Wanted: An Eco-minded Video Game

I’m a Minecraft parent desperately waiting for a new game. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate some aspects of the game: its square, old-fashioned graphics, its lack of violence, the way it can entertain for hours when a parent needs to get work done.

The blogger, with her children.

I’m glad that it lends itself not only to critical online thinking but also to creative endeavors such as making Halloween costumes from cardboard boxes, playing imaginatively with little Minecraft characters, and creating stop-motion animation. I thoroughly approve of Stampy Longhead, the character who has made Minecraft such a phenomenon: his friendly voice, his distinctive laugh, his clean vocabulary suitable for my 8-year-old. I enjoy the fact that Stampy loves to eat cake (even for breakfast) and has a place he calls his “Love Garden” where he puts tributes from his adoring fans.

What bothers me is the overall concept. Minecraft is true to its name: It is about the craft of mining. This seemingly innocent video game is passing on a key element of our society’s dominant narrative: extracting natural resources (that is, wealth) from the earth. We know now that practice leads to climate change, which will deeply affect our own children’s lives and put entire coastal cities and nations at risk. And, we know that when it comes to avoiding a catastrophic future, one forever altered by sea level rise and global warming, each decade matters.

Indoor activities: Potential to build outdoor awareness and eco-skills?

I know Minecraft is just a game. But in my more paranoid moments, I wonder if it was created with funding from the fossil fuel industries in order to ever-so-sneakily shape the attitudes of our children. The other day, my daughter’s friend announced to his parents that he wanted to be a miner when he grew up. We don’t need our kids to think in terms of extracting resources from the earth. We need our kids, our geeky teenagers, and our entrepreneurial young adults to think in terms of capturing and sharing renewable energy.

So I am waiting, impatiently, for a new game. I am waiting for a game where, instead of competing individually to dig into the earth to extract and build, the players collaborate to create grids that supply 100% clean energy to cities and hard-to-reach mountain villages. I’m waiting for a game where the goals are to create solar farms and wind turbines, to harness the hydro power of tides or rivers. I’m waiting for a game where the characters are heroes when they bring life back to bleached-out coral reefs, dead forests, or city streets.

I suspect Stampy Longhead could convert his six million subscribers, and many more kids, to such a game over the span of a week or so. And so I plead, game makers of the world, make a new game. Just make sure it includes cake.

Addendum: My son, upon hearing I was writing this blog, became concerned. He would like to argue for an “enhancement” of the game instead of a replacement. Whatever works!

Next Steps!

Read about positive benefits of playing Minecraft game in an article, “The Minecraft Generation,” on the New York Times mobile app.

About the BloggerLee Bluemel Staff Page Photo

The Revered Lee Bluemel has served The North Parish of North Andover (MA)
Unitarian Universalist since 1999. Previously she held a four-year ministry position in Midland, MI. She is also the mother of two elementary-age kids, an 11-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl, who play Minecraft (or watch YouTube videos of Stampy Longhead playing Minecraft) almost every day.

Never Turning Away, Never Turning Back

After the tragedy in Orlando, I felt that I must write something. Yet, I was experiencing so many emotions, it was hard to know what to say.

The 49 people murdered at The Pulse collectively had hundreds of people who loved them. Those relatives, friends, and lovers each woke up this morning with a great hole in their life. Not having lost a loved one to violence, I cannot imagine their pain.

Nor can I imagine what goes through the mind of someone who intentionally causes such grief, anguish, and pain. I left my prayers up to the Universe. May all our prayers be followed by actions to try to excise hate and intolerance from our communities.istock_helping_hands_illus_HiRes

What I can imagine is how you, faithful leader, are reaching out to comfort the hurting in your congregations and other spheres of influence.

Recently, I read the statement from the woman raped by the ex-Stanford student, Brock Turner. I was able to keep a dry eye until I reached the end, where she thanked all the friends and family who loved her and all the strangers who were kind, even though they did not know her. I cried because despite the violence – physical, emotional, spoken – perpetrated against her, she made the decision to land in a place of love and gratitude.

And so, what I want to say to you is, “Thank you.”

For every child you have told that, “Love is the spirit of this church,”

“Thank you.”

For every time you had to ask the congregation for money to send a facilitator to an Our Whole Lives training so perhaps an LGBTQ youth could have at least one place in the world where their orientation and gender would be seen as natural and beautiful,

“Thank you.”

For every time you have modeled inclusion or celebrated diversity or created a pluralistic environment,

“Thank you.”

For every time you have felt saddened and overwhelmed and thought you could not take one more step for Justice, and you took a step anyway,

“Thank you.”

Let us hold each other and reach out to those who need to hear our message of love, never turning away, never turning back.

Beyond the Partisan Divide

By Anya Sammler-Michael

“Is Unitarian Universalism a real religion?”

“It is not, if you believe religion is about dividing people between the saved and damned… but, if you believe that religion should seek to unite humanity rather than divide it, we are a very real religion.”

— Alice Blair Wesley

My mother was raised Jewish, and my father Catholic. When they married, they chose the then Unitarian Cedar Lane Congregation in Bethesda, MD. The Catholics wouldn’t have them, and my father was not called to convert to Judaism.

You might imagine the response of both of their extended families in 1971. My mother was marrying a goy, and my father, for his choice, was excommunicated. But over time, both extended families fought to understand the humans behind the labels. As they got to know Bronislaw and Laraine Sammler, the fact that one was Catholic and the other Jewish grew less and less important.donkey_elephand_morguefile_3jun16

The goy and the Jew are also Republicans. In the Unitarian Universalist congregation we attended during my youth, they were loved for being an interfaith couple, but they were shunned (subtly and directly) for holding politically conservative views. Although I remained connected to youth group, my parents stopped attending.

Many lay and ordained Unitarian Universalists argue that an unwelcoming attitude to conservatives is a healthy expression of our values, that it shows our marked maturity as a movement. I might agree if every Republican were a demagogue deserving of social alienation. But my connection with my parents and other political conservatives has given me a peek behind the labels. There are just as many variant expressions of conservatism as there are expressions of theology in Unitarian Universalist congregations. An intolerance to a whole group of people isolates us in communities incapable of reaching across the political divide to secure a more just world, while it enfeebles our call to build the beloved community.

My parents welcomed all my crazy friends, with all their multi-various identities (LGBTQ, drug-addled, cross-dressing, aching, etc.), into our home with love and acceptance. Our home became known as a safe space, where we were free to be our full selves, and learn from one another. How can I, as a religious professional, serve a Unitarian Universalist congregation that would not welcome my parents into theirs?

When we allow a label to serve as a dividing line between “the saved and the damned,” we miss the whole point of our covenantal theology. Relationship and unity are cornerstone religious values, values that can, one day, help us build a beloved community. To do otherwise paints us as hypocrites and our faith as thin and fragile indeed.

Next Steps!

  • Consider opportunities to welcome across partisan divisions in your congregation! The UUA offers the Beyond the Partisan Divide Toolkit: video and discussion workshops, small group ministry sessions, sermons, resources for children and youth, and more. Get started: Read anonymous statements from Unitarian Universalists about how liberal/conservative and Republican/Democrat barriers affect them in their faith communities.
  • Read Tom Schade’s April, 2016 blog, “84% Democrats: What does that mean?”, on his The Lively Tradition blog site.
  • Marilyn J. Sewell writes about “Radical Hospitality” on the UU Worship Web.

About the Blogger

Rev. Anya Head ShotThe Reverend Anya Sammler-Michael serves the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Sterling (VA) as a full-time minister.
A graduate of Meadville Lombard Theological School, she is married to Rev. Scott Sammler-Michael, who also serves in Northern Virginia at the Accotink UU Church. Rev. Anya has received awards for her commitment to interfaith engagement from Loudoun Interfaith BRIDGES and the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, and in 2012 delivered an invocation for First Lady, Michelle Obama, and an invocation for President Barack Obama at separate campaign events. Her present studies include language philosophy, evil, and the partisan split.

A Leap of Faith: Together with Presbyterian Christians

Have you seen the Android commercial where the rock, paper, and scissors become friends? It’s the latest using the tag line, “Be Together. Not the Same.”

I admit to loving these ads. My life has been full of experiences of being together with people in groups where I am different from the majority. Welcome Stick and Stones morguefileI get “being together, not the same.” It is a crucial concept for us as Unitarian Universalists doing interfaith work.

This year, I started to make good on a commitment I had made as director of the UUA Faith Development Office: to reach out to peers who serve other faiths and find ways to support one another and work together for the greater good. I started with telephone conversations. Then, in January, I took a bigger leap, along with Gail Forsyth-Vail and Pat Kahn, to attend the Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators (APCE) conference in Chicago. The APCE is one of the largest ecumenical gatherings of Christian religious educators in the country. Booking plane tickets for Chicago in January is a leap of faith; hoping that we would feel welcome was another. I am glad I took these leaps.

Groundwork was laid by contacting staff of APCE and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Their emails were warm and inviting. We were welcome to attend the conference, and they hoped to find time to meet with us.

The conference had 750 attendees and offered a plethora of workshops. I attended a well planned, interactive workshop on how to help people decide to embrace change and a workshop I felt less enthusiastic about, on race. In between, there was worship with great preaching by the Reverend Otis Moss III of the United Church of Christ, keynote speeches, and yes, even time to meet with a few Presbyterian Church staffers who discussed their work’s growing edges (which sounded strikingly familiar to me). I believe our conversations left us feeling as if we were in this work together, as liberal religious leaders doing our best to help ourselves and others make meaning of our complicated lives.

Our differences called for some translating, on my part. It felt disingenuous of me to sing some of the hymns, so I skipped some. I did not take communion, but I did accept an anointed blessing. Being together did not mean we were the same, and I felt no pressure to pretend or to disguise myself. One of the organizers of the conference invited us to attend in Denver next year and offered to provide a pre-conference gathering for any UUs in attendance.

Next Steps!

Yes, Android has it right (no offense to Apple fans!) You can watch the “Be together. Not the same” Android ads on their YouTube channel.

One reason we, as Unitarian Universalists, may feel welcome in a mixed-faith environment could be the often multi-faith nature of UU congregations. Does your congregation offer the new pamphlet, Home for Multifaith People and Families?

The APCE website includes information on their 2017 conference.


At the Center of the General Assembly Experience: Faith Development

Imagine with me for a minute: What if every person involved with General Assembly 2016 intentionally brought an open heart, mind, and spirit? Came ready to grow in faith and in commitment to Unitarian Universalist values? What if General Assembly becomes less a place to debate issues (however passionately we may feel about them!) and more a place to learn from voices and perspectives not our own and to turn together toward the significant challenges that call to us as Unitarian Universalists in this time and place?

General Assembly 2015 (photo: Nancy Pierce)

What if GA were truly a faith development experience, for individuals, for groups, and for the body of Unitarian Universalists who will gather in Columbus, Ohio, June 22-26 and those who will join via the Internet?

Religious educators have long known that faith development happens when we sit up and pay attention—to the world around us, to the stories of our lives—and respond from our deepest values and commitments. The planners of General Assembly 2016 are asking us to anticipate a faith development experience. Along with being open to practical learning about living UU lives in our congregations and beyond, they’re asking participants to come with open hearts, prepared to focus our collective attention in these areas:

  • The potential of interfaith connections and coalitions to enhance our spiritual lives, our justice-making work, and the work we do to strengthen local communities and neighborhoods and resist the forces that would divide us.
  • The growing call of Unitarian Universalist witness and presence against persistent, pernicious racism and its continuing physical, economical, spiritual, emotional, and cultural damage…and emerging opportunities to join the movement for black lives and against racism as or with people of color in our faith communities, our local communities, and our nation.

We are asked to form a learning community before, during, and after this General Assembly. We are invited to prepare ourselves spiritually, mentally, and emotionally with this suggested pre-General Assembly spirit work:

  1. Learn about the work of Rev. Dr. William Barber and the Moral Mondays fusion coalition movement. Read his book, The Third Reconstruction, and discuss or journal in response to questions in the discussion guide.
  2. Find a story about interfaith connection, dialogue, and/or partnership from your own life and share it with others.
  3. Attend to the voices of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU). A selection of materials for reading or viewing will get you started.

Details about how to prepare yourself, whether you will participate in person in Ohio or via the internet, can be found in the General Assembly pages. As co-chair (with Renee Ruchotzke) of the 2016 and chair of the 2017 GA Program Development Group, I’m very interested in learning about how you and your congregation or group share reflections, insights, and responses to the GA preparation materials. I’d love to hear from you with creative ideas and suggestions as we encourage one another to put our individual and collective faith development at the center of what we do at General Assembly.

Next Steps!

Make plans to attend GA 2016 in Columbus, Ohio in person! If attending GA is not possible, explore opportunities for offsite participation and set the time aside to prepare as well as participate.

