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Schools around the United States often dedicate the days leading up to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to lesson plans and literacy activities that revolve around peaceful protests, unpacking the famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and other scratch-the-surface attempts to teach kids about the legacy and complexity of the civil rights movement Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) helped to lead.
Although well-intentioned, the lessons and stories we use to teach kids about MLK are often standalone entities, disconnected from the regular curriculum in the classroom. If we are going to empower our kids to be changemakers then they have to understand that change isn't easy and it involves a lot of risk-taking, mistakes, and hard work. They also need to understand the greater concepts and messages that civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. were trying to convey.
Here are five ways you can help your child begin to understand the complexity of the civil rights movement while empowering them to become change-agents:
Teach kids to embrace their identity. Martin Luther King, Jr. called upon people to love each other regardless of skin color. Make sure not to confuse his message with the "kids are colorblind" trope, which has been disproven by research. The message is clear: kids who are informed about race and differences are more inclusive and ready to fight against injustice when they see it. Use these activities to explore what diversity is with your child and make sure to provide examples of how people's differences can make a positive change in the world.
- Loveliness in Diversity. This activity asks children to discuss what diversity is and why the world is a better place because of all the different people in it. Children will write their very own poem about the beauty in diversity.
- Drawn Together. This lesson plan explores how appreciating each other's differences can bring people together.
- Appreciating Diversity and Differences. This lesson plan, which adults as well as educators can easily follow, teaches kids to articulate how they appreciate diversity and differences by writing a story or creating artwork.
- My Rich Cultural Heritage. This activity teaches kids the importance of social engagement, self-awareness, and the appreciation of diversity.
Talk to your kids about the importance of service to others. Help your child become comfortable with service to others by volunteering in your community. Research organizations including food banks, programs like Meals on Wheels, locally run thrift shops, humane societies, Goodwill, and local nursing or assisted living homes. Check the organization's website for volunteer opportunities, or reach out to the program director to see what opportunities are coming up. Set up time and space to volunteer once a month with your child. By using your own two hands and putting in the work to drive change in your community, you will honor MLK and continue his legacy.
Read books that focus on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s activism. While there are many books that talk about MLK and his legacy, try to find books that dig deep. Here are some ideas:
Lower Elementary: I am Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Ordinary People Change the World Series is a great way to introduce kids to MLK and how he bravely led the way toward racial equality in America.
- Before reading: ask your child to think about someone they look up to. Can they think of some words that describe this person? Explain to your child that they are going to learn about a very important person named Martin Luther King, Jr.
- During reading: pause and ask your child to think about something interesting they learned about MLK or something they are wondering about.
- After reading: have your child create a piece of artwork to express what they learned from reading the story.
Upper Elementary: A Place to Land by Barry Wittenstein and Jerry Pinkney illustrates the role a community of activists played in writing the renowned "I Have a Dream" speech through the use of lyrical prose and beautiful illustrations. Here are some activities you can use to engage your little before, during, and after reading this beautiful book:
Before reading: provide child-friendly definitions of important words, such as these from The Little Book of Little Activists or Merriam Webster Learner's Dictionary:
- protest: disrupting the usual flow of things so you can call attention to an injustice and demand that it be changed
- activist: someone who takes action in order to create social change
- democracy: a form of government in which people choose leaders by voting
- During reading: pause to define tricky and academic words, learn more about the people mentioned in the book, and clarify any difficult concepts. Point out stanzas in the text that reinforce what MLK stood for and his passion for driving change.
- After reading: jot down all of the questions your child still has. Support them in researching the answers and learning more about other leaders of the civil rights movement. Challenge your child to create a poster, poem, play, or piece of artwork to express what they learned from their research.
Extend your learning of black changemakers. Repeat after me: black history is American history. To truly teach the message Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted us to learn, we must teach our children about black changemakers all year long. Books like Young Gifted and Black: Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present by Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippins as well as Black Women in Science by Kimberly Brown Pellum, Ph.D., and Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History by Vashti Harrison and Kwesi Johnson provide in depth information about black trailblazers and change agents. Extend your child's learning by checking out black educator-created resources such as Mamademic's Black History is American History mini monthly curriculum that teaches children (and their parents) about black history all year long.
Teach kids about how change really happens. Depending on your child's age, there are many ways to teach kids how to stand up for what they believe. Start with books like A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara and the aforementioned The Little Book of Little Activists by Penguin Young Readers. These books teach kids of all ages that they are never too young to care about their community or stand up for their beliefs. The books will also unpack difficult concepts, teach kids what the First Amendment is, and how to exercise their rights in their day-to-day lives. Extend their learning by checking out these activities:
- Take a Stand. This activity will help give your child the tools to resist inappropriate social pressures and learn to practice empathy and mindful communication.
- Community Mobile. In this social emotional learning activity, you and your child will read a story and create a community mobile that describes aspects of healthy relationships (such as listening, gratitude, appreciation, teamwork, and so on) in order to explore what it means to live in a supportive community.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a great opportunity to lead an ongoing exploration of the black experience in the United States and its history, as well as learning about the current experiences of black Americans. To take your family's learning a step further, check out these resources:
- Before reading: provide child-friendly definitions of important words, such as these from The Little Book of Little Activists or Merriam Webster Learner's Dictionary:
"You matter to me."
It's a simple sentiment with the power to encourage, uplift, and inspire. So why don't we remember to say or show it more?
Luckily, letting our kids know how much they matter doesn't have to be expensive or time-consuming. In just a few thoughtful minutes a day, we can show our children how much they mean to us and the world.
Here are eight of my favorite ways:
There is a reason we say the eyes are a window to the soul. Our eyes serve as the mirrors upon which our children's sense of self is constructed.
In the movie Avatar, the Na'vi greeted one another with the phrase "I see you." It is a clear acknowledgment that everyone we meet has something worth noticing and appreciating.
We can let our children know we see them and recognize their presence in our lives by intentionally putting the word "you" at the heart of our sentences. I will use my daughter Abigail to demonstrate the power of these statements.
- I see you, Abigail.
- Abigail, I understand you.
- I appreciate you, Abigail.
- Abigail, it was great to spend time with you.
- I couldn't have done it without you, Abigail.
- Abigail, you made my day.
- Abigail, I am so blessed to have you as my daughter.
Children deserve to be fully seen by our accepting eyes, and we should acknowledge that their presence, thoughts, and words are valuable to us.
"More and more I've come to understand that listening is one of the most important things we can do for one another. Whether the other be an adult or a child, our engagement in listening to who that person is can often be our greatest gift. Whether that person is speaking or playing or dancing, building or singing or painting, if we care, we can listen." —Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers
As parents, it's much easier to talk than to listen, but listening more is exactly what our children need us to do.
Listening earnestly means more than quietly nodding your head while waiting for our turn to speak again. It means opening both our ears and heart wide enough to make our children the sole focus of our attention. In doing that, being listened to is so close to being loved that we cannot tell the difference. Here's what it looks and sounds like:
- Summarizing your understanding of what was just said
- Reframing what you have just heard
- Letting them know you understand what they said
- Appreciating without judgement
- Being fully present and accepting what is being said
When children are truly heard, it helps them unfold and expand to their fuller selves. Our kids have much to say. If we listen eagerly and earnestly to the small stuff, they are more likely to come to us with the big stuff.
Ask Questions that Show They Matter
If eyes are the window to the soul, questions are the window to our minds and intentions. We show our children how much they matter to us by the kinds of questions we ask them.
Here are some of my favorite questions to ask someone who matters:
- What rocked your world today?
- Who's world did you rock today?
- How can I make your day?
- What can we do to make it better?
- What was the best moment of your day?
- What was the hardest part of the day?
- What made you smile?
- What are you most proud of?
- What did someone do today to make you happy?
- What did you do to make someone else happy?
- What would make tomorrow better?
Here is another great list of thoughtful questions to encourage and help your child develop a healthy mindset and sense of self as well as help you strengthen and deepen your bond with them.
Be Fully Present
We are busy people. I understand how easy it is to get lost in the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day. But what our kids wish for—and need most—is our presence. They want our eyes to watch them as they play. They want our ears to listen to their stories. They want our words to encourage them and tell them how wonderful and amazing they are. They want our hands to hold them and play with them.
I know we can't do this every moment of their lives, so we must pick our moments carefully. Fortunately, science can help.
There are key times during the day that have the most impact on a child:
- The first three minutes after they awake from their slumber
- The first three minutes after they arrive home from school or daycare
- The last three minutes of the day before they head off to sleep
Every day is not going to be perfect, of course, and the good news is it doesn't have to be. Kids don't need or expect perfection, they just need our presence.
Embrace Them With Love—and Hugs!
Touch creates a physical, emotional, and spiritual connection that is critical at all stages of life.
Even a short 10- to 20-second hug along with a few minutes of hand-holding can reduce the physical and emotional effects of stress. Doing these things also lowers levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and increases our levels of dopamine. But research suggests there's even more to it than that.
Touch not only makes us happier, it actually improves self confidence, overall performance, and our sense of overall worth. And for your kids who are just not into hugs and kisses--remember it's more about the connection than an actual hug. These things can matter just as much:
- A high five
- A fist bump
- A pat on the back
- A wink
- An extra squeeze
- A simple smile just for them
Give Them a Front Row Seat to Their Own Brilliance
"See, all you really need is one person to show you the epiphany of your own power, and you're off. If you can hand people the key to their own power—the human spirit is so receptive—if you open doors for people at a crucial moment, you are educating them in the best sense. You are teaching them to open doors for themselves." —Aimee Mullins, "The Opportunity of Adversity," TEDMED 2009.
Most people don't realize how extraordinary they are, and our little people are no exception. In fact, many of us require permission to bring our brilliance to the table. Giving people a front row seat to their own brilliance often is a matter of looking them in the eye and saying:
"I believe in you. I believe in your abilities. And I know that you carry something amazing with you that's yours and yours alone, so, I invite you to bring it stage center and set the world on fire." —Author Unknown
When we believe in our children and encourage them to believe in themselves, we hand them the key to their own power. We help them stretch their thinking, envision success, and open the door to their true potential.
Be their permission slip!
Sweat the Small Stuff
My grandmother always said, "Do small things with great love, and big things are sure to come."
Here are a few little things matter to little people—to all people, in fact:
- A friendly smile
- A note or praise
- A text or quick call just to say, "Hi!"
- A look that conveys we are going to be okay
Small things mean a lot. I created Mattergrams to share the message of Mattering with those we love with a shared language of hope, compassion, empathy, and possibility through the words we use. Mattering is a commitment to contributing your best self to the world, offering everything that you have and are to the world, with a sense of confidence, conviction, and courage.
Mattergrams are simple personalized messages to let the people we love know we are thinking of them and that they matter—not just to us, but to the world. It's the easiest and most impactful way to let our children know they are seen, heard, cherished, recognized, and valued.
Be a Role Model
Helping others know the importance of Mattering is a choice.
Our children are watching and looking for clues about how to act and behave and who to become. From learning to manage their feelings and emotions to finding their way along the journey of becoming who they are, we are their go-to person for insight and inspiration.
For example, be a role model and make the choice every day to offer, thank, encourage, inspire, and let your own mother know you notice and believe in her. It could be—and often will be—the most powerful thing you do all day.
It is critical we model the daily practice of worthiness in our own lives as well. We choose to matter when we do the following:
- Try new things
- Acknowledge our hard work
- Celebrate our successes
- Acknowledge but not dwell in our failures
- Share the struggleDemonstrate perseverance and spirit
- Rise up and start each day anew
The way we live our lives is the greatest predictor of how our children will engage with the world. Let's give them something worthy to see.
