What Is Your Most Successful Holiday Activity?
Teachers share their holiday ideas for enhancing students' listening, reading comprehension, memory, and concentration.
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
"Dress the Turkey"
For Thanksgiving, our school hands out a cutout of a turkey to each student, teacher, and administrator. The children and adults are instructed to "dress the turkey." This is a wonderful family activity that is fun and interactive. As the "dressed" turkeys make their way back into the school, they are displayed in the hallways outside the children's classrooms. The array of ideas for "dressing the turkey" is wonderful. As a student teacher, I chose an outfit for my turkey that made reference to my cooperating teacher, who loved golf. I dressed "Tom" in a wool hat and knickers and slung a leather golf bag over his shoulder. Golfing Tom was a hit!
–Gigi Weber, Edinboro, PA
Silly Reindeer Games
The day before Christmas break, we play "Reindeer Relay Games." We load and unload Santa's bag. We have an ornament relay (similar to an egg relay), an "over and under" relay with a gift box, and a tree decorating relay (using a student as a tree we wrap and unwrap a garland to decorate him or her). This helps to get all the wiggles and giggles out before we have our party.
–Cindy Walker, Pace, FL
Many students simply can't afford to buy a gift to exchange, or even to donate food to the poor — because they themselves are poor. To help explore the positive feeling of giving, I made plaster of Paris ornaments with castings from inexpensive molds I got at a garage sale. Every kid mixes the plaster of Paris with water and pours it into the molds (note: plastic candy molds work too).
They are dry the following day, and the children color on them with markers. Each child puts her or his name in a box and I place the wrapped plaster ornaments in the middle of the room. As each child's name is pulled, he or she presents the gift she or he made to another child in the room. When we're done, everyone has a gift that someone in the room made just for them.
As a variation on this theme, we sometimes melt old crayons in the microwave and pour them into the same molds. This way they can get neat new crayons out of the old crayons we have.
–Kelley DeBoer, MI
Place Mat Crafting
I always have my class make turkey place mats. They each use one 8-by-11-inch piece of brown construction paper and snip off the four corners. Then I provide them with templates for tracing the following "turkey parts": a head and neck (cut out of red construction paper), a beak (yellow paper), a wattle (orange paper), and a variety of five or six other colors of paper to use as feathers. They copy the way that I glue on the head, beak, and wattle on the upper front corner. Finally, they can choose their feather colors and glue them to the back of the brown construction paper. In addition, they can write on the feathers the things they are thankful for.
–Sandra Durrett, Sugar Land, TX
Since most Thanksgiving costumes for young children are either inaccurate or insulting to Native Americans, I invented an alternative hat for my first-grade students to wear to our Thanksgiving feast. This assignment has to be planned well in advance of Thanksgiving. I give each child a strip of oak tag at least five inches high and long enough to encircle his or her head. Then I invite parents to work with their child on a family tree hat. I encourage them to put flags, photographs, occupations, country names, and symbols representing their own "pilgrimages" as well as their family's reasons for coming to America. I encourage everyone to go back as far as they can in their own family. This is an inclusive activity. When we talk about the Pilgrims, we also discuss indigenous people, slavery, and what it means to choose to immigrate. The children wear these hats with pride to a luncheon featuring foods prepared by the parents and a turkey provided by our school. (We serve a lot of vegetarian foods as well.) We discuss the symbols and the wide range of cultures before we eat. The hats go home and become centerpieces for Thanksgiving.
–Rima Lang, Rosendale, NY
In my third-grade classroom, I teach recycling as we make Christmas bulb ornaments using old light bulbs collected from the students' homes. We decorate the light bulbs with puffy paint and then I use a hot glue gun to attach a ribbon to the top (i.e., the part that screws into the socket) of each one. This is tons of fun and a great way to learn about recycling household items.
–Jill Wenzel, Lewisburg, PA
We make replicas of holiday objects from different cultures. Kinaras, dreidels, and Christmas trees are easy to create with construction-paper patterns. Then students share their own holiday traditions.
–Heavenly Montgomery, College Park, GA
My fourth-grade students make gingerbread houses. We brainstorm materials needed and make a flow chart to show the steps we need to take. Then we follow a recipe to make frosting. At the end of our two-day activity, my students write a process essay.
