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Diversity is more than demographics. Media designer and professor of learning technologies Kevin Clark says we need to think about diversity holistically—being aware of what children hear, see, and do.
A speaker at a last year’s Fred Forward conference said, “To create diversity, you have to be diverse.” That is an amazing statement. As a media designer, I’m constantly striving to represent the diverse world for children.
But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that it’s not enough to just have a count of diverse characters. This is not about how many of what to include when. Diversity is more than demographics. We need to think about diversity holistically. Yes, it’s about gender and race, but we need to add a component to go with those demographic components of diversity—being aware of what children hear, see, and do.
Here’s an example. I was involved in a project helping third graders in an underserved, inner-city neighborhood create video games. They were to design two prototypes of a baseball game, one by boys, one by girls. Most of these children were African Americans, so being black myself, I thought going into the project, “I’ve got this. They’re black, I’m black. I know what they want.”
I thought I’d be helpful and provide a template of a baseball field. The field in my template was surrounded by open space, a white fence—very suburban. They laughed. “Who plays baseball in a place like that?” they asked. I thought to myself, “my kids do.” But that’s not their world. Instead, they included a chain-link fence, with people on the other side cheering and cars going by. That was a lesson to me: even though I’m in that demographic group, it’s still important to consult with the target audience. We need to broaden the field, literally and figuratively.
Just as a healthy diet requires eating different foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins, a healthy media diet should include diverse characters, perspectives, formats, approaches, and interactions.
Why is that important? Because diversity in children’s media can have a positive impact on a child’s identity development and academic achievement. Edgar Dale's "Cone of Experience" famously shows that people remember less when they just read or hear something, but much more when they have a direct, purposeful experience.
So, the situations that characters are in, what they say, and how they communicate, as well as what they do and what is done to them, are as important as how they look.
Finally, it is just as important that the people creating media for children are from diverse backgrounds. Media designers walk into a project with pictures of “truths” in their heads: this is how this is supposed to be. But what about people who don’t have those same pictures in their heads? What do they see?
For that reason, parents, educators, and children themselves should find ways to bring their background, preferences, and knowledge to bear in the creation process. More diversity in children’s media can lead to products that build a sense of relevance and social connection for children, families, and communities of color.
For more on this topic, listen to Clark speak at the June 2012 Fred Forward conference.