I remember getting my first dog when I was 28—I had absolutely no clue how to be a dog mom. My husband grew up with dogs his whole life, and he knew all the things. I spent a lot of time in those early days letting him take the lead, and asking, "How do you know that?!" Our new black lab Champ was "bitey" and bigger than I wanted our dog to be. I didn't understand his cues for when he needed to go out, and don't get me started on picking up after him when we were outside.
A few months later, my husband was deployed to Afghanistan, and I had no choice but to figure out how Champ and I were going to make it work together. By this time, I knew the basics of how to feed him and keep him alive, but to say he was well-behaved would be a bold-faced lie. So I reached out to a local pet store and enrolled us in their puppy training program. We went to each class, and I quickly realized that they weren't just training my dog—they were training me! I was learning how to be more structured and have more discipline with Champ.
After we graduated from the training program, I continued to implement everything I learned for a time, but after a while, I started to slide. I was struggling with my husband's deployment, small-town isolation, and a totally overwhelming teaching job. Long story short, I fell off the wagon—and Champ fell off with me.
I tell this story to illustrate the importance of structures and routines. It's that time of year when many of us are trying to put new routines into place. Some of them will stick and others won't. Instead of giving up (like I did with Champ), here are some tips for getting back into the swing of things and maintaining a natural rhythm and routine with your child:
Structure helps kids learn how to constructively manage themselves and their environments. Providing structure for your children teaches them what behaviors are okay and not okay as well as what to expect throughout their day. This is really powerful for kids because it lets them feel more in control of what is going on around them. When the opportunity arises to play outside past bedtime, think back to your plan. Will this benefit the overall goal of getting back into the swing of things? It's hard to make these decisions (and the fear of missing out is real!). But prioritizing structure and routine is what's best for your young child, so if you can, stick to it.
- Looping in your young child: Provide reminders for your child about the new routines and structures you have begun to implement in the family. Offer reteaching as necessary, and continue to practice routines. If there is pushback (this is a reality with my kids), try using "5-minute warnings" and timers to let your kiddo know what to expect.
I'm certainly not a professional organizer, and this step can be painful for me. At the same time, it makes me feel like I'm on top of my game and can tackle anything thrown my way. So what does organization look like? It can include Writing things down, syncing calendars as a family (Check out this popular family organizer app), creating checklists for individuals and for the family, meal planning for the week ahead, determining specific places for things to go, and purchasing or creating organizational tools (such as bins for shoes or a hook for a backpack).
Looping in your young child:
Most young children love to be helpers, so getting organized provides many opportunities for them to participate. Use a visual checklist for young children to keep track of their tasks. Give your child verbal praise when they can check things off their list and when they put an item where it belongs. Involve them in meal planning by having them make suggestions and check the fridge or pantry to see what the family needs to replenish at the store.
Maintaining structure and routine
From start to finish, clarity is key. If you find that you haven't been clear with your children, or you want to change things up on a random Tuesday, that's okay! You don't have to wait until a specific time or feel stuck in the unclear routine you established. Start now, be clear, and go forward.
This means doing the same thing every time. You should respond to behaviors, schedules, and distractions in the same way every time, even if you're tired or not feeling it. People used to say that habits take 21 days to form, but a 2009 study shows that habits can take around 2 months to form. Give your plan time to work and be as consistent as possible.
When your child knows what to expect, it helps develop their self-discipline and supports self-regulation. It also provides a sense of security because you have removed the fear of the unknown. With a predictable schedule, predictable routines, and predictable responses from the adults in the family, young children learn to master their own lives.
Don't Give Up
If you fall off the wagon, revisit your plan and tweak it as needed. Review the initial ideas you had in mind about what you wanted to happen in your household and with your family. Is that still what you want, or do you need to adjust things a little bit? During your review, it's important to decide the outcome you're looking for. Use these questions to support you in thinking about what your plan looks like:
- What does your plan look like for your family? What small adjustments can we make?
- What does morning time, after school time, bedtime look like?
