Newswise — Even children as young as preschool-age can begin to learn the value of diversity, according to a Kansas State University instructor.

Children typically notice differences in those around them, such as physical characteristics, at about age 2, said LuAnn Hoover, instructor of family studies and human services. That age is also the critical time when toddlers begin to form attitudes based on significant others, including parents and teachers.

"Attitudes are caught not taught," Hoover said. "Nonverbal actions are picked up on. Kids don't attend to what adults say but to what they do. It's the saying, 'Actions speak louder than words.'"

Hoover said the best thing parents can do when teaching their children about diversity is to check their own attitudes and beliefs, as children pick up on adults' nonverbal actions.

"We think we're open-minded, but oftentimes our actions and behaviors tell otherwise," said Hoover, who is also program coordinator of the K-State Early Childhood Laboratory. "How accepting adults are of differences is what they model to children."

While there is not one best way to teach children about similarities and differences, Hoover said young children learn best by hands-on activities. Children also do a lot of playing in their younger years, which is how they learn.

"Children are playing out life experiences, trying on different roles," Hoover said. "Who am I, what can I do?"

Hoover said learning about diversity is important because children need to learn to respect all people and understand that everyone is alike, but also different. Learning about diversity can also affect their social and emotional development.

"Learning to have respect for others is a lifetime social skill that positively impacts a child's developing sense of self," Hoover said. "Teaching children to respect differences is also a beginning in the prevention of aggressive and violent behavior."

When children can't be exposed to diversity naturally, Hoover recommends reading books to them. If the books include images of different children, it will expose the child to diversity, she said.

Learning about diversity is also important for children because they now have more access to the world, Hoover said.

"We live in a global society," she said. "Kids in preschool are much more aware of the world around them than the previous generation, through media, Internet, travel and computers. More access to the world introduces diversity."