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9 Fun ideas for celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day with kids

Bethany Ramos is an editor, blogger, and chick lit author. Bethany works as Editor in Chief for Naturally Healthy Publications.

Teaching kids about Martin Luther King Jr. shouldn't happen just on his birthday

You’ve seen him pop up in Facebook quotes and in history books, but what was the man behind some of the most influential changes in the civil rights movement all about? Learning more about Martin Luther King Jr. — and teaching your kids what you learn — can make the upcoming holiday even more meaningful and have an impact on them day in and day out.

What is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

Let’s put it this way: If you don’t know what Martin Luther King Jr. Day is all about, it’s going to be hard to teach your kids to appreciate this national holiday and honor Dr. King all year-round.

Here are a few important takeaways behind the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, celebrated on the third Monday in January:

  • Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a day of remembrance established by the U.S. government to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Dr. King was born on Jan. 15, 1929, and this year marks what would have been his 87th birthday.
  • The official federal holiday was created 15 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, thanks to a petition with more than 6 million signatures submitted to Congress.
  • Illinois was the first state to enact MLK Day as a state holiday in 1973, 10 years before the official holiday was approved by Congress in 1983.
  • Utah was the last state to adopt MLK Day in 2000, renaming the Utah Human Rights Day for the new MLK state holiday.

When your kids ask what they’re doing home on a Monday they would have normally spent at school, remind them of this: MLK Day gives us a day to reflect on the monumental changes one man set in motion.

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What did Martin Luther King Jr. do for us?

Martin Luther King Jr. fought for equal rights amongst black and white citizens in the 1950s and 1960s. These rights included the right to work and make an honest living, the right to vote, the right to use public places and the right to receive a good education.

If you’re looking for specifics that can feed into an afternoon of Googling with the kids, Illinois State University’s Vidette Online lists some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s top civil rights achievements as his 1963 March on Washington; the Montgomery Bus Boycott on the same day of Rosa Parks’ arrest; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where Dr. King served as the first president; and his Nobel Peace Prize award in 1964.

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9 Ways to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day with kids

Asking your children their dream is not the only thing you can do to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If you want your kids to really take away something from MLK Day this year, it helps to understand how children learn. As UNICEF pointed out way back in 1994, in an article published by the Bureau of Elementary Education, Department of Education, Culture, and Sports of the Philippines, kids learn best through experiences. To explain an important holiday like Martin Luther King Jr. Day in a way that children can understand, it helps to put some action to the lesson that will involve all of a child’s senses.

More: How to talk to your kids about racism

Get your kids involved in paying respect to the man who fought for equality with these inspiring hands-on activities:

  1. Read a book about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and discuss the lessons he taught about freedom and racial acceptance.
  2. Print out an activity book for younger kids to color, who may not know how to read yet.
  3. Act out his famous "I have a dream" speech while implementing your own words and hopes for the future. Ask your children what it means to have a dream and how they can achieve theirs.
  4. Make your own MLK illustrated timeline to hang on the wall, using markers and butcher paper, based on the most important events of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.
  5. Try a simple craft, like making a peace sign or peace dove to hang up in the window (that also happens to be toddler-friendly).
  6. Organize a peace parade in your neighborhood. Children can decorate their bicycles or scooters and invite friends to join in.
  7. Fly the American flag from your house.
  8. Write out dreams on small pieces of paper, attach them to helium balloons, and let the balloons go outside.
  9. At the end of the day, take this online quiz to see what you’ve learned — and give out a special prize to the child who remembered the most about Dr. King.

As Teaching Tolerance points out, these positive lessons and discussions can have a monumental impact in instilling tolerance in children of all ages and races. And after wrapping up a great holiday of celebrating inclusion and diversity with your kids, don’t let it stop there — as Dr. King showed us more than 50 years ago, life is full of teachable moments you can use to continue to show your kids that all people deserve our care and respect.

Teaching kids about Martin Luther King Jr. shouldn't happen just on his birthday

Image: Getty Images

Updated on 1.13.16

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