“We are different — every single one of us,” said Kelly Matthews, an early childhood consultant based in Wisconsin who has committed herself to explaining this seemingly mundane, but extraordinarily complicated, reality.

“There are reasons why that is and we can talk to kids about those reasons, but we need to have a terminology, scientific knowledge, and we need to do it in a way that doesn’t make them uncomfortable for asking,” she said.

Matthews spoke to a packed auditorium at Julian Middle School during the Collaboration for Early Childhood’s 12th Annual Symposium held last Saturday. This year, the title of the annual event was “The Dance of Diversity: Meeting the Unique Needs of Every Child.”

Though the conference was designed to enhance the ability of adults to service children, the main theme threaded throughout the several hours of workshops and activities was that the best way to teach children may be to learn from them first.

“I was Peter Pan; I was never growing up,” said Dee Dee Farmer, recalling her own childhood. Farmer, a prekindergarten teacher at Longfellow with a PhD in early childhood and human development, has been learning from children ever since she reluctantly grew up — at least physically — and became serious about play.

Farmer and Lisa Ginet, an assistant director of instruction with the Erikson Institute, were symposium committee co-chairs and among about 60 volunteers who facilitated the event, which attracted some 360 registrants.

They were both positioned at a “playstation” (essentially a table of random stuff) inside one of the school’s gyms, encouraging the adults who passed by to channel their inner child.

“You just have stuff that doesn’t have a necessarily defined purpose and you play around with it,” said Ginet, who along with her husband, District 97 school board President Bob Spatz, were influential in the formation of the Collaboration for Early Childhood.

The Collaboration is a nonprofit comprising more than 60 government agencies, including area school districts, designed “to overcome the fragmentation and scarcity of services endemic to the early childhood field by leveraging and integrating all of our community resources to better meet the needs of the youngest children and their families,” according to the organization’s website.

Both Ginet and Farmer said the loose assemblage of pine cones, toilet paper tubes, a piece of gutter, ping pong balls, stones and plastic cups scattered on the table are much more amenable than manufactured toys to the creative experimentation necessary to true learning.

The playstations might be taken as metaphors for what learning and understanding diversity both is and is not.

“People can’t do diversity by buying stuff,” said Matthews during her keynote speech, a subtle criticism of the pre-packaged, top-down — very adult — way of approaching an understanding of difference.

“It’s not the stuff that helps children have a healthy understanding of diversity,” she said. “It is identity on the personal level, the intrapersonal level and the community level.”

It’s kids interacting with things, and people, as they simply are — a pine cone, a sawed-off piece of gutter — not as how they’re marketed or branded to be. It’s in a child’s nature to embrace diversity and the curiosity it engenders, Farmer and Ginet would say.

“So many things happen as a result of kids just mucking about with things that are in our environment,” said Farmer, which is why, both in the classroom and in life, she takes her cues from the children.

“I’m still Peter Pan; I’m never growing up,” she said. “Growing up is dull. The kids keep me young, excited, invigorated and they give me a lot of joy and peace.”

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