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Celebratory Learning Activities in Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Updated: Jan 15

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shifted the course of history by creating demands for equity that could not be ignored. The method he used included peaceful protests, marches, and sit-ins to garner attention and action. This is one of many different ways that people have fought and continue to fight against injustices. In 1986, the U.S. government declared the third Monday of January a federal observance day in honor of Dr. MLK, Jr. and his work.


If you're looking to introduce your children to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to learn about his life, what he fought for, and how he changed our world, then the two Thoughtful Play activities in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are perfect! These activities lay the foundation for learning about who MLK is, what inequality and injustice mean in the context of the United States, and how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s leadership impacted our history!


Download the activities by clicking the link below:


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Don't forget to check out our YouTube Channel where we organize recommended resources on particular topics: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thoughtful Play Playlist



A Little Background

At Thoughtful Play, we believe it's important to teach children the unfortunate realities of our history, this includes teaching them about racism and how it has impacted our world. Also, to make sure children understand that racism still exists and for them to learn how they can contribute to fighting injustices. This is not something to cover only on MLK day, but rather make it part of your curriculum throughout the year.


Throughout the Thoughtful Play Kindergarten Curriculum, we incorporate opportunities for children to learn a truthful history about the United States. We do this through the recommended read-aloud books and discussion questions.


We know at times discussing racism might feel too complex for young children. The key is to introduce, if you haven't already, the social construct of race and to explain racism in general terms of "people in power judging people and treating them unfairly based on their race." Given that White people in the United States have been in power since the beginning of this country, racism refers to the unfairness and injustices that White people have created against Black, Indigenous, and all People of Color (BIPOC). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. focused mostly on the treatment of Black people by White people. Racism toward Black people stems from our history of enslavement of Black people by White people and a continuation of racist rules, laws, and practices even after slavery ended.


If your children are just starting to learn about race, help them by sharing openly and honestly. Do not shut them down or make them think that talking about race is taboo. If you're uncomfortable talking about race, then spend some time becoming more familiar with how to talk about race in a way that contributes to racial justice as opposed to perpetuating stereotypes and biases.


In this short audio post, you can gain ideas around how to talk to your children about race. The key is to teach your children the facts - people have different skin colors and different physical features. People also have different traditions, ways of living, talking, celebrating, dressing. It's important for children to see "differences" in a positive light, for them to honor differences.


Avoid perpetuating a "colorblind" view. Yes, we all have things in common and it's important to see similarities in being human and being American, for those who identify as such; however, we must remember that children learn from us, their parents, how to view differences across people, both physical and cultural. We need to teach our children that differences matter. They matter because (1) diversity is beautiful and enriching and (2) overcoming unfair practices in our country requires knowing how judgements of Black people stem from a negative view of differences in comparison to White people. This judgement has been used to justify racism. By knowing this, we can work hard to fight against racism.


It's also crucial to avoid inaccurately portraying racial injustices as 'a thing of the past.' We know that White people's overt racism has shifted since the MLK era; however, racism is embedded into policies, practices, and institutions in the United States. It plagues people's mindsets. One of the greatest things we can do as parents is to raise children who are striving to act in anti-racist ways, who commit to continuously breaking down racist views that society perpetuates subconsciously in all of us. We can raise children who have the courage to stand up against marginalization and racism against Black, Indigenous, and all People of Color (BIPOC).


Finally, we need to be careful not to portray BIPOC as victims in need of White people's protection. This mindset is often referred to as a White savior mentality and it is harmful.

This minimizes Black people's agency and disempowers them. If you're a White person and unsure how to "help" fight for racial justice, the first thing to do is to read, watch, listen, and learn from Black people. Granted, people have different views and theories, but the key is for White people to not once again take power from BIPOC by serving their own agenda and their own desire to feel good as "helpers." Push yourself to feel uncomfortable. To really listen and to hear the diverse voices within Black communities and be willing to act, even if this means being uncomfortable.


It's important to be aware that the racism that exists today is often in a covert form and is so deeply woven into institutions and mindsets that the change needs to happen on the level of policies and practices, as well as people's mindsets. While this reality is too complex for young children to fully grasp, we can build an initial understanding of what inequality and injustice mean, which is one of the goals of the second Thoughtful Play Dr. MLK, Jr. activity.



What's the Best Way to Teach About Inequalities and Injustices that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fought to Change?


We believe in using books as a tool for teaching about topics that for many feel hard to teach. Be aware though, that not all books about Dr. MLK, Jr. are equally good. Many gloss over the truths of our history, thereby protecting White people from having to face and share with their children the harsh realities of our past. We recommend avoiding these books.


