Explaining Martin Luther King Day to the Kids

Struggling with how to teach your kids about Martin Luther King Day? We've got lots of book ideas and a simple social experiment that even the littlest of kids will get a grasp of. 

Kids want life to be fair. How many times has your kid said "but that's not fair!"? Too many to count? It's an easy concept for kids because it means a lot to them. It's also an easy way to teach about MLK Day. Boiled down to its most simplistic form, Martin Luther King, Jr represents a group of people who were treated unfairly and wanted everyone to be treated fairly. For a simple social experiment, devise a way to segregate the kids. If there aren't different races present, consider gender or age or some other trait that the kids can't control (versus shoes they could take off or something else easily changed).

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Give out a small treat (I used 1 mini marshmallow with my group of 3 and 4-year-olds) to only part of the group. In my experiment, only the boys got the mini marshmallow. The girls were pretty upset and when I gave them the word "fair" they quickly understood. Talk about how they feel. The conversation can smoothly flow into how life wasn't fair for African Americans in the Southern United States for a long time; Martin Luther King and many many others wanted life to be fair for everyone. Go as in depth or as concise as your kids need.

The following books are a great follow-up to the conversation. I've linked to Amazon for your convenience.

For the littlest kids

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My absolute favorite book for its clarity and interest to little ones is This is the Dream by Diane Z. Shore and Jessica Alexander. When I read this to my little group, the kids were soon pounding the table and chanting "that's not fair" to each page in the first half of the book where things are segregated. The second half of the book shows how things changed to be fair to everyone.

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Another short read is We March by Shane W. Evans exclusively about the peaceful marches. 

From the kid's perspective

All five of these books are from the kid's perspective. Your kids can more easily relate to the narrator and notice common childhood experiences, and they're all great in different ways.

Child of the Civil Rights Movement By Paula Young Shelton

Freedom Summer By Deborah Wiles

Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-ins By Carole Boston Weatherford

Ruth and the Green Book By Calvin Alexander Ramsey

A Sweet Smell of Roses By Angela Johnson

Two More Great Books

These are such great books that I just had to add them too.

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Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down By Andrea Davis Pinkney - a great companion book to Freedom on the Menu

and I saved the best for last (seriously, this next book plus This Is the Dream would make a perfect duet for a read aloud to preschoolers),

Martin's Big Words: the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. By Doreen Rappaport - full of quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr himself. You can just read the big quotes if your kid's attention span is short or read the entire book for a greater glimpse into his life.

So many great books to spark a discussion about MLK Day! Hope it's a great day for your family!

See also our MLK posts from 2017 and 2016.