–Leah Richards, North Bay, NY
All our fifth grade classes make graham-cracker "gingerbread" houses. Their creations are wonderful, and it's an activity in which all children can participate — regardless of which holiday(s) they celebrate. Here is our "recipe" (enough for 24 students). Each child will need the following materials:
- a shoe box top (or Styrofoam tray)
- a can of WHITE ready-to-use icing
- a clean 8-ounce milk carton (from the cafeteria)
1. Send a letter to parents asking them to contribute an assigned item for the gingerbread houses. Items needed include: four boxes graham crackers; mini candy canes; gum drops (assorted colors, and "spearmint" leaf-shaped); lollipops (for "lamp posts"); pointed ice-cream sugar cones ("trees"); starburst mints; one box Cheerios cereal; one box Chex multi-grain cereal; stick pretzels, red and black square licorice pieces; red and black string licorice; M&M's; sprinkles; candy kisses; red hots; Lifesavers (assorted colors), etc. You'll find that many other will also be put to use as decorations by the creative students.
2. Divide the class into groups and divide the ingredients so that each group has what it needs in a clean tote tray. If these aren't available, use large plastic baggies. The white icing is the glue. (Don't use chocolate — it will make the houses look like mud huts!) Staple the top of the milk carton shut. Each child coats her or his milk carton with lots of icing, then fits the graham crackers to the sides and roof. It will be necessary to break the crackers to make them fit. Children then "glue" their houses to the shoe box top (or Styrofoam tray).
3. From this point on, the children's creativity takes over. I've seen split-level houses, two-story houses, "Indian forts," etc.
Every child goes home with a successful project. They love it! One of the best parts — they can eat any candies not used on their houses.
–Helen Gromadzki, Jessup, MD
Last year, my class had a "Holidays Around the Year" event that was the most special event of my 18 years of teaching. My classroom had children of many faiths and the children wanted an opportunity to share their family traditions.
We began by asking children to pick their favorite holiday of the year to represent. Each child planned a holiday food to share and some decorations to bring for our "holiday" party. Parents were encouraged to attend, and the kids were given the choice of working alone or in groups. On the day of the event, the children decorated their desks and covered them, using paper, in a color associated with their holiday. The parents went all out on the food: we had potato latkes frying, eggnog, Christmas cookies, green Irish bread, and Halloween goodies. Some parents had on Santa hats, menorahs were lit, and the words Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah were in full display. My holiday contribution was New Year's Eve, and I served punch and had fun party decorations.
It was wonderful to enjoy all that the holidays offer to everyone. It has become so strange these days, where in public schools we are afraid to say even "Merry Christmas." This activity was very special for all involved.
–Cathy Dial, Marietta, Georgia
Holidays Around the World
We have a very diverse class, so we do a month-long, multicultural unit on December Holidays Around the World. We always have parents that say they learned something too!
–Melanie Boucher, Worcester, MA
Christmas Around the World
We do a unit on Christmas customs around the world. First we apply for "passports." We put the passports in a travel folder, as it is important to collect a sticker representing the flag of each country we visit. As we visit each country, we learn about its customs and sing some native songs. We make a souvenir for the children to take home — so that they have lots of Christmas presents to give out! We also let them have a taste of the Christmas fare of each country. The children really work hard so that they can be finished in time for their feast each day.
–Patricia Stanley and Ellie Tambornini, St. Lucie, FL
Teaching Change Through Food
My kindergartners like to prepare foods, and during the month of November our curriculum is centered around the theme of changes. It is a perfect time to change whole cranberries into cranberry sauce. We grind whole washed cranberries, add sugar and one orange for each one-pound bag of berries, mix, and check sweetness. Everyone likes to work the old-fashioned grinder. Then everyone can take some home to share, along with the recipe. I also have the children sit in a circle and take turns shaking heavy cream in a glass jar and watch it change to butter. It sure tastes good on some raisin bread for snack time. These food activities foster cooperative work and play.
