Years ago when I was in college, a friend and I drove from our New England schools to California. Along the way we stopped in Memphis- home of amazing barbecue, a rich musical heritage, Graceland, the Peabody Ducks, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the Lorraine Motel. The Lorraine Motel may not have been mentioned in history books but the balcony outside room 306 is the place where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was slain and around it grew The National Civil Rights Museum.
In 2016 I went back to Memphis for the first time in years, first during my visit to St. Jude and then with my family a month ago to run the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. More important than joining me in Memphis to watch me run a race I had trained so hard for, I felt it was critical for them to visit the National Civil Rights Museum. I wanted my kids, then ages 13 and 10, to better understand the historical milestones that marked the struggle for freedom and justice that continues today.
The museum is laid out like a timeline, starting with the history of slavery in America, highlighting each poignant event that was part of the civil rights movement, and ending with visitors peering into the room where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed before he was assassinated. Preserved as if he’s going to re-enter at any minute, it’s a sobering reminder that despite the progress our country has made, we still have a long way to go.
We remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday but does it have meaning for our children other than being a day off from school? Do our kids know of Dr. King’s contributions to the history of our country and how his beliefs inspired so many?
Knowing Dr. King from classroom lessons isn’t enough. Do a deeper dive to further their understanding about who Dr. King was, his beliefs about equality for all, and his impact on the civil rights movement in an age appropriate way. If you’re struggling with how to talk about Dr. King with your child and how to help them wrap their heads around what Martin Luther King Day means, start small and reflect as Coretta Scott King encouraged people to do when she King provided a vision of how the holiday honoring her husband should be observed:
“The holiday must be substantive as well as symbolic. It must be more than a day of celebration . . . Let this holiday be a day of reflection, a day of teaching nonviolent philosophy and strategy, a day of getting involved in nonviolent action for social and economic progress.”
—Coretta Scott King to The Washington Post, 1983
In honor of observing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in a way that Mrs. King hoped we would do, here are resources for kids of all ages that can aid your conversation about Dr. King and topics of race, privilege, equality, and civil rights to further their education today and throughout the year.
Though young, preschoolers have an incredible amount of empathy and compassion towards others. There are many lessons from Dr. King that can be shared in impactful ways but one of the best ways is just to have a conversation and embrace the teachable moments throughout the year as your preschooler has questions.
Here are some age appropriate conversations you can ask your preschooler to teach them about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s beliefs:
- Dr. King inspired so many individuals throughout his life through his speeches, actions, and beliefs that he was a role model. Talk about what a role model is and ask them who inspires them. It could be anyone- a family member, community leader, friend, etc. The possibilities are endless!
- Dr. King stood up to others to create social change. Ask your child to talk about a time that they wished they could change something at home, school, or in your neighborhood and how they would go about creating change.
- Dr. King spoke about freedom, peace, and love. Talk with your preschooler about what each of the words means to them.
Books to read: Picture book loving preschoolers learn best through stories so take a trip to the library to check out books that introduce them to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My friend, Thien-Kim Lam of I’m Not the Nanny, recommends Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because “the author uses quotes from Dr. King’s speeches to tell the story of his life in this biography geared towards young children.” She recommends taking of the timeline and additional resources in the beautifully illustrated picture book and shares other diverse picture book biographies in her post, 11 Inspiring Multicultural Biographies for Kids.
Complete a day of service: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’” MLK Day is also The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, making it the perfect day to engage in family friendly community service activities in your area by simply entering your zip code at AllForGood.org
Early Elementary Ages
Kindergartners through second graders can develop a deeper understanding of who Martin Luther King, Jr. was and his importance to the civil rights movement through a myriad of activities that get them thinking and reinforcing growing academic skills as part of their learning. Before you begin, Teaching Tolerance encourages families to ask their kids what they know about Dr. King to start the conversation. This helps you know what they have learned in school and the kinds of things you should be talking about at home.
Read this National Geographic Kids’ Martin Luther King, Jr. article. It’s perfect for fluent readers interested in knowing who Dr. King was. The kid-friendly layout makes it easy to read and meaningful photos are interspersed throughout the text.
