Linguistically and Culturally Relevant Early Childhood Environments

Classroom environments that reflect the language and culture of its children and families not only makes families feel welcome as they enter the classroom, but it supports children's social and emotional development. This tip sheet gives teachers and education staff specific guidance on how to create a culturally inclusive classroom environment.


Linguistically and Culturally Relevant Early Childhood Environments

Reflecting the language(s) and the culture(s) of the children and families throughout the classroom environment serves several purposes. It makes families feel welcome as they enter the classroom and see their language included in the written materials around the room and see pictures of themselves and their children on the wall. Children’s social/emotional development is supported as they see items and images from their home included in school. This helps establish a sense of belonging and connectedness to the school environment. There are many ways that teachers can respect and honor families’ language(s) and culture(s) through the displays and materials included in the classroom. The following list highlights a few ways that this can be done.

Label in the home language(s) of the children
Labeling in English and the home language(s) helps children see that their language is important in the classroom and helps promote literacy in the home language as well as English. When labeling objects in the classroom, color code the languages and keep those selected colors consistent throughout the classroom and even the center. For example, the Spanish label may be written in blue and the English label written in red. This can be done in a variety of ways. If handwritten labels are used, use different colored markers when writing the words in each language. Many programs choose to use typed labels so that once created, the document can be stored, shared amongst the classrooms, and printed up whenever needed. With typed labels, the words can either be printed up in the ink colors chosen for each respective language or simply printed up in black and the pasted onto colored construction paper.

When labeling objects in the classroom, it is important to remember that labeling should be done purposefully and with intention. Labels can accompany items commonly used throughout the classroom. However, be sure not to over-label the classroom (such as labeling every table and chair!) to avoid over-stimulation and visual clutter. Just as teachers rotate toys and materials in and out of the classroom to maintain children’s interest and engagement, object labels can also be rotated.

Display print materials in the home language(s)
Print materials in the home language can be used throughout the classroom in a variety of ways. Post some song lyrics, poems, rhymes and other materials familiar to the children in the home language whenever possible. In the housekeeping area, provide empty food containers with print in the languages represented in the classroom. (Ask family members to save these and donate them!)

Provide linguistically and culturally diverse books
Provide books in the home language(s) of the children. Enlist the aid of family members to identify appropriate books and where to find them. Make homemade books highlighting children’s families. Parents can be a great resource to help translate homemade books into the home language(s).

In addition to providing books in the home language, be sure to include books that show diverse children and families. Children in the classroom should be able to see themselves and their families reflected in the illustrations of some of the classroom books. Be sure that illustrations represent authentic images and not stereotypical representations.

Display photos of the children and families
One of the best ways to customize the early childhood classroom is to display photos of the children and families throughout the environment. Programs accomplish this in a variety of ways. Some programs take pictures of children and their families during enrollment or at the first home visit and then have these photographs displayed in the classroom by the first day of school to help ease children’s transition. One program provided a disposable camera to families and asked them to take pictures of people, places, animals or things that were important to their child(ren) and return the camera to school. The program developed these pictures taken by the families and not only had an array of photographs that could be used in the classroom and to make books about the families, but staff also learned so much about who and what was important in each child’s life.

There are many ways to display photographs in the classroom. Some infant and toddler classrooms have adhered photographs to the outside of cribs so that young children can be comforted and calmed by looking at the faces of their family members as they transition in and out of sleep. Photographs can be displayed throughout the classroom and in the relevant interest areas: a photo of a child reading a book with his grandma can be displayed in the book area while a photo of a family sharing a meal may be displayed in the housekeeping area. Children can help create and decorate simple construction paper frames to neatly display their photographs.

It is also helpful to leave some photos available for children to carry around the classroom when they are missing their family members. This helps ease the transition period, especially during the first weeks of school.

Use pictures to provide context and visual cues
Children who are dual language learners benefit greatly from visual cues that help them function in the classroom and know what to expect as they move through the day. One simple but powerful way to help accomplish this is by displaying photographs to accompany the daily schedule, classroom rules, helper chart and other organizers used in the classroom. On the daily schedule, display pictures of children in that classroom participating in each activity listed. For example, a picture of the children seated at the table eating can be posted under the word “breakfast” and a picture of a child resting on a mat may be posted under the “rest time.” This helps children know what comes next during the daily routines even if they may not yet understand the words the teacher is saying.

In addition to photographs, drawing or symbols can also provide visual context for children who are dual language learners. For example, recipe cards with a drawing of an egg next to the word egg or a drawing of spoon next to the word teaspoon help children make the connection between the written word and the symbol. Rebus stories, which substitute a simple picture in place of a written word, help children learn to “read” the pictures and increase comprehension.

Provide music in children’s home language(s)
Play music in the languages represented in the classroom. Provide cassettes and cassette recorders for families to record songs and lullabies that can be played in the classroom. These can be used during activity times as well as to help soothe a child to sleep. Musical instruments from various cultures should also be included in the classroom.

Provide audio-stories in the home language(s) for children to hear
In addition to recording songs for the classroom, family members can be invited to record stories that can be shared in the classroom. This is a great way to include all families but can be especially helpful for families who speak a language in which there may not be many resources available. And it is a wonderful way to encourage the oral tradition of storytelling!

Include dolls that reflect the diversity of the children in the classroom
Children should be able to see their skin tone and facial features reflected in some of the dolls in the classroom. This promotes children’s social/emotional development as well as encourages language development as children may be more likely to engage in pretend play if they have dolls that look like them.

Incorporate materials throughout the classroom that would be similar to what children would see in their own homes
In the housekeeping area, cooking utensils such as a tortilla press or wok that reflect families’ meal preparation could be incorporated. In the art area, provide art materials and experiences that reflect families’ cultural traditions.

Provide a quiet area
For children who are dual language learners, being in an environment where they do not understand what is being said and/or are not able to make themselves understood can be overwhelming and over-stimulating. A quiet area provides a respite where they can be alone and have some down time. The area can be as simple as a refrigerator box with pillows inside or a corner with draped fabric and a comfy place to sit.

These are just a few ways that programs can create welcoming classroom environments for children which are reflective of their families’ language, cultures and customs. Families are the best sources of information for learning how to incorporate culture and language throughout the environment. Each family is unique, even though some may share the same ethnic background. Gathering specific feedback from all families, not just families of Dual Language Learners, will help teachers create environments that are respectful and inclusive of all children and help build a bridge between the home and school environment.

Linguistically and Culturally Relevant Early Childhood Environments. HHS/ACF/OHS. 2008. English. 

Last Reviewed: July 2009

Last Updated: November 13, 2014