To many young children – and even some adults – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is simply a day off from school or work. However, kids are very often interested in learning new things, and this holiday is a great opportunity to teach them about Dr. King and America’s painful history of injustice, the Civil Rights Movement, and the long, ongoing march toward equality.
This year, make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day more meaningful for your children by providing them with some history as to why we celebrate. Take the time to inform and entertain your children with these educational, affordable activities.
Meaningful & Affordable Ways to Celebrate MLK Day
1. Read With Your Children
Most young children enjoy reading, and books about Martin Luther King, Jr. can help them learn about King at an age-appropriate level. For children ages two to four, consider reading “The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Johnny Ray Moore. Kids from four to eight can learn quite a bit from “Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Doreen Rappaport. Of course, there are thousands of books available; the two above are selections that my kids enjoy and read over and over again.
In addition to reading about MLK, Jr., older kids can read about what he fought so hard for. Though my seven-year-old understands that years ago, drinking fountains, restaurants, and schools were segregated, he doesn’t understand the larger context.
Just recently, we started reading “My America: Freedom’s Wings: Corey’s Underground Railroad Diary, Book One” by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. This story documents in diary form a nine-year-old slave boy’s journey to freedom via the Underground Railroad. My son, who knew very little about slavery, is now beginning to understand the history and events that eventually led to the Civil Rights Movement.
2. Watch Movies About Social Injustice
Show your teenaged children a movie about social injustice, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Or even better, have the kids read the book first. Discuss what is unjust in the movie and why Scout’s father fought so hard for Tom, the wrongly accused African American man.
However, if you’re not familiar with the story, read or watch it yourself beforehand. Though it powerfully showcases prejudice, oppression, and their result, it does deal with delicate subjects and can be emotionally difficult for sensitive children.
3. Watch Dr. King’s Speeches on YouTube
You can find many of Dr. King’s more famous speeches on YouTube. He is impressive to watch, due to both his message and his oration. This activity is best for older or teenage children who will be better able to follow what he’s saying and thereby understand his message. Watch together as a family and discuss his speech afterward.
For younger children, reinforce Dr. King’s message in his “I Have a Dream” speech by doing activities that focus on skin color, such as making hands of different colors and intertwining them. You can ask your older kids to write their own “I Have a Dream” letter documenting what dreams they have for the world in which they live.
4. Visit Free Local Events
There are plenty of free events on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to celebrate. Check your newspaper, watch the local news, and scour the Internet. Simply search your town name and “Martin Luther King Day” to find activities. Another strategy is to call your local college or university and ask them what activities they have planned.
Some events you will probably find include:
- Library Events. Our local library is hosting a video tribute to Dr. King and serving birthday cake afterward. Many local public libraries will likely have activities scheduled to commemorate the day, either on the actual day or during the prior weekend.
- Plays. Our community youth theater is putting on a play about the life of Dr. King. Not only is this educational for the students acting the parts, but for the audience as well. See if local schools or theaters in your area will be hosting something similar.
- Musical Performances. Free music is rarely hard to find, and on MLK Day, it’s no different. Check your local parks and community centers for events. In fact, a park near my home is hosting a free concert by none other than the MLK, Jr. Community Choir.
- Parades. Many larger cities have annual parades on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day replete with full bands and intricate floats. Children, especially, should be delighted with this type of event. But if you want a good seat, be sure to arrive early with chairs and warm clothing, if needed.
- Service Day Events. Many organizations, such as universities and nonprofits, sponsor an MLK service day which invites area residents to come together to help the local community. For instance, the University of Chicago sponsors a service day where 150 participants volunteer at a variety of local agencies and companies throughout the city.
5. Discuss Tolerance and Acceptance
FamilyEducation.com presents an exercise to help kids recognize discriminatory behaviors. Children are presented with a hypothetical situation about a boy on the playground who is “different,” and are asked how they would respond. Then, parents help their children compare their response with how Dr. King might have responded.
Take this discussion a step further. Ask your children if they ever see incidents of discrimination at their school, and inquire as to how they respond.
6. Color a Picture
Print a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. for toddlers and preschoolers to color. While they are coloring, tell them that we are celebrating his birthday and explain, in child appropriate terms, why. You could tell them that Dr. King wanted to help people get along, and to make sure they shared equally, much like we as parents want for our children.
7. Visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C.
If you live nearby, visit the newly opened Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. There are several educational activities planned for the actual holiday, including park ranger-led discussions about the life and times of Dr. King.
8. Visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis
Again, if you live within the vicinity, plan a trip to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. This museum is housed in the Lorraine Motel, the site where Dr. King was assassinated. The museum is planning many activities specifically targeted for kids the weekend of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. On the actual holiday, you can get in to the museum for only $3.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is much more than a day to be off school or work. Take the day to participate in activities in his honor, and to education your children (and yourself) about King’s role in radically changing the social landscape of the United States. There are many affordable and fun options available.
What ways do you suggest teaching kids about Martin Luther King, Jr.?
(photo credit: L. Kragt Bakker, Danny E. Hooks, Shutterstock)