If you will be part of the GA 2016 Assembly, in-person or online, visit the Preparing the Join the General Assembly 2016 Learning Community and begin your preparation work.

Visit the GA Forum on UUA.org and join the conversation about the GA Learning Community.

Start and nurture conversations in your congregation, group, family, or circle of friends about interfaith connections, as well as conversations and actions supporting the movement for black lives and other efforts against racism in your congregation and in the wider community.

”Back to Normal” Makes an Argument for Shedding Labels

When one of my children was five years old, they entered kindergarten. The child we entrusted to the school was a high energy, affectionate, interesting kid. A kid who “bounced,” just like A. A. Milne’s Tigger in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. A kid not always aware of their hyperactivity, nor of others’ reactions to it.

Only a few weeks later, the principal took me aside: “Gail, when are you going to get that kid on meds?” And thus began a long journey with a diagnosis, a label, which made my child a problem, not just in school, but at church, in sports, and just about everywhere else. And a long journey with a caring physician who, thank goodness, was always willing to put at the center of decisions my child’s own assessment of the way they felt, both on and off medicine. Although those years are past and my child is now grown, memories of that time still evoke pain, sadness, and outrage.

Image from Wikihow.com; used under terms of Creative Commons license.
Image from Wikihow.com, used under terms of Creative Commons.

I recently read Back to Normal, by Enrico Gnaulati, a clinical psychologist specializing in childhood issues (Beacon Press, 2013). He asserts that we are giving diagnostic labels and psychiatric medications to children who may just be delayed in social, emotional, or linguistic development, or who may have temperaments that make it difficult to respond to the expectations of family, school, and culture. He observes that a diagnosis is often the key to medical insurance coverage and educational supports for a child who is having difficulty. Yet, diagnosis is often made quickly, without long-term observation of the child, and without exploring potentially complex explanations for hard-to-manage behaviors. Certainly there are children who have an autism spectrum disorder, bipolar disorder, or ADHD and for whom medication is an important help. However, he suggests that many children are given diagnostic labels that turn out to be inaccurate and unnecessary.

While I am unconvinced by Gnaulati’s attribution of certain kinds of behaviors to gender-related development issues, much of his writing is useful for religious educators and volunteers who work with children and families in congregational contexts. It really boils down to understanding each child as an individual, not a diagnosis, and understanding that the congregational culture and expectations may pose difficulties for some children that require creative adaptations. His book also refused to take either side of the nature/nurture debate with regard to causes of some children’s difficulties. For example, he writes:

…Believing an ADHD kid suffers from a brain disease can engender compassion. By the same token, it can lead to a sense of futility that nothing fundamental can be done on the teacher’s or the kid’s part to bring about lasting change. There may be the sense that the kid’s hyperactive behavior must be simply tolerated, managed, or controlled (whether through medication or behavioral methods) – not changed. This can lead to negative reactions, whether openly expressed or just ruminated on.

He goes on to point out that removing the label and dealing with the child can empower parents, families, and teachers (and congregations, I might add!) to more effectively help a child to grow and develop needed skills. It can also reduce the stigma and stress faced by a child with difficulties and the parent(s) who love them.

Next Steps!

Read Welcoming Children with Special Needs: A Guidebook for Faith Communities for guidance in creatively supporting all children and families.

Read the Multigenerational Pastoral Care page on UUA.org and follow links for more resources and guidance.

“Fidget objects” are a tool suggested in the UUA Tapestry of Faith children’s programs to help children settle down and focus quietly when it is time for their group to listen.


Marshman and Fields Scholarship: Reflections on a Legacy

One of the first things I did as a new religious educator in the mid-1980s was to get in contact with those who had been doing the work for years and had much to share. I lived for monthly meetings of the Mass Bay Religious Education Team. I would come home brim full of ideas, enthusiasm, and love for the profession. And for the professionals who so graciously shared what they knew with newbies like me.

Barbara Marshman
Rev. Barbara Marshman (1910-1996), a graduate of the Massachusetts School of Art, served as a Universalist director of religious education before her ordination, in 1980, as a Minister of Religious Education at the Follen Church in Lexington, MA. She won the Angus H. MacLean Award in 1987.

