Holidays in a Diverse World: Applying Anti-Bias Thinking to Curriculum
Acknowledging or celebrating holidays in early learning programs can bring pleasure to many families, staff, and children and can be useful in building connections between programs and families. However, holidays also pose a range of challenges to ensuring that all children, families, and staff feel respected and that children learn about a diverse world. Whether or not to include any holidays in your curriculum, and what activities to use if you do, requires thoughtful decision making.
In this blog, which is an excerpt from the second edition of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards, with Catherine M. Goins, offer considerations about how programs and teachers can think about and take an anti-bias approach to holidays in their settings.
Bringing an anti-bias lens to holiday events and curriculum requires consideration of several issues:
- Although all cultures commemorate their significant beliefs, events, and people through special celebrations and holidays from daily work, there are no specific holiday or religious observances that are universal.
- Even when many people observe a particular holiday, they do it in many different ways and for different purposes. In early childhood settings, the beliefs and traditions of one group or family may conflict with, or may complement, those of others, even within the same belief systems.
- Secularized or commercialized aspects of holidays are not culturally or religiously neutral (e.g., Santa Claus at Christmas, dyeing eggs at Easter).
- National holidays reflect the dominant culture and may not include all the people in your community.
- Holidays have specific historic and/or spiritual meanings. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a celebration of his work for justice, not simply an occasion to acknowledge that he was a peaceful person. Knowing the purpose and world view underlying a holiday will help you to make decisions about what role, if any, you want that holiday to play in your program.
Learning About a Holiday vs. Everyone Celebrating It
Learning about a holiday means teaching children what that holiday means to the cultural or religious groups who honor it and the varied ways these groups choose to celebrate it. With preschoolers, the focus is on how the different families in the program or the community choose to celebrate specific holidays. Teaching about a holiday calls on teachers to communicate accurate information appropriate to the children’s levels of cognitive development in a clear and matter-of-fact manner. It also requires that teachers make very clear that the class can enjoy learning about each other’s holidays while holding to their own family’s beliefs and traditions. Teaching about a holiday may involve reading a book to children or inviting individual children and their family members to share what they do during one of their holidays.
Celebrating a holiday, on the other hand, engages children in holiday activities as full-fledged participants on the assumption that their families believe in the holiday’s underlying purpose and meaning in the way that those who regularly celebrate it do. Celebrating a holiday is appropriate in faith-based programs or in programs in which the holiday is part of a belief system truly shared by every family in the program. Even then, remember that within a belief system, different families celebrate in different ways.
Anti-Bias Goals as Applied to Holidays
The four anti-bias education (ABE) core goals provide a framework for making decisions about holidays in the early childhood curriculum. Goal 1 (identity) and Goal 2 (diversity) focus on supporting children’s healthy sense of self and family while embracing the human diversity of other families around them. Anti-bias teachers pay attention to not excluding or disrespecting any family’s way of engaging in holidays. They do not impose holiday beliefs on families that do not celebrate them.
Goal 3 (justice) calls on teachers to think critically about the holidays they are considering using in their curriculum. This includes national holidays, which are official but which do not necessarily reflect the historic or current realities. Anti-bias educators ask themselves questions like these:
- Whose culture and history have shaped the messages of the holiday and the ways it is celebrated?
- Are certain groups of people invisible, misrepresented, or disrespected in that holiday narrative and material?
- Can I find ways to teach about a holiday that eliminate explicit and implicit biases while also respecting the core meaning of the holiday?
Goal 4 (activism) invites teachers to deepen children’s awareness of and pride in those who have worked to make the world fair for everyone. Teaching about celebrations and special days that honor struggles for freedom, self-determination, and justice are one way to do this. For example, the Fourth of July commemorates the adoption of the American Declaration of Independence. Martin Luther King Day honors a man and a civil rights movement. Juneteenth celebrates the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. 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. Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexico’s military victory over France. Earth Day honors the worldwide efforts to preserve the environment.
