If you look at the books on offer you’ll notice immediately that diversity is still very limited. Of all the children’s books published in Britain in 2019, only 5% have a protagonist from a minority ethnic group. You see the same in the play corner: dolls, colouring pencils and other toys do not always reflect society as it actually is. The small percentage of inclusive toys is moreover rather hard to find and often costs a fortune in postal charges. Fortunately this is gradually changing, and more and more shops are popping up, online or otherwise, that offer inclusive books and toys, such as the Belgian web store Cargo Confetti. But why is inclusion so important in the play corner? Aren’t children too young to understand the concept?
You’re never too young to learn
Children look at books, pictures, television and toys as a reflection of reality. Play is after all often a matter of mimicry. If stereotypes are presented every day in the play corner, ideas creep unnoticed into the rest of life too. If children read books in which they see only white people working in senior roles, for example, they will think there’s no place in that world for people of colour. According to Dr Njoroge, a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine (University of Pennsylvania), this makes inclusive toys and children’s books ideal tools for introducing diversity to children. Integrating them into the process of playing and learning helps to break down those stereotypes from a young age and give children an accurate picture of society.
Inclusive toys are not important just for those children who still rarely see themselves reflected in what is available. It’s essential for all children to learn to see the world through the eyes of others. Parents, especially those who have the privilege of not being confronted with discrimination themselves, tend to avoid talking to their children about diversity, because they fear the subject is too difficult or highly charged, or because they haven’t developed a vocabulary for dealing with it. An American study from 2021 on the subject of diversity shows how important it is to talk about it with your children from an early age. They aren’t blind to the differences between people, nor to the discrimination that all too often results. If you avoid having those conversations with your children, they will continue to see the differences and conflicts and perpetuate them.
It’s not easy to find the right way to explain discrimination to a toddler, but that is precisely where inclusive children’s books and toys can be of help. Good examples are essential if we are to teach children that everyone has an equal place in the world irrespective of skin colour, family composition, body type or religion.
Cargo Confetti: A good example of inclusive toys
Cargo Confetti is a Belgian online shop that sells inclusive toys. It was set up by Zarissa Windzak, who grew up in Surinam but fell in love and followed her partner to Belgium. After she had two children, she found herself continually searching for inclusive toys. They were so hard to find that she created a meeting place for anyone looking for information and materials that would contribute to an inclusive play experience for children.
‘At first I thought the web store would appeal mainly to people of colour,’ she says. ‘But a large proportion of my customers are white, and they not only see the point of representation in literature but want to know how they can help to create an inclusive society.’
In making a selection of toys and books to offer on Cargo Confetti, Zarissa does the quality control herself. ‘For children’s books I use a checklist: Do the central characters belong to an under-represented group? What is the division of roles? What kind of power relations are described? Is it an “own voices” book? Is the story free of stereotypes? Will it help to give a child a positive self-image? So I try to read the books before putting them on the website, although given the number of inclusive books that are now being published, it’s getting harder and harder to read everything in time. If I’m in doubt I talk to people who share a lived experience with the characters or subjects. That enables me to make sure I’m not selling any products that my target group will find insulting or shocking.’
As well as having an online shop, Cargo Confetti presents useful links to articles and information about anti-discrimination, and interviews with authors. ‘I recognize that it can be a challenging subject and that many parents aren’t sure how to tackle it. What’s even more important is that they may not know what steps to take to bring up their children in such a way that they’ll fight racism. I want to help them with that too. Not just because it contributes to an inclusive society, but because it reassures me that I can send my own children of colour out into the world without fear of racism or exclusion,’ Zarissa says.
The web store is a receptacle filled with inclusive materials: books for young and old, dolls, coloured pencils, puzzles and heaps of other goodies.
Along with her own picture book ‘Liever niet’ (Rather Not), Zarissa has another favourite item to sell, her Family Memory Game. ‘The characters on the cards are diverse not just in their ethnicity but in their religious convictions, body type, sexual orientation or physical abilities. In one of the pictures you see a child that’s being brought up by grandparents or older foster parents. Well, that’s exactly what I find so wonderful about it, showing that families can be of a different composition from the traditional image most people have in mind.’
From the online shop: