Anti-Bias Education and Holidays: New Perspectives
Acknowledging or celebrating holidays in early childhood programs can bring pleasure to many families, staff, and children. However, they also pose a range of challenges. Whether or not to include any of them in your curriculum, and what activities to use if you do, requires thoughtful decision making.
In this blog, by the authors of the current as well as the upcoming second edition of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards lay out some principles about how programs and teachers can think about holidays that classrooms and programs may encounter. --Editors
Specific holidays and religious observances are not universal
All cultures commemorate significant beliefs, events, and people through special celebrations and holidays from daily work. Within groups that honor the same holiday, how it is celebrated will reflect both similarities and differences. In almost all settings, the beliefs and traditions of one group or family may conflict with, or they may complement, those of others. Knowing the purpose and world view underlying a holiday will help you make decisions about what role, if any, you want that holiday to play in your program.
Secularized or commercialized versions of holidays are not culturally or religiously neutral
Arguing that it is okay for all children for children to participate in dominant culture holidays that embody that group’s religious beliefs, if the props and activities connected to the holiday are “not specifically religious, but just fun” (e.g., Christmas trees, Santa Claus, cards, and gift giving), does not respect cultural and religious diversity. Likewise, activities about Easter with bunnies and baskets of eggs are not neutral. Some Christian families see this as a pagan appropriation that trivializes one of their two most important holy days of the year. For the many families of other faiths, the activities are inseparable from the underlying meaning of the religious rituals themselves (after all, the Easter bunny is the Easter bunny).
Other designated holidays reflecting dominant culture traditions—and often included in early childhood program activities—may include beliefs or practices that are not shared by all families. For example, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, in its traditional narrative, only recognizes one type of family but most early childhood education programs now serve a wide range of families, and many have configurations that differ from the “one mother and one father” family structure. Both the NAEYC Code of Ethics and the anti-bias education approach make respecting family diversity a cornerstone of quality early childhood programs.
Respecting the cultural diversity among the families you serve means recognizing that all have the right to their traditions.
Pay attention to the language you use in holiday activities
This is an important element in children learning about, rather than celebrating, a holiday grounded in a specific faith or celebrating a particular historic event. This is especially necessary in publicly funded programs where religious teaching is not allowed by law. Your language choices also support or undercut the concept of religious diversity and each family’s freedom of choice. The challenge is to choose words that focus on the history of the special day and that also make clear the diversity of beliefs. These are topics that require clarifying conversations.
Respect all families' holiday traditions and their specific ways of celebrating—or not celebrating
Respecting the cultural diversity among the families you serve means recognizing that all have the right to their traditions. It is hurtful to children and families to impose the holidays of one group on all the children and staff, or to make the holiday traditions of some groups visible while others are invisible.
Consider creating unique class or school celebrations
In addition to, or instead of, celebrating the holidays observed by children’s families, some teachers create their own celebrations for various parts of the school year. This approach makes it possible for every child to participate in shared special days with the rest of the class. Celebrations can be respectful—for example, “Honoring Our Families” get-togethers; “Thanking the People Who Make Our School Work” (cook, janitor, bus driver, etc.) days; or occasions for “Recognizing Family and Neighborhood Heroes.”
Celebrations can also be whimsical and playful—for example, “Bring Books Alive Day” (making and wearing costumes from books, eating foods from favorite books, acting out favorite stories); “Pajama Day” (wearing pjs and slippers to school, telling bedtime stories, sharing family bedtime rituals); or “Backwards Day” (wearing clothes backwards, doing things in reverse order of an ordinary day). They can also be used to mark the passing of the year with an annual end-of-year picnic or pot luck dinner. Some schools have graduation ceremonies or “You’re Off to Kindergarten” parties for children transitioning out of the programs. These events help give the year a sense of ceremony and time passing, and often become favorite memories for families and children.
Help children understand when a staff member or child cannot participate
Teaching respect includes helping children understand that in some families certain behaviors are acceptable and in others they are not. Consider the following holiday example:
A mother brings a special lunch to school for her child’s birthday. She does not realize it is Ramadan when observant adult Muslims fast between dawn and dusk. She is upset when Edward, a student teacher, doesn’t eat anything. She complains to the head teacher that both her and her daughter’s feelings were hurt. The head teacher explains Edward’s right to practice fasting. She also tells Edward that the child was puzzled by his not eating the special lunch. Edward makes sure to talk with the child that the next day. He explains why he hadn’t eaten, and assures the child that he is happy for her birthday.
Here is an incident where a student allows her personal feelings to undercut s a basic practice of the Jewish holiday of Passover.
The kindergarten has spent a few days learning about Passover. During a discussion of the Seder ceremony, the teacher explains the meaning and tradition behind matzo. Esther, one of the Jewish children, states that she cannot eat leavened bread during the whole week of Passover. The next day a birthday celebration for another child includes cupcakes from the birthday child’s family.
A student teacher, enjoying her cupcake, gives Esther a piece because she feels sorry about “depriving” Esther. Luckily, the teacher notices the conflicted expression on Esther’s face and intervenes: “Esther, do you know that cake is made with leavened flour and that you can’t eat it during Passover?” Esther nods her head. “Let’s freeze your piece and you can eat it after the holiday.” Esther relaxes, gives her cake to the teacher, and goes off to play. Unfortunately, the teacher had not thought to check ahead of time with Esther’s family when the birthday celebration was scheduled during the Passover holiday. If she had, she might have planned with them—for example, asking the birthday child’s family to check with Esther’s family about bringing a non-leaven cookie or pastry for Esther.
This blog is a part of Equity in Action, a blog series exploring the many ways early childhood educators and administrators, higher education faculty members, policymakers, advocates, and other ECE allies can bring the new Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education position statement to life in practice and policy.
Louise Derman-Sparks, MA, is a longtime early childhood anti-bias educator of children and adults. A former NAEYC Governing Board member, senior author of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves (published by NAEYC), and Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change (copublished by Teachers College Press and NAEYC), she speaks, conducts workshops, and consults throughout the United States and internationally. firstname.lastname@example.org
Julie Olsen Edwards began her early childhood education career working as a family child care provider as a way to stay home with her new baby. She went on to work for Head Start, teach in private and public preschools and parent cooperatives, and teach kindergarten and reading in elementary schools, and work with community teen mother programs. For 38 years, Julie was on the faculty of Cabrillo College’s early childhood education department, served as program chair, and was founding director of the campus Children’s Center. A lifetime activist for children and families, she continues to write, teach, and consult on issues of equity, diversity, and anti-bias; emerging literacy; and family life and empowerment. She served on the NAEYC Governing Board during 2003–2007.