During the late autumn, as winter approaches, a succession of popular holidays begin to crop up on the calendar. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas are among the most well known. Most of us have happy memories of holiday celebrations at home, but celebrations at school raise a host of issues that can be quite stressful to teachers. One parent wants all of the children to dress up and get candy for Halloween; another parent thinks Halloween is inappropriate and doesn't approve of candy. A group of fathers wants to bring a Christmas tree to school for the children to decorate, but the teacher knows that not all of the families are Christian, and some may object.
How is a teacher to navigate this minefield of holiday expectations without disappointing children or families? Here are some suggestions:
- Focus on developmentally appropriate activities. We can't suspend our knowledge of children just because there is a holiday. However, this still leaves a wide range of interesting and exciting possibilities. For example, knowing that young children are often very frightened of masks and Halloween costumes, many teachers and schools do not allow children to "dress-up" for Halloween. On the other hand, a field trip to a farm to pick apples and pumpkins, decorating pumpkins with paint or collage materials, and baking pumpkin bread are all fun activities that also contribute to learning.
- Think about what aspect of a particular holiday is really important to families. Is it really a visit from Santa Claus that is so important, or something special to commemorate the holiday? There are always alternatives. For example, some cities set up an elaborate display of model trains during the holiday season. One class went to visit such a display and became so interested that they collaborated on a class train project. The parents helped with the project. While this was not a Christmas celebration, it was definitely in keeping with the spirit of the season. The project involved the whole class, which would not have been the case with a Christmas-related theme.
- Select a theme or project that carries a holiday flavor but doesn't have to be associated with a particular holiday. Many families do some special baking during the holiday season, so one class set up a bakery in the dramatic play area. They cooked a variety of special foods and then invited the parents for a class luncheon. Often festivals or special presentations, such as "The Nutcracker," are part of the holiday scene. One teacher set up a dance area in her classroom with pictures of dancers from around the world and a variety of costumes and shoes. The children had a ball dancing to many different types of music.
- Design interesting special activities that aren't holiday specific but can be incorporated into the holiday traditions of individual children. In our country, many children have Christmas trees in their homes, but not all. Think how it feels to a child to sit in a classroom day after day while children make ornaments for a tree that is not part of his culture. To satisfy the interests of a range of children, one teacher planned a light-catcher activity. The children decorated plastic cups with markers and then melted them in a toaster oven. All of the children were intrigued with the change in form of the cups. Many children who had Christmas trees at home immediately decided that the melted cups could be tree ornaments; other children wanted to hang them in the window as light catchers. Some children used them for Hanukkah or Christmas gifts.
- Become educated and sensitive to the different perspectives that various cultures have on certain holidays. Not everyone views holidays in the same light. For example, while many families celebrate Thanksgiving as a time of sharing and thankfulness, and may place cute pilgrim and Indian decorations around the house, other cultures have a very different collective memory of this holiday Many Native American and Latino families remember the wholesale slaughter of their peoples and refuse to celebrate this holiday. Christmas celebrations vary even among Christian families. Some families focus on Santa Claus and gift giving, while other families feel that this detracts from the religious significance of the day. When teachers are aware of these issues, they can plan activities that carry the flavor of the season without sparking painful remembrances or issues in the classroom.
- Expressing love and appreciation are common themes in many diverse cultures. Teachers can find many ways to incorporate these ideas into their curriculum without associating them with a specific holiday. For example, one class read the predictable books I Love My Mommy Because... and I Love My Daddy Because..., by Laurel Porter-Gaylord. Afterward, they made cards for significant relatives and expressed why this relative was special to them.
- Gift giving is also associated with certain celebrations and holidays. Many parents want their children to express love and appreciation through gift giving. Teachers can plan open-ended art activities that allow children to share a creative endeavor as a gift if they so choose. For example, one teacher had her class paint with watercolors. She asked a frame store to donate mats that were being thrown away and used them to frame the children's artwork. Many children gave their pictures to their families as a special gift. In another class, children sewed on burlap with yarn and large, colorful beads. The teacher helped each child mount one sewing sample on a dowel rod. Many children gave their sewing sampler to their parents for Christmas or Hanukkah. Parents were thrilled to receive these expressions of their children's creativity - much more so than teacher-directed crafts that all looked the same.