One of my fondest memories is of Rev. Barbara Marshman of Follen Community Church in Lexington, MA. She was already well known in the UU world, part of the mighty triumvirate of curriculum writers known as Brotman Marshfield (Charlene Brotman, Barbara Marshman, and Ann Fields). She was creative, artistic, dedicated, and so very willing to share the resources she spent hours creating for the children at Follen. She was a genius at taking the old UU curriculum kits, written with no specific religious content, and combining them with other resources to breathe life, and interest, and Unitarian Universalist connections into them. She took great interest in what was happening in our field and paid respectful attention to the ideas and contributions of a fledgling religious educator, like me.

One of the deepest memories I have of Barbara is after she retired from her position at Follen. Our RE Team needed a place to hold its monthly meetings, a congregation willing to host two or three dozen religious educators. Barbara Marshman was more than willing to host us, putting on her pretty apron and setting out coffee and treats for our meetings. She so believed in nurturing the next generation of religious educators that she gave her time so that our meetings could run smoothly. I am as grateful for that gift as for any of the others she brought. She taught me that sometimes the most important thing you can do is to facilitate the work that others are doing. She modeled being a gracious elder in our profession.

After Barbara died, her family decided to honor her by establishing a scholarship fund for continuing education for UU religious educators. The Marshman Fund was joined with the Ann B. Fields Fund and offers scholarships to this day.

I am at a time in my professional life when I look back and marvel at the people who have influenced me along the way, and at the substantial legacy they have left. Here is an excerpt from “Bridges, 1949,” a poem Barbara wrote. We who gathered read this at her memorial service:

Oh, God, if life is just a bridge from darkness to darkness

Then let me, with confidence build a firm one;

But please Dear God, let it be a shining one,

A lovely thing to see!

Barbara’s bridge was indeed a shining one, and I am grateful for her mentorship and example. If you are a religious educator engaged in graduate study, please do apply for a scholarship. Take good advantage of a beautiful legacy gift!

Next Steps!

The deadline to apply for a Marshman and Fields scholarship is May 1. Please email Jan Gartner, UUA Professional Development Specialist, jgartner@uua.org, to apply.

Each year, a religious education elder is invited to share their “odyssey” with colleagues at a Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) gathering. Read and be inspired by Barbara A. Marshman’s Odyssey (1984) and Ann Boutwell Fields’ Odyssey (1990).

Some of Marshman’s work is incorporated in Tapestry of Faith curricula and published on the UUA Worship Web. Check out the well-loved story, “What if Nobody Forgave?” and her artwork, body prayer postures silhouettes, in the children’s curriculum, Windows and Mirrors.

Marshman’s personal papers are being catalogued at the Meadville Lombard Theological School. If you would like to know more about that collection, please contact archivist John Leeker, jleeker@meadville.edu.


Outside the (Question) Box: Sharing Ministry in Worship

By Chris Buja

question box cropped
“The Question Box” used in worship at the UU Congregation of Somerset Hills, NJ. Image courtesy of Chris Buja.

Soon after I started attending my first Unitarian Universalist congregation, in Corpus Christi, TX, I was introduced to the concept of “shared ministry.” Shared ministry recognizes that ministry—all that is done to fulfill the religious mission of a congregation—is a shared endeavor of the professional ministers and religious educators, along with lay leaders. Those in professional and lay roles bring important skill sets, experience, and expertise to a congregation’s ministries; success is found in the synergy of those leaders and all that they bring.

When shared ministry is a given, one can be oblivious to its happening. This was the case for me during a recent worship service at the congregation I now serve. An example of shared ministry between an ordained minister and a non-ordained religious educator was on display and it did not dawn on me until it was pointed out to me after the fact!

Some of you may be familiar with “question box” worship, where those in attendance may submit questions to which the minister may respond. This can be a risky venture for the minister, not knowing in advance what questions will come up. The questions may range from grand questions on the meaning of life to the more personal such as, “what is your favorite book?” (Though in this case there was some “vetting” of questions just before they were placed in the question box.)

My minister, Rev. Jennifer Kelleher, had facilitated such a service a couple of years ago and planned for another one in early February. But this time, she suggested we BOTH respond to questions, especially those posed by children and youth in the earlier part of service, before they left for classes.

I thought it was a great idea, one that also, conveniently, took care of planning the time for all ages component! Again, I did not realize at first that we would be modeling shared ministry in that the minister was “sharing the pulpit” with the religious educator and welcoming the input I would have on profound religious questions. Perhaps it did not strike me as noteworthy because the minister and I have had a collaborative working relationship from the start, and this congregation has a solid history of staff team collaboration as well as professional/lay partnerships.

