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A quilting community:
Celebrating diversity in the classroom

Alison Levitch, M.A., and Sara Gable, Ph.D.,
Department of Human Development and Family Studies, University of Missouri

Like the nation, Missouri is becoming more racially diverse. According to the 2000 Census,

  • From 1990 to 2000, Missouri’s Hispanic population doubled, St. Louis and Jackson counties had the largest growth in African-Americans, and Sullivan County's Asian-American population increased sixfold.
  • Greene County has the largest Native American population in the state.
  • The City of St. Louis has the largest Asian-American population in the state.

How can early childhood teachers convey the meaning of diversity in ways that young children will understand? One method is to use quilts. Teachers can use quilts to help children see one another as individuals who share both similar and different life experiences and who are members of the larger society.

According to Jeanne Helm and Alice Huebner, early childhood professors at Richmond Community College in Illinois, and Becky Long, a former kindergarten teacher, quilt projects can also be used to build a sense of classroom community. Most children have had experience with quilts. They may have used one as a baby blanket, played with one in pretend play, or seen one at home on a bed. In Europe, Asia and Africa, many families pass quilts from generation to generation. In America, quilts are used for more than just comfort – some quilts are used to tell the stories of families. During the Civil War, quilts were used to depict maps of the Underground Railroad. Quilt projects can help children learn about one another and appreciate one another's experiences.

This simple activity can be done with groups of four to five preschoolers.

  1. Have children bring in special quilts or blankets to share with the class.
  2. Have each child share a story about the quilt (e.g. Who did the quilt belong to? How did the quilt come to your family? What do you like about the quilt? What do you dislike about the quilt?)
  3. Have each child describe his or her quilt to the class. Encourage children to describe the shapes and patterns in their quilts and the different fabrics used to piece the quilts.

Extend the activity: Quilt projects offer early childhood professionals an opportunity to encourage children's math learning and fine motor skill coordination.

Triangle collage
Cut out same-size triangles from many different colors of paper. Encourage children to “piece” a quilt and make patterns with the colored triangles before gluing them onto paper.

Fabric match
Create pairs of fabric scraps of different textures (smooth silk, corduroy, velvet, canvas, stretchy polyester, burlap, etc.). Hide one set in a cloth bag and allow children to see and touch the other set. Encourage children to find matches in the bag using touch alone.

Stitching practice
This activity requires adult supervision. Place a piece of burlap in a large needlepoint hoop. Thread a large, dull needle with yarn; knot end. Start "stitching" and create a few simple Xs or other shapes. Leave the needle pinned to the burlap and encourage children to make some stitches. When the yarn has been completely stitched, unthread the needle, remove the yarn, and begin again.

Quilts bring to mind feelings of unity, comfort and love. They help create connections, not just by the pieces sewn together, but by the sharing of love and comfort among groups of people.

Marna Holland, an early childhood educator at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, suggests the following books about quilts:

American Quilt-Making: Stories in Cloth by Ann Stalcup (1999). Published by the Rosen Publishing Group’s PowerKids Press. (Book may be too long for young children. Includes a variety of craft ideas.)

  • The Quiltmaker’s Gift by Jeff Brumbeau (2000). Published by Pfeifer-Hamilton Publishers. (Ages 4-8, Beautiful pictures, but wordy for young children.)
  • Amira’s Blanket by Helen Dunmore (2002). Published by Crabtree Publishing Company. (Ages 4-8)
  • Sharing Grandma’s Gift by Shelly Berlin Parrish (2000). Published by Peanut Butter Publishing. (Nice story, a bit long for younger children. In the story, one of the characters, a grandmother, dies.)
  • The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco (1988). Published by Simon and Schuster, Inc. (In the story, a grandmother dies.)
  • The Quilt Story by Tony Johnston and Tomie dePaola (1985). Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson (1993). Published by Alfred A. Knopf. (An excellent and gentle example for children of how quilts were used to find the Underground Railroad, may be long for preschoolers).

Helm, J., Huebner, A., & Long, B. (2000). Quiltmaking: A perfect project for preschool and primary. Young Children, 55(3), 44-49.

Holland, M. M. (2005). Using quilts and quilt picture books to celebrate diversity with young children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 32, 243-247.

Missouri Economic Research and Information Center. Missouri Department of Economic Development. (


last updated 07/29/05


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