD research and interest are particularly concerned with play based participatory pedagogies and their part in developing children’s mixed ethnic identity and cultural learning and development – especially learning and development informed by child-led perspectives. Sharon also has a deep interest and engages in work that develops anti-oppressive practice. She is an active member of Early Childhood Education Research Association (EECERA), CREC learning circle and Early Education.