- What do meals look like? Who goes to the store? Who cooks? Who cleans?
- How do we handle chores and other household tasks?
- What are the big and small things you can do each day to get to a routine that works for everyone?
It's okay to start small and implement one or two things at a time. An important piece of making a plan is sharing those expectations with family members by clearly explaining how things will work. Especially with young children, it will help to explain the plan with words, draw pictures to show how things will work, and practice! Young children will need gentle reminders of the new plan, and practice will help them.
When getting back into the swing of things with young children, trial and error can be a part of the process. The first few days might be a little bumpy, and that routine takes time to stick. See what works for your family, and if something doesn't work, ditch it and adjust course. The most important thing is to be clear and consistent, and to follow-through. Give it time and you'll see the fruits of your labor—a house with less stress and kiddos with more independence!
Growing up in Alaska, I spent a lot of my childhood playing in the snow. My sisters and I would spend hours in the woods behind our house creating imaginary games, building forts, or making creations out of snow. As an adult, I have lived primarily in places where it doesn't snow at all—or we might get snow a few days a year, and as a result the whole city shuts down! My 3-year-old has begun asking me daily, "Mama, when will it snow?" So, here is a selection of snowy day activities—whether you are missing snow or or are enjoying a white winter—that you can do inside and out!
Make Your Own Snow: If you are experiencing a snowless winter thus far like I am, here is a fun and easy way to make your own snow. All you will need is baking soda and shaving cream (make sure it is the creamy kind, not the gel type). Get a large bowl and measuring cup. Help your child to measure out one cup of baking soda into the bowl. Then begin to add the shaving cream a little at a time, having your child stir as you add. Your finished snow should feel powdery and cool to touch. Once you get the perfect snowy consistency, you are ready to play!
Snow Sensory Play: Gather a large plastic bin, plastic, or rubber animals, cookie cutters, sticks, small rocks, or any other small items to play with. Fill your bin with real or "DIY" snow and let your kid's imagination run wild! My little one was all about creating miniature snow people in his bin. Just make sure to select an easy-to-wipe area for your bin, as things can get a little messy.
Practice Snow Writing: Gather some unique writing tools such as mixing spoons (the handle end makes a great pen) or small sticks for your child to use. Invite your child to practice writing their letters, name, or even a message in the snow! This can be done inside in a smaller container or outside on the ground. Writing in the snow is a great way to practice fine motor skills, letter writing practice, and even spelling.
Make Snow Creatures: Tired of making snowmen with carrot noses? Challenge your kids to create snow creatures! Encourage your kids to get creative with their decorations by using twigs, branches, pinecones, or leaves. Get the whole family involved, and when you are done, do a "gallery walk" to check out everyone's creations.
Painting in the Snow: This can be done inside or out. You'll need some liquid watercolors and a small spray bottle or some larger paintbrushes. Put each color of the liquid watercolors in a spray bottle to paint right onto the snow (you can also make more detailed shapes using stencils). For smaller images, cookie cutters work well as stencils. You can place them onto the snow and spray paint right into them, then lift up to see the image underneath! You can also make your own larger stencils by cutting out shapes from cardboard. Encourage your child to create larger designs or a more complete picture by using several different images.
For inside play, fill up a large container with snow and demonstrate how to spray or splatter paint designs using the spray bottle, brushes, or smaller stencils.
Experiment with Frozen Bubbles: This is a project that is fascinating to kids, but requires outside temperatures of at least 30 degrees Fahrenheit (ideally in the teens or below zero). You'll just need a few common supplies (bubble solution, bubble wand) to complete this experiment. Ask your kids to predict what will happen when they blow bubbles in the ice-cold weather. Then head outside on a non-windy day and see what happens when you blow bubbles (spoiler: they’ll freeze in really interesting designs!). The best part about this experiment is how open-ended it can be, allowing plenty of exploration about surfaces, size, and shape of their bubbles.
