Anti-Bias Education: The October-December Holidays
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Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves 1st edition (2010), by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards, provides practical guidance to confronting and eliminating barriers of prejudice, misinformation, and bias. Most importantly, the book includes tips for helping staff and children respect each other, themselves, and all people. Individual chapters focus on culture and language, racial identity, gender identity, economic class, family structures, different abilities, holidays, and more.
Many early childhood educators have questions about how to approach the holidays. Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves offers useful information and tools for teachers as they consider the specific families in their program. The following text, and that contained in the pages linked in below, is excerpted from the chapter titled “Learning About Holidays & Fairness.”
The October–December push
The three national holidays of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are the ones that most often appear in early childhood programs. They bring pleasure to many families and staff, as well as to children. However, they also pose a range of challenges for many families. Whether or not to include any of them in your curriculum, and what activities to use if you do, requires thoughtful decision making.
Many children have fun every year celebrating Halloween in their neighborhoods, schools, and early childhood programs. At the same time, however, its associations with witches, ghosts, and evil make Halloween problematic for some families, including some fundamentalist Christian, Jehovah’s Witness, and immigrant families. Still other families do not like the traditional gorging on sugar that follows trick-or-treating, or they no longer allow their children to go out at all because of their fears about possible harm. Commercialism also has turned Halloween into a time when parents feel pressured to buy expensive candy and ready-made costumes that sometimes are inconsistent with their values or budgets. In addition, children under 4 may find some of the costumes frightening. For one or more of these reasons, some early childhood programs decide not to include Halloween in their curriculum or to modify how they do Halloween activities.
Designing new ways to do Halloween activities
Take into account approaches and concerns of specific families, adapt your activities, or create new ones.
- Involve children in making Halloween masks (and perhaps costumes). Display the finished masks in the classroom or let children wear their costumes for a parade at school. Besides helping to reduce the emphasis on commercial costumes and masks, this activity is a way of lessening the fears many preschoolers have of the masked figures that appear on Halloween.
- Provide a Halloween substitute. If some families do not want their children engaged in any traditional Halloween activities, consider creating an alternative celebration. For example, substitute dress-up costumes that children put together from the program’s costume and scarf box and have a parade. Here’s what Debbie Ravaçon’s program did:
- When I started as director, I wanted to change our traditional Halloween practice of taking the children in costumes around the college to get candy. Children got scared, some families kept their children home that day, and the quantity of candy violated the center’s commitment to healthy eating. The staff struggled with what to do because they enjoyed the activity themselves. Eventually, we agreed on doing a child-made funny hat parade around the college, with no candy. We also let the whole college know why we made these changes.
Although Thanksgiving is a holiday widely celebrated by people in the United States, including new immigrants, it is not embraced by all. While many families use it to express thankfulness for family and for their current lives, Thanksgiving does raise challenging issues. Its story and traditions largely reflect the perspective of the European colonists, not the indigenous people who had been living on the continent for many thousands of years already. And while the holiday honors the social struggle of a group who immigrated in search of a better life and religious freedom, it does not recognize what the cost was to the Native Americans they displaced.
Unless teachers are well informed and thoughtful, Thanksgiving can become (even if unintentionally) a “unit” that teaches young children damaging misinformation and stereotypes.
Countering disrespectful and stereotypical messages about Native Americans
Some teachers choose to use the Thanksgiving holiday period to help children appreciate American Indian people as they are now:
"Native peoples are everywhere in the Americas. We number in the tens of millions; we speak hundreds of languages. We live in the hemisphere’s remotest places and its biggest cities. We are still here. . . . We work hard to remain Native in circumstances that sometimes challenge or threaten our survival. We are still here. (Smithsonian 2007)"
Most people in the United States have grown up surrounded by so much misinformation about and stereotypical images of Native Americans that it is essential to clarify our own thinking and to find out children’s ideas about them before planning curriculum about these present members of our communities. Plan and carry out many activities before, during, and after the Thanksgiving period. A one-time activity is not enough to counter children’s mistaken images or ideas.
Planning activities that recognize the newest immigrants to our nation
Many early childhood programs serve increasing numbers of recent immigrant children and families. Since Thanksgiving honors the Pilgrims (European immigrants who settled in what is now New England), the holiday is a good time to counter misinformation and negative attitudes children may have about today’s “pilgrims.”
In our multicultural society, Christmas, although important to many people, is still not everyone’s holiday. For children and families from other groups—be they Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, pagan, atheist, or anything else—Christmas can be a difficult time. For almost all families, the commercialization of the holiday, with its pressures to buy, decorate, and entertain, adds tremendous complication to already overloaded and busy lives. How can you address Christmas in your program in a way that is supportive and fair to all?
Learning about each other’s December holidays
Begin by finding out from families and staff members which December holiday(s), if any, they celebrate, and what they might like to share about their personal tradition. If the people in your program are culturally diverse, this could mean you will be learning about a number of different December holidays. In a more culturally homogeneous class, it could mean learning about the fascinating variety of ways families all celebrate the same holiday.
Make a plan for how you will teach about the various traditions in your classroom. For example, have a school party with every family sharing a special holiday food, song, or ritual. If family members cannot come into the classroom, ask them for a story or song that you can share with the children yourself. Help the children explore the similarities and differences among family holiday celebrations—whether it is the same holiday or different holidays. The aim is for children to understand that “Families are different. Each family’s way of celebrating works for them.”
If you use this approach, be very sensitive to children who celebrate differently from the majority of the children. Otherwise, it is easy for their holiday to sound like just a variation on the dominant culture’s event. It is the teacher’s responsibility (not the child’s) to clarify the distinctions. For example, in one school, most of the children told stories about their Christmas holiday customs; the one Jewish child talked about Chanukah. Later, several of the children (and some adults) wished the child’s family a “happy Jewish Christmas.”