You can see video footage on YouTube of Rev. Jennifer and me responding together to questions in our worship service. I hope it will be a useful example for those of you looking to explore shared ministry.

And I wonder if, for some, exploring shared ministry is a necessity. In today’s changing religious landscape, ordained ministers, for all of their many years’ of education and experience, are less often viewed as a faith community’s sole source of religious/spiritual answers. Moreover, after the service as I reviewed the many more questions we did not have time to answer (though I plan to, via other means), it occurred to me that not only would responses by ordained and non-ordained professionals be appropriate, but also answers from those in attendance. Imagine a service with intermittent opportunities for congregants to turn to their neighbors and share their responses with one another. Such may be a welcome, contemporary expression of our UU emphasis on the “prophethood and priesthood of all believers!”

Next Steps!

A “Wonder Box,” often used in Time for All Ages, became the Question Box for this worship service (photo above).

Read the 2013 report from the Unitarian Universalist Shared Ministry Task Force.

Read about Unitarian Universalist Governance, Polity, and Shared Ministry on the UUA website.

A 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” discusses formal and informal ministry roles in faith communities today.

About the BloggerChris Buja profile

Chris Buja, Director of Lifespan Faith Development for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Somerset Hills in Somerville NJ, is currently working toward professional credentialing as a Unitarian Universalist religious educator. When not engaged in various shared ministry adventures, Chris enjoys running. And when not running, he and his wife Melanie can be found “running” after their two boys, Ryan and Kyle!




Women Shaping UU History

In 1980, when President Jimmy Carter proclaimed the week of March 8 as National Women’s History Week (now Month), he said, “Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America were as vital as those of the men whose names we know so well.”

An engraving of African American poet Phillis Wheatley, one of the first women to publish a book in the American colonies.
African American poet Phillis Wheatley, born in Senegal and kidnapped into slavery, was one of the first women to publish a book in the American colonies.

The proclamation responded to a need and a clamor to lift up women’s names. The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s had raised the visibility of women as half the fabric of daily life and as important leaders and innovators. By 1980, expanding roles for women outside the home had invited a vanguard generation of professional women historians to investigate and document women’s roles in history. But, research from around the same time showed that in history textbooks, no more than 3% of the content talked about women.

Nowadays the Internet, local libraries, and our communities’ elder women abound with stories and accomplishments to share during Women’s History Month, or anytime. As UU religious educators, we have similarly abundant resources to lift up women’s historic contributions to our faith. How will you honor Women’s History Month, UU style, for the edification of the children, youth, and adults we serve? You will find some helpful links to stories, activities, and background information, below.

But first, read “Celebrating UU Women in History” and learn ten names worth knowing, if you do not already know them. For example, you’ll meet Olympia Brown, Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin, and Margaret Moseley, achievers in, respectively, ministry, astronomy, and civil rights activism.

Happy Women’s History Month!

Next Steps!

The UUA’s free, online Tapestry of Faith curricula and other publications of the Faith Development Office provide many stories and activities to share that illuminate women’s roles in UU history. Antoinette Brown, who, like Olympia Brown, forged new paths in ministry, is the subject of “Antoinette Brown and Olympia Brown” in the grades 2-3 program Signs of Our Faith. Also for younger children, “Harriot Kezia Hunt Making a Difference,” in the Tapestry of Faith program Faithful Journeys, tells of a 19th century woman who became the first woman in the U.S. to practice medicine professionally. Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix, Beatrix Potter, and Harriet Tubman are among the other American women whose stories enhance our understanding of our faith heritage.

Explore the website of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation to learn about current political work to defend women’s rights, and much more.

A is for Africa: Using African-centric Material with Preschoolers

by Andrea Arrington

Charlotte drum
Charlotte, age 4, explores an African drum while Kirk Owusu Moore, a university student from Ghana, demonstrates for the preschool class.

As a professor of African history, one of the first things I do with my classes is assess what they know—or think they know—about Africa. We discuss images in mainstream Western media and pop culture and identify problems in those presentations of Africa and Africans. We spend the rest of the semester trying to replace those often misleading, inaccurate, and derisive portrayals with evidence-based knowledge. We use focused case studies to give students a more realistic and rich understanding about the breadth and diversity of Africa and among Africans.