By age 4, although children cannot understand all the facts and complexities of history (or even how long “long ago” is), they can understand that many grownups have worked, and continue to work, to make the world a safer, fairer, and better place. Preschoolers can also connect activities about social justice holidays to their own experiences with unfairness and fairness—about which they care a great deal. Holiday activities engage children in critical thinking and activism that are appropriate to their developmental stage and their families’ history and cultures.
Creating a Holiday Policy: Considering Different Perspectives
Having a written holiday policy for your program or classroom supports the ongoing decision making about which holidays will be included in the curriculum, why, and how. There is no one right policy, and policies change over the years with different staff, new families, and new issues in a community. A holiday policy should include objectives for holiday activities and school celebrations, the process for deciding which holidays to include, guidelines for addressing the religious aspects of holidays, and meeting different family holiday requirements (see Bisson & Derman-Sparks 2016 for further discussion of issues and facilitation strategies).
Ideally, the program director initiates and facilitates the collaborative process for shaping the program’s approach to holidays. However, you can create your own classroom holiday policy with the teaching team you work with. What matters is that staff and families engage in conversations about holidays and their purpose for the children, sharing different perspectives, enabling everyone to grow in their understanding of their own and others’ holiday traditions, and shaping the program’s approach to holidays (Bisson & Derman-Sparks 2016).
One way to open these conversations is to brainstorm a list of holiday benefits and challenges, perhaps using the questions suggested above. Talk about what positive experiences children might have and what negative experiences. Work to clarify the purpose and meaning of the holiday. Consider the ABE goals. Some staff and families will welcome discussion of these issues, and others will not. Remember that working through the issues and emotions connected to many holidays is important and will help ensure that your program approaches holiday teaching and celebrations with an anti-bias perspective.
Building an anti-bias program for children is an ongoing process. Every day, children absorb and try to make sense of the world around them. An ABE learning environment and curriculum enriches everything that children do. It supports children to feel pride in themselves and delight in those who are different. It also teaches them skills to stand up for themselves and others against shaming, bias, or exclusion. It helps children and you thrive. It is hard work, but it is exciting!
Stop & Think: What Do Holidays or Celebrations Mean to You?
- When you were a child, what holidays or celebrations, if any, were significant in your family? What joys or pleasures did they bring? What tensions or stresses accompanied them?
- To what degree did your schools reflect your family’s way of observing holidays or holding celebrations? What did that teach you about the acceptability of your family?
- How did your family’s economic circumstances impact the holidays or celebrations you experienced?
- What appeals to you and/or concerns you about the ways celebrations or holidays are done in early childhood programs?
To Learn More about Holidays and Anti-Bias Education
Learn more about how to approach holidays through an anti-bias lens in Chapters 3 and 7 of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards, with Catherine M. Goins. This book—one of NAEYC’s bestsellers—helps early childhood educators fulfill their mission of helping all children reach their full potential.
Bisson, J., & L. Derman-Sparks. 2016. “Holidays and Anti-Bias Education: Being Thoughtful and Creative.” Exchange 231 (September/October): 75–78.
Louise Derman-Sparks, MA, has worked with children and adults in early childhood education for more than 50 years and is a faculty emerita of Pacific Oaks College. She is coauthor of several books, including Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change, Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, and Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: A Developmental Approach.
Julie Olsen Edwards, coauthor of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, was on the faculty of Cabrillo College’s early childhood education department for 45 years. A lifetime activist for children and families, she continues to write, teach, and consult on issues of equity, diversity, and anti-bias.
Catherine M. Goins is assistant superintendent of Early Childhood Education for the Placer County Office of Education and adjunct faculty member at Sierra Joint Community College. She has more than 30 years of experience administering private, nonprofit, and publicly funded early education programs and speaking, coaching, and training on diversity, anti-bias education, and equity issues. Catherine currently consults as a senior policy advisor for the First 5 California Children and Families Commission.