Celebrating a Child-Directed Season

As Thanksgiving and Christmas approach we start wondering (again) about appropriate ways to celebrate holidays with young children. We might also need to look at addressing family’s celebrations that may be different from our own traditions. Typically, we plan craft activities, field trips, special songs, and visits from Santa without giving a thought to whether the children are really interested. We begin a month before, decorating our rooms, learning the songs, and making that special gift for mom or grandma. The kids just seem to follow along, becoming more and more “hyped” but not really engaging in the activities. Social skills disintegrate, behavior problems escalate and everyone–including the kids–are glad when the “big” day is over.

How different holidays could be if we extend our “child-centered” approach and consider the holiday from the child’s point of view. Adult oriented holiday projects might not be meaningful to preschoolers who learn most from activities that grow from their own choices and that relate to their own interests and experiences. They may become excited about the activities because they like using the materials, singing the songs, making the crafts but are they absorbing the meaning or the concepts that the holidays represent?

Children experience or organize time in ways different from adults. Their operating systems are firmly focused on the here and now. They are concrete and, for most the sequence of events during a single day is as far as their ability to understand past and future goes. If “we’ll do it before lunch” is difficult, imaging trying to comprehend “in two weeks when Santa comes.” Is it in a lifetime or only ten minutes? They might also have very different holiday traditions depending on religious and cultural practices. Here are some ideas for celebrating holidays that came originally from High/Scope:

Let the special event or holiday emerge through the children’s conversations and actions. Observe their play closely for clues to when they’re ready to incorporate holiday information and activities. This might vary with the amount of holiday “hype” that occurs. Christmas for example, is likely to be recognized much earlier than Thanksgiving. Continue to observe and listen to discover the extent of their knowledge and interest. Add materials and activities as the interest emerges. Listen and observe conversations and play that may represent family activities that are different from your experience.

We tend to put away the holiday as quickly as possible to make room for the new theme. We do this right when children’s interest is likely to be highest–when they’ve experienced it and can re-enact it in the classroom with their friends. The holiday is truly past for children only when they have exhausted their ideas or new interests have taken over.

For Thanksgiving: Children will probably not bring up Thanksgiving much before the actual day and then it will often be in the context of a trip, a parade, or special food preparations. Once Thanksgiving begins to appear in play or conversations begin to add materials such as food containers or suitcases, or orange and brown paint and paper in the art area. After the event, respond to their conversations about events–who they saw on their trip; what they saw in the parade; special or favorite food they ate. Provide materials and activities which help them to represent these activities–art materials; forming the group into a parade; making pumpkin bread for snack.

For Christmas: Support children’s interest in the holidays by participating in their conversations and role play about the festivities; add related books to the bookshelf (but leave books of interest on other topics); add green, red and blue paint and paper and old holiday cards to the art area;  introduce work with glue and glitter; add holiday music to the tape collection; add wrapping paper and differing sized boxes to the art area and dressy clothes to the dramatic play area. Afterwards keep all the holiday props available until children’s interest dies down. Restock the art area with holiday-related items that have been consumed (used ribbon and wrapping paper, gift tags, etc.)

It’s important to acknowledge that not all the families you work with have the same religious or cultural traditions. It’s important to not put all emphasis on the typical holiday activities for this time of year. Thanksgiving and Christmas are inherently religious in nature and not everyone celebrates them as such.

Families are a valuable source of information about their holiday traditions and their children’s knowledge and interest in holidays. Communicate with families about their celebrations and let them know when their children are bringing up family activities that you may be unfamiliar with so that you can respond to and include materials and activities relevant to their family experience. Have them share materials they are us at home for play. Have them tell you about their holiday plans so you can have activities prepared which will help children re-enact begin to construct their knowledge about the event.

This article was contributed by Mary Perkins for the Early Childhood Express newsletter.