The shelves of brightly-coloured dolls that you see on arriving at the Equality Learning Centre, in a tall office building in north London, make you feel as if you are walking into a toy shop.
Look more closely, however, and you notice that these dolls are unusual. One has a hearing aid tucked into its knitted jacket pocket; another is propped against a zimmer frame; and two, to judge from their eyes, have Down's syndrome.
Looking along the shelves, the shades of pink, brown and yellow of the dolls' faces represent virtually every colour in the international palette.
Is this a case of political correctness run riot? Could it conceivably be the view of the Equality Learning Centre that every nursery should be stocking a similar selection of toys in order to be fair to a mixed intake?
Annie Potter, the centre's information worker and a former nursery teacher, says she would have been glad of a few such props at her own nursery as a way of introducing discussion. But the toys themselves, she emphasises, are no substitute for good practice. What is important, alongside a range of toys, books and other images showing the world in its diversity, is that the nursery teacher should talk about these issues with thought and sensitivity, giving children good, sound answers to their questions.
Central to the philosophy of the Equality Learning Centre, which is jointly funded by Save the Children and the London Borough Grants Committee, is that in order to develop the self-esteem and confidence necessary for learning, children need to see themselves in the environments which nurture and teach them; to be rendered invisible is to cast doubt on the child's sense of identity. Equally important is that children from the dominant culture should be given a true picture of the society in which they live if they are not to grow up with prejudices and mistaken assumptions about their own superiority.
The centre, now in its third year, grew out of an organisatio n called Building Blocks, which was created in the 1980s to address race issues in schools. Whereas Building Blocks worked mainly in schools and propagated a specific programme, the aim of the Equality Learning Centre is that it should be a resource centre of greater flexibility, providing ideas and information on key equality issues, such as gender, race and disability.
Staffed at present by Annie Potter and project co-ordinator Tina Hyder, the centre offers short training courses and seminars for all those involved in the care of children up to eight, working mostly with nurseries and other early years organisations. People are welcome to telephone the centre for information, as well as to visit it, to browse in its library and database, or sample its thought-provoking collection of books, toys, games, posters and fancy dress. The centre also publishes a newsletter and occasional pamphlets, such as the recent Passionate about Print, and Boys and Reading and Writing, both of them useful and concise.
"What we try to do is to encourage early years workers not to stereotype groups of children, but to see each one as an individual, with their own make-up, personality and history," says Sue Emerson, a member of the Equality Learning Centre management team at Save the Children. "It's not enough to go on, say, an anti-racism course and then presume you know everything about children from Nigeria."
Concentrating on each child as an individual helps to ensure a less heavy-handed approach to the differences between children, so that important differences are noted, but not focused on as defining characteristics. Children's books, Annie Potter says, have become much more adept at handling these things; Dave and the Tooth Fairy by Verna Allette Wilkins, for example, has a black boy in a wheelchair as its main character, but because neither his colour nor his disability is relevant to the story itself, they figure only in the pictures.
Children notice differences in those around them from infancy, such as colour of skin or hair, and from about the age of two, begin to be aware of their own gender and ethnic identity. Between two and three, most children can label themselves and others as boys and girls, men and women; from three or four, they are becoming aware of prejudices or stereotypes operating around them and beginning to imitate them ("I'm not playing with that doll, that's for girls," is, for instance, commonly heard from four-year-old boys).
Between four and seven, children's thinking about gender and race is, according to the Equality Learning Centre, quite fixed, in that they will tend to see others as either like or unlike themselves, and they may have negative feelings about those who are different. By the age of eight, their thinking is generally more flexible, and they are more willing to modify prejudices and see people more as individuals.
To try to stem the build-up of prejudice before the age of eight, the Equality Learning Centre emphasises the importance of encouraging children's questions about people who are different - even if asked loudly in public, as they tend to be - and giving them accurate answers.
Three and four-year-olds, for instance, may have very inaccurate perceptions of people with disabilities, assuming that one day they will all get better. They can be encouraged not to take an "oh, poor thing" view of disabled people, and nurseries should provide positive images and role models showing all the things they can do, rather than focusing only on what they cannot.
Explaining to young children that your gender depends not on your hair, your clothes or what you do, but on your anatomy, can help to free them from early pre-
judice. Nurseries and infant classes need to ensure that boys and girls are experiencing a full range of activities - by giving girls more encouragement with construction, say, or boys with role-play in the home corner. And, as Annie Potter says, there is nothing like nursery staff getting down on hands and knees to join in with a game for drawing the children in.
It is also crucially important to involve parents, and to make sure they understand the nursery's commitment to equal opportunities for all children. Sue Emerson recalls one situation when parents were unhappy to see boys dressing up in girls' clothes. What the nursery needed to communicate more effectively, she says, was that this was not "girls' clothes" but a valuable experience of role-play; in the end, the nursery agreed to find more clothes that were non-gender specific.
The role of the Equality Learning Centre in all this is not to spell out principles, or to hand out resources, but to help stimulate new ideas and fresh thinking.
"Nursery workers have long, hard days, and their work is under-valued, and the effect is that they often feel they have run out of ideas," says Annie Potter. "We can act as a catalyst. People will spend an afternoon here, talking and browsing through our collection, and they'll go away with a host of new activities and games that they can make for themselves."
The Equality Learning Centre, 356 Holloway Road, London N7 6PA. Tel: 0171 700 8127, fax: 0171 700 0099