–L. Johnson, Providence, RI
Thanksgiving Cookie Decorating
You can decorate Thanksgiving cookies as a way to talk about the difference between individual assembly and factory-line assembly. Take two fudge stripe cookies. On one cookie, spread chocolate icing and place candy corns around the edge in a half circle. For the body, use any big chocolate candy such as chocolate-covered cherries — this goes at the bottom middle of the iced cookie. As you look at the cookie straight on, put icing above the body. Stick a malted milk ball here for the head. On the front of the head put a small amount of icing. Stick a red hot there as the beak. Ice the second cookie to use as a stand for the turkey. Have one group make these turkeys individually and another group make the same number of turkeys assembly-line fashion. Which way is faster to assemble the turkey? Why? Which way do they think workers like better?
–Rachael Longano, Cincinnati, OH
The Spirit of the Holidays
For the week of Thanksgiving, my students identify people from our school for whom they are thankful (people in the office, cafeteria, etc.). We make cards for these people and send them small baskets of candy. The students get excited about giving the gifts and the adults like to know they are appreciated!
–M. Sorci, Charleston, SC
A New Way to Consider Gift-Giving
This writing activity is great for any age — I've used it for first through middle grades. The students brainstorm ideas for gifts for 1) the world, 2) their family, and 3) themselves. It shifts the focus from "wants, receiving, and me" to "needs, giving, and others." Then we make a book with these three parts, which becomes a gift for their families.
–Kiki Furuya, Honolulu, HI
I like The Snowman, by Thomas Briggs, for a January project. All children seem to relate to this charming story. For Christmas, Star Mother's Youngest Child, by Louise Moeri, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, is a lovely little book. This story could be read to all children each year. It captures the true meaning of Christmas.
–Martha L. Donovan, Weymouth, MA
Maria, by Theodore Taylor, is a book I use at Christmas. Not only does it give my classes an opportunity to learn a bit of Spanish, it allows us to discuss family relationships. We also talk about cultural diversity. Best of all, we construct shoebox floats and decorate them with natural items that we can find outside or at home. When we've made our floats, then we do the natural thing and hold a parade! Great fun!
–Michael Teal, Mt. Pleasant, SC
The Polar Express
Right before the children leave for Christmas break, I read The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. I hide a silver bell in each backpack, so when it's time to pack up in the afternoon, they hear the ringing bell!
–Holly Weinstein, Manhasset, New York
The day before getting out for the Christmas holidays I have a Polar Express day. The children and I all wear PJ's, robes, and house shoes to school. We bring our sleeping bags and pillows and parents send special snacks. We read or listen to The Polar Express (the taped version is wonderful) and divide into centers. These centers can include a variety of activities such as drinking hot chocolate, eating snacks, making bell necklaces and/or bracelets, writing what we would ask Santa to give us, making trains from candy, drawing our favorite parts of the story, etc. The possibilities are endless. The rest of the day is spent as free reading time. I ALWAYS have to read The Polar Express again by popular demand during this free time. My favorite story extension happens on the next day at school. I wrap a silver bell and sneak it under our class Christmas tree. When we are opening gifts we find the bell, note included, and wonder if I (the grown-up) will be able to hear its sweet sound. The children are always excited to find that I can hear it and that I too "believe"! This activity fosters a love for this story and other stories shared together in special ways! I always have children ask me at the beginning of the new year if they too are going to get to wear their pajamas to school! The word has gotten out!
–Kim Castleman, Martin, TN
I have always enjoyed the ballet The Nutcracker. This year, for reading class, we have been reading through the story, talking about the dances, watching the movie, and making a class book about the story. The students have truly enjoyed listening to the music while knowing what is happening. A wonderful culminating activity is to go on a field trip to a performance of the ballet.
–Kristin Ashley, Green Bay, WI
Celebrating a New Season
Since we are in Florida, we don't have snow. So we read about snow, make snowflakes, and then have a snowball fight using crumpled-up paper. It is always fun. And we always clean up afterwards.
–Anne, Orlando, FL
New Year Resolutions
After the New Year parties are over, party hats and noisemakers can be purchased for reduced prices. I like to buy these for my students and have a celebration. I ask the kids to review their classroom goals and write new "resolutions" for learning. It is fun and gives kids who may not have had a chance to "ring in the New Year" a time to do so with guided thought.
–Scharrie Santelli, Elgin, IL