Integrate some math by taking a look at the timeline of Dr. King’s life on The Seattle Times website. Print the timeline out, mix up the events, and use the dates to discuss ordering numbers according to the tens and ones place.
Read age appropriate historical fiction and fictional stories about Dr. King. A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr., My Dream of Martin Luther King, The Story of Ruby Bridges, and National Geographic Kids’ Rosa Parks are some of my favorites. For more suggestions, visit Apples 4 the Teacher for a larger list of books about Dr. King.
Incorporate geography by pulling out a map of the United States to show your child where you live in relation to where Dr. King grew up in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. where he gave his iconic I Have a Dream speech.
Brainstorm about citizenship with BrainPop.com’s Five Things lesson. Designed for the classroom, this activity can easily be done at home since kids begin by tracing their hand and then brainstorming things they can do or say to become a better citizen. I love BrainPop.com’s ideas of encouraging your kids to treat people with respect, contribute to the community, or complete responsibilities at home and having parents do the activity at the same time.
Help them understand why it’s important to engage in service activities on Martin Luther King Day and how Dr. King’s birthday evolved into a national day of service with this video by the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Look at these 12 Powerful Images of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a family. Taken by LIFE’s photographers and compiled by TIME.com, it’s an incredible collection of images.
Tweens and Teens
Tweens and teens know about Dr. King and the civil rights movement are at the age that they want to know more. Take advantage of multimedia resources that gives them a sense of what it was like to live during that time in history and will personalize their learning in a way that makes sense for them.
Participate in a virtual non-violent protest. What was it like to be part of the non-violent protests during the civil rights movement? The National Civil Rights Museum has an eLearning Sit-In Activity where kids walk through the protest experience through a series of questions. It’s a powerful learning activity that gives tweens and teens a chance to get a feel for what it was like to live in that moment in history in the United States and living in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Experience what it was like to face discrimination on bus rides. Rosa Parks is well known for refusing to give up her seat on the bus which led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Before the Boycott eLearning Activity from the National Civil Rights Museum has kids serving as a newspaper reporter. From this perspective, they’re guided through a series of bus stops where they’re given scenarios of unfair treatment and conditions that blacks were subjected while riding buses in Montgomery, Alabama. After completing Before the Boycott, take a look at these incredible photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Riders.
Learn more about other civil rights leaders. John Lewis. Ruby Bridges. Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery. These are just some of the individuals who were also civil rights leaders. The Corporation for National and Community Service has a playlist of videos where tweens and teens can hear them speak about Martin Luther King, Jr.
Help the connect the past with the present. While our country has made a lot of progress in terms of equality, we still have a long ways to go. Help tweens and teens connect the dots between our country’s history and current events through meaningful discussions. You don’t need to have the answers but an open mind to help them think through what is happening in today’s world.
Encourage the use of historical primary resources. One of the best ways to encourage this age to learn is through historical primary resources like those from The King Center and the Library of Congress. These national treasures serve as powerful records of history as it happened and looking up primary resources helps reinforce research skills tweens and teens are learning in school while promoting critical thinking. The King Center’s digital archive features nearly a million documents associated with the life of Dr. King and for those interested in Rosa Parks, the Library of Congress has many resources including photos, notes, fliers advertising a lecture, and even a pancake recipe!
Watch Discovery Education’s More than a Dream. This documentary is divided into 14 chapters and provides first hand accounts of the African American Civil Rights Movement.
For additional resources about how to continue the conversation about Dr. King, visit the “Dos and Don’ts of Celebrating MLK Day” by Teaching Tolerance, read “Going the Extra Mile for MLK Day”, and take a look at my post: Teaching Kids About Race, Privilege, Equality & Civil Rights in an Age Appropriate Way.
No compensation was received for this post. Photos were taken at the National Civil Rights Museum during my hosted trip to Memphis with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the trip that was personally paid for when I returned to run the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. Photos of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are used with permission from the Library of Congress‘ digital archives. Amazon Affiliate links are included in this post. All opinions are my own.