Make Maple Syrup Snow Candy: As a child, one of my favorite memories involves making candy...in the snow! In a nutshell, you heat pure maple syrup (the "pure" part is important) to boiling, pour it onto a clean bed of snow, then wrap it up using a popsicle stick or similar tool. This article has really great step-by-step instructions for making amazing snow candy. Believe me, if you live in a cold and snowy climate—this is the project for you!
Snow Ice Cream: Another edible snow treat is snow ice cream. Yes, it is possible to make delicious ice cream using snow (please note: the snow should be very very clean and fresh!). You'll need about 8 cups of fresh snow, a cup of milk, 4 tablespoons sugar, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Mix it all together, and voila! Snow ice cream. There are several variations on this recipe you can find perusing the internet, one I have seen uses sweetened condensed milk instead of milk and sugar, and others add in different flavors. This recipe is also a great way to let your kids take the lead and experiment their way to creating the perfect snow ice cream!
I hope these activities inspire you and your kids to get outside this winter to experiment with all of the different things you can do with snow!
By about mid-December, I usually find myself getting increasingly distraught about resolutions. I am generally a goal-oriented person, but deciding on a thing that I'm going to stick to for a whole year filled me with a tiny bit of dread. Partly, it's because I've been the same person at the core for some 29 years (I'm way older than that; I just I stopped counting around then). But also, because I always start the year with the most optimistic of intentions, and somewhere along the way (usually January 5) I lose steam.
Why does this happen?
According to my exhaustive online research, I am not alone in this phenomenon. According to Psychology Today, less than 10% of New Year's resolutions actually get achieved. This has to do with the science behind forming new habits or (even more difficult) breaking existing ones. When we make resolutions, we are essentially trying to make a more desirable behavior automatic.
The good news is, science can help. There are a few things that make a resolution stick better:
- Keep them small and incremental: turns out that my usual "Improve all of my fundamental flaws" may have been a bit too big. Instead, I should have been isolating my resolution to one particular behavior that could be changed with little steps along the way. A good friend of mine always talks about making a "one degree shift" rather than a 180 degree overhaul. and I love that. Slow and steady wins the race!
- Decide on an action that links to a current habit: If you want to drink more water, think about the best times in your day to drink water. Just writing "drink more water" on a sticky note note and putting it on your monitor probably isn't going to work. But if you decide "Every day before I turn on my computer, I'm going to drink a full glass of water," you've now attached action to something you already do habitually.
- Talk about it: the more people know what your resolution is, and more importantly, why you chose it, the better. That's because the more people you tell, the wider your support network grows. Also, if you are in my family, the more shaming you get when you don't stick to it. (I do not recommend this particular strategy.) Especially when you stumble a little on the path, recalling your reason for wanting to have this goal in the first place can be a welcome reminder to keep going.
- Let them take the lead: This is a prime opportunity to learn a lot from your child about their struggles, challenges, and interests. Ask your child, "How do you want to grow this year?" or "What's something that you would like to be better?" Brainstorm all kinds of ideas and, again, start small and make them incremental. Choose one or two to work on for a few months.
- Frame it positively: As adults, we make a lot of resolutions that involve stopping behavior. Lose weight. Quit coffee. Stop binge-watching Mr. Robot until 3 a.m. on a work night. Stop missing Bagel Thursdays because I binge-watched Mr. Robot. Present your child with examples of positive resolutions: eat healthier, drink more water, spend more time with my kid (and not Mr. Robot), It also helps to add a reason why your life will be better because of your resolution.
- Keep it specific, and realistic: Even better than eating healthier or getting more exercise, help your child set a goal that can be tracked. I'm going to drink milk with every meal. I'm going to walk to the dog with Dad twice a week. I'm going to read three mornings a week instead of watching YouTube.
- Be flexible: Model flexibility and positivity with your child's goals as the year progresses. Praise when they achieve their goals, but also to allow for changes and tweaks if they have set something less attainable: If walking the dog twice a week doesn't work out because of scheduling or weather, that can be a big downer. Work with your child to evaluate goals and revise them along the way.