Teaching Young Children About Native Americans

teacher smiling and reading a book to several toddlers

In this blog post, I’ll share some ideas for teaching about Native Americans in early childhood classrooms. My perspective comes from my experiences as a parent of Native children, as well as my professional role as an early childhood educator. I strongly suggest that you first take a look at my previous blog post, Getting Ready to Teach Young Children about Native Americans.

When our children were in school, my husband and I sometimes found we needed to ask their teachers to change what was being taught about Native Americans. Educational materials, like popular culture, were full of errors, stereotypes, and negative ideas about Native Nations and cultures.

When I taught young children, I often needed better resources to counteract misinformation they were getting from videos, movies, and books supposedly about Native people. I wish I could report that the situation has gotten better for our grandchildren and their teachers, but the problems are still there.

All children, Native American or not, need solid, accurate information about Native lives — starting in early childhood. Preschool is the time to start laying the groundwork for better understandings.

Preschool-age children may not grasp how “long ago” some events happened or exactly where they occurred. But they can understand that Native people, past and present, are essential parts of the world’s story. I urge you to weave reliable information about Native Americans into your curriculum all year long, not just November, the designated National Native American Heritage Month. Here are some ways to do that.

Use teacher materials developed to reflect Native American perspectives

Here are some places to start:

Focus on the present

Talk about specific Native nations

  • Help children see that Native people aren’t all the same, by referring to a Native person’s nation. For example, you might say, “The author of this book is Daniel Vandever. He’s Native American from the Navajo Nation.”
  • Invite tribally identified Native families in your program to talk to the children about their tribal nations and family traditions, if they are willing.

Include Native perspectives throughout your curriculum

  • Consider building lessons around videos made for children, about Native Americans. Examples are the PBS animated series Molly of Denali and the Illinois State Museum’s Native People of Illinois.
  • Is the class investigating things people eat? They can learn about the indigenous foods that have grown on this continent for thousands of years. Look for experts to help the class find out about corn, squash, beans, wild rice, wild onions, pecans, cranberries, and persimmons. Ask your librarian to help you find cookbooks that focus on indigenous foods. Original Local by Heid E. Erdrich and The Sioux Chef by Sean Sherman are examples.
  • Help the children find out about Indigenous languages by sharing words from some of those languages during their investigations of things around them. For example, what we call “corn” in English has many Indigenous names. Native families in the program might be able to tell you some relevant words. Many Native nations are working to preserve their languages, and their official websites have video and audio resources, or even apps, for language learners. One example is the Muscogee Nation’s Mvskoke Language Program.
  • Play child-appropriate music by Native American performers as a regular part of music-sharing. The Native American Music Award’s (NAMA) website can be a good source of audio and videos for the children to enjoy. Be sure to preview them, as you do anything else not made specifically for children.

As teachers, we may feel we are always supposed to “have the answers.” But we need to accept that we may have a lot to learn in some areas. Information about Native Americans is likely to be one of those areas for many of us. I hope you find that the suggestions in these blog posts enable you to keep adding to what you know and sharing that with children in your classroom.

Web Resources

Jean Mendoza Jean Mendoza

Jean Mendoza holds a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from University of Illinois, a master’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Illinois, and a master’s in counseling psychology from Adler University of Chicago. She served on the faculty of the early childhood teacher education program at Millikin University and worked with children and families for more than 25 years as a teacher, social worker, and counselor. She recently collaborated with Dr. Debbie Reese on a young people’s adaptation of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz). Her long-standing interest in children’s literature is reflected in her reviews of children’s books with Native content, which have appeared in A Broken Flute and on the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature. Jean and her late husband, Durango, have four grown children and six grandchildren. She lives in Urbana, Illinois.

(Biography current as of 2021)

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2021