In addition to being a professor, I am the mother of Charlotte, a four-year-old, and Cooper, a two-year-old.  Last fall, invited to volunteer-teach in my daughter’s classroom, I suddenly needed to figure out how to take my knowledge and turn it into something accessible for preschoolers. I was hoping to use story and activity to introduce Africa in an age-appropriate way that is counter to the images of war, disease, and poverty that have clouded my college students’ vision of Africa.

I quickly discovered that while numerous books about or set in Africa cater to preschoolers, much to my dismay, many of these books focus on animals. As someone who grew up loving Disney’s The Lion King, I understand the appeal of books with cheerfully drawn animals. However, it is frustrating that when I ask college students what they think of when they hear the word “Africa,” many of the positive attributes they share are related to animals and landscape, for example, “safari,” “Serengeti,” and “lions.” When we share this type of content with young children, we build and reinforce the notion of a whole continent whose positive aspects are found solely in its landscape and wildlife, and where the humans are less notable than the animals. I decided to bring the preschool children stories and activities that would teach something about African cultures, languages, aesthetics, values, music, or dance.

I identified several picture books that are great for introducing Africa to preschoolers. Stories I shared were set in various cultures and countries, with snapshots of daily life shown in pictures and through the text. For example, in Mama Panya’s Pancakes, a young child in a Kenyan village invites many members of the community to come over for pancakes despite the mother’s worry that there will not be enough food for them all. The story shows a rural home. The children learn about the marketplace as a center for socializing and shopping. The moral of the story is a lovely one: The child invites guests who bring their own contributions to the meal, much to the relief of Mama Panya. Charlotte’s classmates took from the book the importance of community and of being good guests. The friendly, generous characters serve as quite a contrast to some images of Africans my college students have shared.

I also sought ways to integrate African content with the regular classroom play-based curriculum and hands-on learning style. Charlotte’s teacher already used different activities to familiarize students with letters. I brought alphabet books in which the letters each introduce young children to different elements of African life and culture. Students got to shout out what letters they saw and then talked about the text I read to them and the drawings they saw. When the teacher led a module about trees, I brought in a wonderful book about Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan scientist and environmental activist who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her fight against deforestation in her community, which spurred the Greenbelt Movement all over Africa. Our art project that week was to make a classroom community tree. I used the story’s message about Maathai’s emphasis on community. I brought in a large, bare poster board tree trunk and dozens of cut-out leaves, and the students got to paint and glitter the leaves. Then we glued the leaves onto our tree, which their teacher hung on the wall for several weeks. I also engaged students from my university to come to the preschool class with me. One of the highlights of the semester was when a Ghanaian college student taught the kids how to play an African drum.

You do not need to be an expert in African Studies to find ways to present positive, humanistic, and realistic material to young students. Many of the books I used emphasized community, family, and other African values. Each week, a book served as inspiration for an art activity that blended African content with topics the class was already working on and allowed the children the chance to craft.

Next Steps!

Heritage Box, a company owned by an African (Zimbabwe-born) and African American couple, offers subscriptions so families can explore each month a new, hands-on kit introducing an aspect of African American or African history and culture.

Share these engaging books about African life with young children:

  • A is for AfricaChidi Only Likes Blue: An African Book of Colors, and Emeka’s Gift (a counting book), all by Ifeoma Onyefulu, a Nigerian author
  • I Lost my Tooth in Africa by Baba Wagué Diakité, a Mali-born author
  • Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book by Muriel Feelings
  • Mama Panya’s Pancakes by Mary Chamberlin
  • Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales by Nelson Mandela, the late President of South Africa
  • Off to the Sweet Shores of Africa by Uzo Unobagha, a Nigerian-born author
  • Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter

About the Blogger

andrea arringtonAndrea Arrington earned her Ph.D. in African History at Emory University and is an Assistant Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Indiana State University. She lived and conducted research extensively throughout West Africa and Southern Africa and has taken students to Ghana for study abroad. Dr. Arrington is the co-author of Africanizing Democracies: 1880-Present (Oxford University Press) and the author of Victoria Falls and Colonial Imagination in British Southern Africa: Turning Water into Gold (forthcoming, Palgrave MacMillan Press). She serves as the Membership Secretary of the African Studies Association’s Women’s Caucus and is active in the Zambezi African Studies Association.