I really struggle with how and what to teach my preschool kids around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
First, I don’t want this to be a one-and-done. Learning about inclusion of all, using non-violence to fight for what is right, having the courage to stand up for your beliefs even when it’s hard, using words to get people to join you in doing the right thing - these are all things I want to be teaching every day, all year round.
In addition, there are few good resources. I haven’t found a picture book about MLK that’s exactly right for preschoolers. I’m looking for one that is both simple and deep. Many go into too much detail and will bore the pants off of 4 and 5 year olds. You wouldn’t believe how many picture books start with these words: “Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia.” Preschoolers don’t care - they just want to get to the story. Other books go straight to I Have A Dream and don’t give the reader any sense of the struggles MLK faced, the wider civil rights movement, or how and why his words made such a difference.
The best book I’ve found is My First Biography: Martin Luther King, Jr., by Marion Dane Bauer and illustrated by Jamie Smith. It uses simple language to describe the ways black people faced discrimination and how MLK used words to make oppressed people believe that they were “as good as anyone.” It touches on the major tactics of the civil rights movement, although your child will probably want a more in-depth explanation of why people used those strategies. For example, Bauer writes, “Black people sat quietly at lunch counters just to show they belonged there,” but doesn’t say that the workers at those counters wouldn’t serve African Americans.
Finally, I don’t want to do a superficial arts-and-crafts project and say I’ve covered MLK Day. We could use multicultural paints or play dough, or do the classic egg project, where we have the kids look at a white egg and a brown egg and talk about how they’re different, then break both eggs open and see that eggs, like people, are all the same on the inside. There’s nothing wrong with these kinds of projects, but they’re not enough. They don’t move children into thinking about the power of words and the power of people coming together to make change.
So we tell the story of Rosa Parks, how a bus driver told her to sit in the back because some bad laws said that black people couldn’t sit in the front with white people. The bus driver was mean; one time he made her get out of the bus to use the back door instead of the front one, then drove away before she could use the back door.
One day Rosa was tired after a long day of work, and she sat in the middle of the bus. The same driver who had been mean to her before told her to move to the back. She looked straight at him and said, “No.”
Three other black people saw how brave she was and sat near her, but when the driver said he would call the police, they got scared and moved to the back. Rosa stayed where she was. The police put her in jail, and so many people were angry about this that they got together to do something to change the bad laws.
We go on to talk about the bus boycott and what that meant, and how MLK became a leader of the boycott and started spreading his message that fighting and using mean words won’t change anything; only staying strong, staying together, and protesting in a peaceful way will.
Then we talk about how each of us can stand up for what’s right, like Rosa Parks and MLK.
You can talk with your child about some injustices in the world today, and figure out together how to be like the leaders of the civil rights movement - or the many, many people who participated - and work to change things.
Along with telling the stories, the most powerful thing you can do to teach the legacy of MLK is to take meaningful action, with your child, to right an injustice and help others. One possibility, among many, is starting a clothing or book drive for Cradles to Crayons - this is something your child can easily participate in.
Let me know what you do at home or in your classroom to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement.