Holidays as Early Childhood Curriculum …

From my vantage point as teacher, then director, and consultant to many, many early childhood programs, I often wonder why we celebrate holidays in our programs with very young children. 

Over the years, as I have observed the infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in numerous programs, my thinking about this topic has evolved. By now, if you have read my blog posts, you will know that my focus for everything that happens in an early childhood program is about the children and their experience.  

So, when I observe very young children overly excited and melting down as the holiday frenzy swirls around them; when I observe very young children dis-engaged and clearly not understanding what is going on; when I observe very young children being pulled from a child-centered, age-appropriate experience like shaping playdough, to a teacher-directed activity—making look-a-like Santas from glue and paper, it begs the question, “What are these very young children receiving when we use holidays (Thanksgiving, Kwanza, Hannukah, Christmas, and many others) as our child care curriculum?” Sadly, I think that after all of the effort and the energy expended, the positive results for the children fall short.

Several more questions come to mind, and these need to be answered and discussed before making the decision.

Most holidays are based on abstract concepts that are beyond the young child’s comprehension. So, “Will the children understand?” is an important question to answer before we add a particular holiday to the curriculum plan.

As directors, what guidelines will we establish around celebrating holidays? How inclusive shall we be? Are we going to celebrate holidays based on the cultures represented in our program? What if there is little diversity?  Should we include many diverse celebrations? Which ones? What if some parents object to all holidays? How much of our curriculum will be devoted to holidays? And, are we missing other more important activities with our very young children by spending time on holidays?” There is lots to consider here. 

And, what about the parents and families of these young children? Many holidays are simply overdone! We are bombarded with the signs and sounds of holidays—months before the day. Because of this, our young children will have questions about what they see and hear, and I believe the answers to these questions reside first with their parents and families—as they make their choices about whether or how to celebrate these holidays. 

A final question to answer, “If families are celebrating certain holidays, why do we need to celebrate them as well?” Could we simply talk about these family celebrations after they happen and let the children share from their now relevant and recent experiences? 

There is much to reflect upon. And reflect, we should.

When we make decisions about whether or not to add holidays to our curriculum, I suggest answering this incredibly important question first: “Who are we doing this for?” For us? For the parents? For the children?

In my world, we planned and implemented curriculum activities and experiences for the children! In fact, most of the activities and experiences emerged from the interests of the children. The early childhood programs that I directed did not celebrate holidays. We asked the aforementioned questions; we reflected upon their answers; we discussed thoroughly; and we made an informed and principled decision about holidays as curriculum.

Given the issues of time, energy, resources, and educational objectives, we decided to mark other occasions that are the more developmentally appropriate for very young children.

Some of our alternatives to celebrating traditional holidays were to:

  • Celebrate milestones—the first tooth; navigating the stairs; tying shoelaces; making a friend. 
  • Celebrate children and families—the birth of a sibling; moving to a new house; a new puppy. 
  • Celebrate the natural world—rain puddles; the first snowflakes; the flower that bloomed. 
  • Celebrate learning—the color purple; the number 3; tyrannosaurus rex. 

The list of these types of celebrations is endless! They are relevant. They are developmentally appropriate. And, they are child centered and focused on our individual little ones!

Let me also say that I love celebrating holidays. And, as children grow older and their understanding of specific holidays takes form, I think it a wonderful expense of time, creativity, and resources—to mark special days within the larger community. For the youngest among us, however, I stand my ground.

Your thoughts …

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