Parents and teachers are eager to share cultural traditions with children – sometimes so eager that children end up with lots of disassociated ideas floating in their heads which they try hard to assimilate into their construct of the world. I fondly remember a 5-year-old who’d heard the Christmas story at church drawing a picture of “Baby Jesus in his squad car clothes;” he had no idea what “swaddling clothes” were, but he loved playing policeman so he made the words fit into something he understood! Well-intentioned teachers can add to that confusion when they try to include every possible family tradition into preschool curriculum.
During the holidays, just like the rest of the year, effective and meaningful curriculum in the early childhood classroom originates in the children’s interests. Holidays and celebrations provide sparkle in life, and we all have the “sparkle” in common even though the details may be different. With the goal of honoring each child’s unique background, the teacher makes room to hear and respond to the children’s perspectives, questions, and enthusiasms in the course of the day rather than impose her own. One child may share news about watching candles in the menorah [“You NEVER touch them”], while another opens doors on the advent calendar [“Just ONE every day”], and another has decorated a Christmas tree [“You have to be SO CAREFUL with ornaments”]. Each of these conversations provides a meaningful moment to expand the discussion of different ways families celebrate. Teachers can guide these conversations in the moment, respond appropriately to what the children are thinking about, and gently expand their picture of the world rather than insert abstract concepts which have no context in the young child’s brain.
Note too how young children focus on the concrete manifestations of the holiday, and the limits that go with these activities for them. Holidays are full of exciting new things that they are forbidden to touch or explore, eliminating their primary modes of learning. One of the most wonderful opportunities teachers can provide is a chance to fool around with all those forbidden things. We can give them candles and candle holders to use in the doll house. We can give them boxes and used wrappings and ribbons to wrap and unwrap to their heart’s content. These holiday-related activities do not necessarily promote one holiday or the other, but allow children to explore the things they are thinking about just like toy dishes and stoves let them play at cooking; one child may pretend to cook curry, another hamburgers, another plantains, reflecting what they see in their own homes.
The more we can help children make sense of the world, the better we are doing at our jobs. The day at child care can be an oasis of peace and constancy during the hubbub of the holidays, with teachers acknowledging holiday events at the children’s developmental level, responding to their interests with play materials, and clarifying ideas as we do in all areas. We know that homes are the right places to learn one’s family’s culture, and that school is the right place to help children begin to fit the pieces of home and world together, while also learning from their friends that there are many wonderful ways that life can be celebrated.