Kindergarten Skin Tone Project

JANUARY 6, 2023

Over the course of several weeks this fall, the Kindergarten participated in a multi-disciplinary study of skin tones. Through storytelling, art, and science, students explored differences in skin tone, which ultimately culminated in an art installation of their skin tones on display, inspired by Brooklyn Artist, Byron Kim.

To begin their exploration, Assistant Head of School for Diversity and Equity Johara Sealy read the book The Colors of Us by Karen Katz to each of the three Kindergarten sections. The Colors of Us tells the story of seven-year-old Lena who discovers that people’s skin tones come in a wide variety of colors, each with their own unique description. In Lena’s world, her neighbors describe their skin tones using vivid descriptions of food, such as the color of cinnamon, creamy peanut butter, and peachy tan.

Ms. Sealy noted, “What I enjoy most about this story is that it encourages the appreciation for and affirmation of the beauty that is found in the many shades of skin tones that exist. This book is well suited to the overall lesson of learning about different skin tones because it presents the subject matter to students in an accessible way, by using foods to describe skin tones. As a result, students develop both comfort and confidence in engaging in these types of conversations.”

Prior to this project, students had also read the book Mixed: A Colorful Story by Aree Chung with Lower School Art Teacher Ms. Pentecost. Through that story, they learned about the structure of primary colors and what amazing things can happen when primary colors combine.

Before they began to mix their paints, each student brainstormed and researched what food-related description they would choose to describe their own skin tone. Their sketchbooks filled up with images of honey, ice cream, bagels, and chocolate cake. Lower School Art Teacher Ms. Pentecost also read aloud to the students.

From there, students were ready to dive into mixing their paints, using their newfound expertise in primary colors and how white and black can also be used to achieve the desired color outcome. As they began their mixing experimentation, students shouted out with delight, “That’s my skin tone!” Once they had reached the color that felt the most true to them, students painted a 6x6 piece of paper, ultimately to be placed side by side on the 4th Floor outside of their classrooms: a beautiful display of the many colors that make up the Class of 2035.

Ms. Pentecost shared, “When we take time to learn about our skin tones and celebrate ourselves and each other, we approach this lesson with more care and authenticity. Mixing your own skin tone using primary colors is pretty sophisticated stuff! Knowing how to mix their own skin tones gives students more ownership over their work, instead of having to choose a pre-mixed color that doesn’t feel authentic. On a bigger scale, color theory and personalizing colors is important for creative decisions and gives us more possibilities when expressing ourselves!”

In science, The Colors of Us connected to a geography lesson that explored melanin—the pigment that protects the body from UV light. Students learned why individuals who are born in countries—or whose ancestors were born in countries—near the equator, tend to have more melanin in their skin, which makes their skin darker. Students learned about the protective qualities of melanin and why those with a greater amount of melanin in their skin experience more protection from the UV rays of the sun. Ms. Helgeson, Lower School science teacher, was also sure to explain that melanin alone is not enough to protect from all sun damage, so proper clothing and sunscreen is always necessary.

To further explore the concept of melanin production and the distance from the sun, students carried out an experiment using “UV beads.” Working in pairs, students were given two petri dishes filled with beads. In the first round of the experiment, students shone a flashlight on one dish of beads for three seconds from a distance of about one foot—an example of the sun shining on countries located farther away from the equator. This resulted in no change in the appearance of the beads. Next, the students shone a flashlight on their second dish of beads for three seconds from about three inches away—this represented countries that were closer to the equator and thereby closer to the sun. Immediately, the beads changed into a rainbow of different colors. Through their observations, students were able to see firsthand how the proximity to the sun can affect how much melanin is produced in the body.

“I hope when our Kindergartners were recreating their skin tone in art class, they were also thinking about their ancestors, where they came from, and how truly amazing our bodies are to make us good matches for our environment,” Ms. Helgeson shared.

At the conclusion of the project, Ms. Sealy hopes that students understand that learning doesn’t happen in isolation. She reflected, “The best work that we can do happens in community when we are connecting, collaborating, and communicating with our peers. When we engage in collaborative learning, we are able to gain new perspectives, we are able to make connections more meaningfully, and we can problem-solve more easily. Interdisciplinary learning is a dynamic way to engage students in seeing the world through many different lenses and in understanding the interdependence and inter-connectivity in everything. Nothing exists in a vacuum!”