Do Holidays Have a Place in the Classroom?

I met with a program director not too long ago who talked with me about the improvements she’d made to her center.  Among other changes, she proudly announced that she had “gotten rid of all holidays”.

I knew what she meant.  There’s long been an assertion that holidays are better celebrated at the family level and don’t belong in a modern classroom.  Some of the reasons have to do with cultural sensitivity.  Others point to the fact that some classrooms get carried away with four weeks spent crafting every possible variation on a turkey theme, while the curriculum gets sidelined.

I understand these arguments, but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable with this type of censorship.  I would suggest that these concerns could be adequately addressed without banning holidays all together.

Cultural Sensitivity

Teachers would obviously be wise to be sensitive to cultural diversity.  But celebrating diversity means having a larger selection, not a smaller one.  Explore traditions and celebrations from around the classroom or around the world.  Invite families to come in to share their cultural celebrations.  Be aware of where the commonalities lie and take on a larger world view.  To me, this is the most obvious aspect for teachers to consider.  I cringe at a teacher-led project that creates a cartoonish representation of Native Americans, just as I do at a teacher informing a student that his self-selected project depicting the Nativity is inappropriate.

Focused Curriculum

While the issue of cultural sensitivity is big and complicated, the aspect of purposeful instruction is the one I want to focus on here.  Some who advocate tossing holidays out of the classroom say there isn’t room for holiday fluff when there are other things to be learned.

My first thought is that the most meaningful approach to instruction is to start where the interest of the children already lies.  During the holidays, is there a more compelling topic?  It seems difficult to appreciate and build on the genuine interests of the child if holidays are suddenly taboo.  Rather than using their excitement, we squelch their enthusiasm and drag them through adult-centered priorities.

On the flipside, I share the concern that some classrooms spend the months of October through December in one long arts and crafts session.  So here’s where I feel the compromise lies.

Create a unit that connects to the holiday without being consumed by it.  I like to find a unit of study that shares themes with the upcoming holiday so that it taps into the same interests without making the holiday dominant.  For instance, November is a great time to explore a food unit or a  transportation unit as many children will be traveling or receiving travellers for that famous Thanksgiving feast.  These units tap into that holiday enthusiasm, but they are still relatable for any child whether they personally celebrate Thanksgiving or not. 

Similarly, February is my favorite time to examine social concepts like friendship and communication.  A post office in the dramatic play area is a perfect connection with sending Valentines without making that the sole purpose.  Many teachers use October to teach about nocturnal animals or the properties of pumpkins.  They don’t have to teach about Halloween explicitly for the children to connect their classroom experiences to the holiday fervor around them.  Incorporate aspects of the holiday without making the holiday itself the sole focus of the unit.

Recognize, Emphasize, Maximize.  As I’ve mentioned before, the same activity can have two different learning outcomes depending upon its focus and implementation.  If your goal is to have a lot of cute holiday crafts to hang around your room, you can accomplish that with a quick search on the internet.  But if you step back and recognize learning objectives that should be emphasized, you can select and implement activities that will maximize those outcomes.  For example, you can emphasize symmetry in a fold-art project, patterning as you create a chain, the fine motor skills of dropper art, or the recognition of the geometric pieces of a collage.

Similarly, you can take concepts from your curriculum, like counting, sorting, or letter familiarity, and simply change the way you present the practice  in order to make it more intruiging as in this example or this one, both from No Time for Flashcards.  Use a pumpkin to practice syllable segmentation, use candy hearts for sorting, counting and graphing.  Keep your objectives, just change your tools.

Focus on creativity.  If you focus more on art projects rather than craft projects, you give children the opportunity to create their own meaning for their projects rather than confining them to your personal holiday paradigm.  The projects become more personally meaningful and give children the opportunity to incorporate holiday themes if they want to without having them forced upon them.  Admittedly, there is a spectrum of arts and crafts, but the best creative projects find themselves leaning toward the arts side of this spectrum. (Check out Christie Burnett’s great ebook, Art Not Craft for inspiration.)

Create memories.  For all the ways to incorporate meaningful learning objectives into activities surrounding the holidays, I have to say there is also value in creating enjoyable and memorable experiences.  (Even if it means more chaos, as I wrote about here.)  While I don’t like the idea of a full month becoming one big party, I’m not personally opposed to taking some time to celebrate!

So how do you find a holiday balance in your learning environment?

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7 Comments

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7 Responses to Do Holidays Have a Place in the Classroom?

  1. I so agree with you that holidays are the ideal time to work with a child’s interests to encourage authentic learning! And it does seem like a shame to have all holidays banned from the classroom because it is an EXCELLENT way to introduce children to celebrations outside of their culture. On the rare occasions we were encouraged to learn about culture outside of ours through learning about celebrations and holidays, we always had fun and those lessons stuck with me.

    Great suggestions for how to make this a more effective approach to learning!

  2. I like your way of approaching these activities, Amanda. I think that connecting to a broader idea/concept. You can talk about holidays as the kids bring it up – but they can also explore other aspects of post office or transportation or food. Thanks for these great ideas.

  3. Elizabeth

    Thank you for the post. I loved using the holidays to create natural interest in a learning activity for the kids when I taught in the classroom. Now that I am at home with wee little ones I have a different approach. My favorite activity that kept every one of my 30 3rd graders busy learning a variety of different skills for an hour and a half (I am not joking, they were all on task) was centered around Thanksgiving. We had shopping ads and (without every detail) we had them read the ads, locate items for a balanced dinner, get prices, and stick to a simple budget. They had no idea of the real-life reading skills they were getting, the health lesson, and the math they were doing and it was a cooperative learning exercise. So yes I believe the holidays can be overdone with crafts but they can be wonderful to help get kids excited about learning.

  4. This is well written and well thought out! I agree – a healthy balance of holiday and other ideas is a terrific way to approach this. I do celebrate holidays in our classroom but we focus a little more on the nature end of things like pumpkins and leaves and less on Jack-O-lanterns and things along those lines.

  5. My daughters class studied ‘Holidays’ in the lead up to Christmas last year, it was fantastic because she learned about different sorts of holidays around the world, not just Christmas. I thought that was a great way of including holidays in the curriculum.

    This year they are studying ‘Healthy Living’ in the lead up to Christmas and the lessons plans for the term include, healthy food for Christmas lunch, healthy activities to do (like cricket on the beach) with a focus on what the kids can do during the summer holidays.

  6. AmberB_MaloneU

    I totally agree with you! I am currently an Early Childhood Education major at Malone University in Canton, Ohio. I was looking through some blogs to get an idea of what I get to look forward to in the next few years. I was shocked to hear that schools are considering taking holidays completely out of classrooms but, then again, I’m not surprised. As I was reading this blog entry, the thing that came to my mind the most was those students who don’t get to celebrate holidays at home. It’s not that their families don’t believe, they just don’t have the proper money or their parents don’t necessarily care to celebrate it. This time in the classroom may be the only celebration these students get! Just a thought. =] Great entry though. Thanks!

  7. Candice Haury

    Thank you for sharing the theme ideas for the holiday season. This past December I invited the families in my classroom to celebrate diversity. Parents and children shared family traditions, keepsakes, and food from around the world! Through this experience, we got to know each other better and broadened our worldviews.

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