A young girl with black hair and brown eyes is smiling at the camera and holding up a picture she drew of an orange and green pumpkin.

Un-Holidaying the Holidays

by Melissa Wilson, Early Childhood Specialist at Buncombe Partnership for Children

The hype of the holidays is upon us. This time of year can be fun and exciting, as well as tiring and frustrating. How can we as teachers keep our classrooms as free as possible from all the stress and sensory overload the holidays bring? How do we hear the children and contain the excitement? How do we UN-holiday the holidays? Believe me, I hear you! The first holiday commercials are already blasted upon us. As I walk through the Home Depot and Walmart, there it is, all those trees, decorated and blinging with lights. Toys front and center. Warnings of turkey prices. The stress comes as our families start planning whose home will host this year.

Something to keep in mind as you make fun plans for the holidays is that not every child has a family who celebrates in the same way as what you might imagine the “norm” to be. A crucial part of deciding whether to include traditional holiday plans and celebrations in the classroom is to examine your own beliefs and opinions about holidays. Think about what you were raised to believe and the ways you celebrated holidays or continue to celebrate in your life today. Are you replicating your own versions of celebrations in the classroom that reflect your beliefs, or are you considering the beliefs and cultures of the children in your care? The early childhood space should always prioritize and reflect the lives of the children and families in your care. Thankfully, there are many non-religious rituals and activities teachers can do to keep children engaged and interested during the holiday season.

First (and most important) is keep your existing schedule the same. With all the changes in the child’s home (such as putting up a tree, family coming in to stay, parties, Santa, lots of food), school should always be the same. This gives the child a safe space that they know and can predict what will happen next. When the same routine happens consistently, the child will be able to regulate all that change better. Keep your classroom rituals the same. Greet the same way, give the children the same language, love them the same way. Funny that this type of consistency helps teachers too!

Now, for the fun stuff–the activities! What are the children interested in? Are there lots of grandparents coming in for visits? Make a family tree! Have your phone ready during drop off or pick up and snap a picture of the family member that doesn’t normally come. Or you might ask the family to send pictures during a special outing or festival. Include the family pets! Take the children out for a walk and collect sticks and leaves to create your tree. Tape the pictures around the tree. It’s so sweet to see how the children point out their family and explain the picture to their friends.

There also might be food the children may not normally eat during this time of year. So many cultures and traditions center celebrations around food that the child is learning from their own family origins. Create a picnic table! You can purchase a cheap plastic tablecloth, tape it to the wall, floor, under a table, anywhere! Then allow children to cut out pictures of food from magazines then glue it on the tablecloth. They can also paint, draw, or stamp with food shaped stamps onto the tablecloth. Listen for conversations among the children around their favorite food.

Now the lights! Those flashing lights are everywhere! This can cause a sensory overload for children (teachers too!). Think about creating a sensory box that uses string lights. Save a big box from the landfill. With the opening on the side, use a pointed pencil or other instrument to poke holes on the top of the box. Push each light into the hole so it can be seen from the inside of the box. Place pillows, blankets, and stuffies inside, then turn on the lights. Make sure this area is well supervised because ALL the children will want to go inside. This can even be brought outside when using battery-operated lights.

When we think about supporting children through this time of the year, the possibilities are endless. Use what you know about your children and families to create your own rituals and activities. And always remember to have fun while UN-holidaying the holidays!