The three book recommendations included in the Thoughtful Play Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. activities provide a detailed history that is honest and completely age-appropriate (see below) . We don't need to shy away from teaching our children about difficult topics. Instead, we need to push ourselves to sit with discomfort, knowing that teaching our children historical truths is an important first step for them to grow into an adult who can contribute to and fight for liberty and justice for all.


Two of these books are written by Black authors. This is purposeful. You'll notice that these authors center Black characters and have the story told through the Black characters' voices. Part of antiracist parenting is being aware of who's narrative we're sharing with our children. It's a problem if we're telling our children about the experiences of Black people through the voices of White people.



Recommended Texts:

My Dream of Martin Luther King by Faith Ringgold – This book is detailed and honest. It is our personal favorite book about Dr. MLK, Jr. It's told from the perspective of a child who hears about Dr. MLK, Jr. on TV and dreams about his life as a child. It then comes full circle with the young girl watching his work fighting for justice as an adult. It’s a powerful book!


Let’s Celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – This book does a nice job of sharing a detailed history about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and his role in the Civil Rights Movement. It doesn't shy away from historical truths, and it's written with young children in mind, using simple language and explaining new concepts.


A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson - This book is told from the perspective of young girls at The March on Washington in August of 1963, a huge protest to demand equality for African Americans. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the leaders of this protest and gives a profound speech. This book is moving and celebratory!


Through these books, children learn about some of the harsh realities that Black people have faced in the United States. These books are a great starting place to discuss race, racism, activism, inequalities, and injustices. Over time you can easily transition to history prior to the Civil Right's Movement and you can fast forward to today to discuss ways in which racism continues into the present day. Some refer to this as "Black History," whereas we believe this is U.S. History and should be part of our lessons year-round.


These books are also filled with a celebratory stance - with a goal of honoring and celebrating the lives of Black people who have come before us and who have influenced our society in such positive and powerful ways!


How Can I Help My Child Understand Advantages/Privileges and Injustices/Inequalities?


The second activity in our lesson honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. provides young children with a chance to experience these concepts - advantage/disadvantage and equal/unequal. By building with LEGOs, given certain rules or conditions, children can experience a simple child-friendly approximation of feeling how a simple rule about where you can stand or how many pieces you're given to start can greatly alter one's capacity to successfully build a tall tower.


A way to help your child make a connection between this activity and acting in a 'racially just' way today is to talk openly about unfair practices in history and that you see happening in your day. Here are some examples from our own life:


  • I explained to my child why we purchased a second Candy Land game. The first one, which was given to us, had characters on the board that only have peachy skin (White people) and that is not a fair representation of people. The Candy Land game that I purchased had people with all different skin colors, which is much more true and fair to showing what the people on a fun candy adventure look like.

  • I explained to my children that we'll no longer watch the show Nature Cat on PBS Kids. While we love this show, the one character whose voice is distinctly that of an African American male is the trouble maker in the show. He does lots of bad things and while it's just entertainment, when it comes to raising children with an anti-racist approach, this matters. Too often children are bombarded with negative images and narratives of Black people. We will not support shows that perpetuate negative stereotypes of Black people.

  • We discuss the words in the pledge of allegiance and how this is a goal that our country is striving toward, but not something we have yet accomplished. "Liberty and justice for all" is not something that everyone experiences. There are still rules and practices that are racist, or unfair to people with brown skin. This includes how people are treated in hospitals, by police, in jobs, in schools, and many other places.

  • We talk about why some famous athletes kneel during the national anthem and how this is a great way for them to use their voice to protest unfair practices against Black people. I share that Black people are more often than White people treated unfairly by police, and that is what the athletes are protesting.

  • I explain how many Indigenous people in the United States now live on reservations because their ancestors were forced off of their lands. This included having to leave their homes and the life they knew. This was caused by Europeans who came to the land that is now known as the U.S.. They wanted this land for themselves and so they made Native Americans leave the land, often through forceful, hurtful tactics.


Summary


Children must learn to see differences among people as something to respect and embrace. They must learn how differences have been and continue to be used to justify and enforce unfair practices, negatively affecting Black, Indigenous, and all People of Color (BIPOC), while privileging White people.


We should all strive to teach our children to stand up against racist practices, to cherish and embrace racial differences in a way that flips the script - differences are not something to avoid and to hate, instead children should learn to see differences as something truly positive.


If we're to raise children who contribute to racial justice, then they must know the truth about our past and how this has impacted our world today.


Let's celebrate the ways in which people have changed our country for the better. We should teach our children to want to learn more about our history - the harsh realities, the truth, and the moments in which people's tremendous efforts for justice resulted in change! Let us keep learning and keep growing!


Here's to the Fight for More Justice,


Hollie Young, Ph.D.

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