By: Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olson Edwards

Celebrations and special days that commemorate struggles for freedom, self-determination, justice, and peace are part of many cultures. For example, the Fourth of July commemorates the adoption of the American Declaration of Independence. Martin Luther King Jr. Day honors a man and a civil rights movement. Passover celebrates an ancient victory of the Jewish people over slavery. International Women’s Day marks women’s struggles to gain equality and decent working conditions. Mexican Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo commemorate Mexico’s fights for independence from Spain and France, respectively. Earth Day honors the worldwide efforts to preserve the environment. 

Even very young children can grasp the idea of honoring people whose work makes life better for others, even though children’s understanding reflects their developmental stage, as this anecdote from family child care provider Bj Richards shows:

A few days after we did some Martin Luther King Jr. Day activities, the mom of one of my 3-year-olds emailed me: “As I was looking over the bank statement the other day, I asked my husband, ‘Did you order some Doc Martens (as in the shoes)?’ My daughter corrected me: ‘Bj says we should call him Dr. Martin Luther King.’ . . . Thanks, Bj, for teaching her about these important people!”

By age 4 children often can begin connecting activities about social justice holidays to their own experiences with unfairness and fairness. Although they cannot understand fully all the facts and complexities of history, young children can learn that many grownups have worked, and continue to work, to make the world a safe, fair, and good place.

As with all curriculum subject areas, it is important to research your subject, present accurate, factual information, and make sure the activities are appropriate to the developmental stage and cultures of the children you serve.

Read and discuss children’s books

Child librarians can help you find books for young children, taking various approaches to justice issues. Here are several good ones:

  • Planting the Trees of Kenya (by Claire Nivola) and Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story of Africa (by Jeanette Winters) are two wonderful picture books about Wangari Maathai, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. The Streets Are Free (by Kurusa) is about a group of children wanting to turn an abandoned parking lot into a neighborhood park. ¡Sí, se puede!/Yes, We Can! (by Diana Cohn) is a lovely, childfriendly story about an effective strike of mainly Latino janitors in Los Angeles. Books for young children also are available about Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks.
  • Eric Hoffman has two fine bilingual books about children taking action: No Fair to Tigers/No es justo para los tigres and Heroines and Heroes/Heroínas y héroes.

Involve children in an action project

Choose an issue that directly affects the children’s lives and that relates to the social justice event or celebration. Engage in an action project related to the special day to help the children gain a sense of its meaning. For example:

The teacher talks with the children about the meaning of Earth Day and invites them to suggest actions they could take on that day. The children decide to “not waste food.” They are already composting leftovers from lunch, but they decide to keep out “green things” to feed the chickens that one family keeps. And they decide to make signs (dictated to the teacher and decorated by the children) to put up in the building reminding people to turn off lights when they leave a room.

Excerpted from Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks & Julie Olsen Edwards, 146. 2010. This book is available for purchase in the NAEYC Store.