Police Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms in the Era of Black Lives Matter

1/1/2022 – 12/31/2022


Police Play in Early Childhood Classrooms in the Era of Black Lives Matter investigates the perspectives of preschool educators and stakeholders to understand how educators should teach about police and other community helpers. This was a two-phase study. We began with data collection, employing video-cued, multivocal ethnography, a process in which a six-minute video clip of working-class Black children’s police play in an urban Head Start was shown to focus groups to prompt discussion and dialogue. We conducted focus groups in Black, Latinx, and white working-class and middle-class communities in Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. We chose these particular sites given local concerns and tensions over police. Results indicated that police and community helpers were nearly ubiquitous in the preschool curriculum, yet classroom spaces impacted how children engaged and learned about these subjects. Through constant comparison, we identified police as the central tension in preschools. Community helpers, other than police, while varying between communities, did not raise concerns from any educator.

Results indicated play and learning about police in each program was dependent on three factors: children’s play and understanding of police, the program philosophy and formal curriculum, and finally, the teacher’s approaches. Teachers play a key role in constructing and negotiating helpers.

While pedagogy, curriculum and philosophy matter in the spaces available for children to bring interests and concerns and the space to disrupt narratives, it can also reinforce dominant narratives. By relying on children and their interests, teachers can reproduce power relationships.

Analysis of transcripts demonstrated classrooms in affluent areas were less likely to address police using critical lenses. Educators reported children in wealthy areas had less direct experience with police. As they made clear in discussions, children from middle-class homes played police games by drawing on media experiences and literature. In response, teachers rarely challenged this depiction in the curriculum. This was consistent regardless of the racial composition of schools.

In comparison, working-class preschools in the three states were likelier to identify police in light of community tensions and racial inequity. For example, educators in Latinx communities in the borderlands considered Immigration officers a significant source of concern and challenged the depiction of border patrol officers as community helpers. In discussions, they made clear this was a source of violence for many Latinx communities- they even reported Latinx children were apt to play la migra (immigration) to work out concerns in the border lands areas. Similarly, Black working-class programs understood police as a contentious subject and reported Black children working out worries and tensions in play. White working-class and middle-class regions were far less likely to regard the police as a concern. However, for the educators who brought critical lenses, not all could integrate this knowledge into pedagogy and do so in developmentally appropriate ways. Our analysis demonstrated this to be the crucial concern of the study- how to upend dominant narratives and curriculum to promote justice. Of the one hundred and forty-two educators interviewed, those with greater years of formal ECE education and community knowledge were most likely to recognize inequities, respond, and design experiences in play to extend children’s play into issues that promoted justice. Using examples and experiences from their classroom, these educators provided specific direction for extending play and inquiry, a component of civics education and social-emotional development. Importantly, these educators were present in nearly every community. Findings from this research will inform the development of a web-based resource and module for teacher education and professional development.