Martin Luther King, Jr. Day observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is around Dr. King’s birthday, January 15. It is an opportunity to talk with children about civil rights and racism. However, these topics are relevant all year round, and if you missed discussing it with children earlier this year, I encourage you to go ahead and do so today.
Children intuitively understand the concept of “fairness” (or at least they are very quick to point out when things are not fair) and they are often horrified to find out that throughout history, entire groups of people were denied civil rights, and even basic human rights.
The words and experiences of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. provide an insight into the civil rights struggle and open up conversations about fairness, racism, activism, and the effectiveness of civil disobedience.
On the most basic level, the youngest children can read simple books about Dr. King’s life and discuss fairness, equality, and diversity.
Book: For the littlest ones, I like using The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss, to discuss discrimination and equality.
Book: The Story of Martin Luther King Jr, by Johnny Ray Moore is a board book, toddler-level introduction to MLK, Jr.
Craft: For a hands-on visual of diversity, try making a wreath of hands in rainbow colors or different skin tones. (Fun Handprint Art)
Kindergarten and Primary / Elementary School Students
Activity: Primary age students are learning about similarities and differences. This is a good time to emphasize the message that people are similar in some important ways and that our differences can make us special. A popular activity is to crack a white egg and a brown egg–they may look different on the outside but inside they are the same! (Kids Activities Blog)
Craft: Make and color a paper doll chain to illustrate diversity and explore the solidarity of the Civil Rights marches. (Naturally Educational)
Book: Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King has an age-appropriate text and beautiful woodcut illustrations.
Book: National Geographic Kids has a Martin Luther King, Jr. book filled with interesting facts and compelling photographs.
Book: Martin’s Big Words uses illustrations and Dr. King’s own words to discuss his ideas and legacy–perfect for children 6-8 years old who still enjoy picture books but can read or understand a more rich vocabulary.
Upper Elementary School Students
Activity: Young children are natural activists. Ask children to consider their “dream” for a better world: What problem exists? How would they fix this problem? What would the world look like if the dream comes true? Younger children can write their idea on a handprint (No Time for Flashcards) or draw a picture; older children can write a short essay.
Activity: Listen to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and read the text closely. What is Dr. King’s dream? How does Dr. King inspire his audience?
Discussion: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for equality peaceably. Discuss civil disobedience and passive resistance with the children–do they believe this is effective? Research other Civil Rights Era activists or activists from other civil rights movements and the roles they played.
Book: Rosemary Bray’s Martin Luther King is a more detailed biography for upper elementary students and features vivid paintings by Malcah Zeldis.
Book: Who Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? is an engaging biography for early chapter book readers.
Craft: Make a garland of coffee filter doves as a reminder of Dr. King’s philosophy of peaceful protest. (Inner Child Fun)
Young children may not even be aware of historical or modern discrimination and racism. This can be a very sensitive topic, perhaps because it requires adults to confront the darker side of our society and the American dream. Dr. King’s tragic murder also may be upsetting for young children.
Still it is very important that children of all races learn about the civil rights struggle so they can be part of building a better tomorrow, based on fairness and diversity. Dr. King’s inspiring vision is a perfect way to introduce these ideas to young children.