The first five years of a child’s life are vital for their development. What a child sees, learns and is exposed to during this time will begin to shape how they see the world, and how they see themselves.
So mum and business owner Folasayo Williams was dismayed to discover how little diversity there is in the games and toys available for children at nurseries and preschools.
As Folasayo’s eldest son grew out of babyhood, she became so frustrated with the lack of toys and puzzles that represented her family’s African heritage and culture that she pulled all of her savings together to launch her own company.
Sheni & Teni was born – a business that creates books, puzzles and toys that celebrate African cultures. Folasayo’s aim is to provide Black children with resources and play materials that represent them and make them feel seen and valued.
However, Folasayo has struggled to get her products into preschools and nurseries and says that unless the facilities are Black-owned, there is little to no interest in what she is providing.
‘The ages of 0-5 years are truly pivotal for the development of an individual’s belief system,’ Folasayo tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Diverse play spaces are a way to expand children’s horizons. The world is so much bigger than our little circle of influence and there is so much to learn beyond what we are immediately exposed to at home.
‘Diverse play spaces lay the groundwork for understanding, respecting and celebrating differences in cultures as children learn through play.’
Studies show that by the age of 6, a child’s belief system will be fairly crystallized. Some experts believe that a child’s understanding of the world at this point will be carried on into adulthood.
‘For most children this age, the majority of the time they spend outside the home will typically be in nursery or pre-school, and their nursery will also likely be their first social experience with people who perhaps don’t look like them and come from a myriad of different backgrounds,’ explains Folasayo.
‘So, nurseries are uniquely placed to make a significant impact in the fight against racism. It is imperative that experiences created in nursery play spaces are enriching and provide opportunities for valuable learning to occur.’
She adds that diverse environments and resources are also necessary to reflect society and provide representation.
‘We live in a cosmopolitan city – a real melting pot – and in fact, the whole world is now a global village,’ Folasayo tells us. ‘Everyone should be catered to and represented in the books they read, toys they play with and media they consume, no matter where they live or get their care and education.’
The mum-of-two’s latest venture as part of her business has been to produce a children’s book with a Black female superhero protagonist.
As of 2018, only 4% of British children’s books feature a main character who is ‘BAME’, according to the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education.
‘As a child, it is important to see positive examples of people that look just like you as protagonists, smashing through ceilings and barriers,’ says Folasayo.
‘Children need to know that they are seen, that they matter, that they can dream big dreams and achieve them. This can’t happen if they don’t see books, toys, cartoons, real-life inspirational people that look like them.
‘A couple of years ago – as I worked on the puzzles – my older son saw the Yoruba puzzle image onscreen and immediately yelled: “Oh look, Mummy, that’s me, you and Daddy”. He was so excited.
‘I realised that at age 3, it was potentially the first time he had seen a family resembling his own family unit represented in that way, and it’s no wonder he could instantly relate.
‘Another time, I asked him what he wanted to be when he grows up. Expecting him to say something like “doctor”, “fireman”, or “train engine driver”, I was equal parts surprised and tickled when he said “Black Panther” without missing a beat. But then why not?
‘We had enjoyed all the other white superheroes like Spiderman, Superman, Ironman and Batman, but this was the first time he saw someone that looked like him being the star and fighting off all the baddies.
‘It gave him someone “good” to look up to. I haven’t had the heart to tell him about Chadwick’s passing. I don’t see the need to just yet.’
But Folasayo knows that representation is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to go so much further than that.
‘We run the risk of “representation” and “diversity” being seen as a fad; used to tick boxes and support performative statistics,’ she says. ‘But what happens to the diverse workforce or children in our care? Are they really supported and included?
‘In nursery play spaces, representation through diverse toys and books, and diverse staff is only the first step. What needs to follow is a continuous checking and rechecking of our unconscious biases (we’re all human, we all have them).
‘Are we educated about various cultural norms and different lived experiences that could inform how we care for and relate to each child and their parents in the nursery setting?
‘Are we educated about Afro hair? The kinks and coils make it very difficult to wash sand, foam and glitter out. I have heard of a nursery setting – managed by Liz Pemberton, who is a woman of colour – where bonnets are provided during messy play and durags for sleep time, to help maintain corn rows or afro puffs. I thought that was amazing.
‘It’s little things like all of the above that go beyond representation to ensure an inclusive environment for children of colour. It takes intentionality to do this because we all naturally have an affinity for what is familiar to us.’
Puzzles, games and books with Black and minority characters may seem like a trivial thing. If you have never had to think about representation – or a lack of it – it is easy to dismiss it as unimportant. But Folasayo knows that the benefits of diverse and inclusive toys can be huge – she has seen the effects first-hand with her own kids.
‘As a child, celebrating your heritage develops an understanding and knowledge of self – where you come from, your background, your culture, why certain occasions are celebrated in a certain way, or the clothes and jewellery you’ve perhaps worn or seen family wear, or why your hair may be styled a certain way,’ Folasayo explains.
‘You develop a sense of pride and ownership about all of this, especially if celebrated from a young age. You grow up wearing that cultural identity like a badge of honour that no playground teasing, microaggressions or back-handed “compliments” can strip away when you’re grown.
‘You could say it adds a layer of resilience and self-esteem.’
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When you see your kids playing – do you ever wonder what goes through their minds? What messages they’re internalising? What they make of the images in front of them? I really like this image for some reason. I see contemplation. I see thought, consideration and focus. Thanks for sharing mama @lifewithisabella_ Have you bought our puzzles yet? Your Littles are sure to have a lot of questions and fun with them 💜
She says it also helps children to develop an appreciation of differences in other people’s cultures. She says it can make kids more accepting, empathetic, welcoming and understanding of differences, as opposed to being threatened by, or simply tolerating them.
‘I think celebrating heritage and culture from a young age can open up channels of creativity through which children can express themselves,’ says Folasayo. ‘Be it through dance, photography, theatre, fashion, music – there are so many different forms of expression that can be inspired by your cultural heritage.
‘And it can help build a sense of community. Is a child really going to celebrate heritage and culture on their own? It’s impossible. So, I think doing this from a young age also shows children what is possible within a community of shared backgrounds and values. It can provide a sense of belonging from a young age.’
Going forward, Folasayo wants to give voice to underrepresented communities in society, and to spark conversations about diversity and culture while providing learning opportunities.
‘I hope to enter into mainstream retail channels and potentially pave the way for others too,’ she adds. ‘I don’t want customers to have to visit a Black-owned store to purchase my products and products like mine. Our stories should be mainstream and given equal footing and visibility alongside other brands.’
And this extends into nurseries and playschools, which is why Folasayo has made a commitment to donate 20 boxes of her puzzles to nurseries chosen by her brand’s Instagram followers by the end of this year.
‘I hope to challenge myself as well. I’m by no means an expert in African cultures or in education,’ she says. ‘I’m literally learning something new every day. I’ve had to do a lot of research on the various cultures represented in our products and it’s actually been a lot of fun, making a concerted effort to learn about other parts of Africa.
‘I hope to inspire. I’d love to show people that anything is possible. I’m possibly the last person you’d think of as an entrepreneur, so it’s easy to think there are many more people who’re more “qualified” for this. But it’s a seed I’ve let germinate and grow, and in order to achieve it, I’ve had to learn to do everything myself.’
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