Go beyond the basic with opportunities for SEL and deeper understanding.
Right around winter break, everyone's thoughts start to turn to the upcoming time off and family celebrations. In school, little kids are tracing their hands to make turkeys, while older students might be taking final exams. No matter what's on the schedule, it's a great opportunity to make a little space for some social and emotional learning that leans into the spirit of the season rather than skating across the surface.
Highlighting the history behind various winter holidays encourages inclusion and lets kids learn about different traditions from each other. Also, focusing on friendship, family, and kindness fosters the feelings of connection that we hope all kids experience, especially during this time of year. And planning some projects before -- or during -- the break can keep kids in touch with some SEL-inspired creativity.
Check out the individual activities below, or print out these cards and drop them into a jar. Try one, two, or 10 to keep kids thinking and creating while school's out!
Activities to Learn About Holiday Histories
Since kids everywhere celebrate different winter holidays, it's a great idea to encourage them to embrace that diversity and learn about each other's traditions. Use the resources below to learn more about familiar holidays or discuss ones you might know less about.
- Make your own dreidel and find out if kids already know the rules. Then play together! (Grades K-2)
- For slightly older kids, you can use this resource to read the rules, learn the symbolism, and make a dreidel if you don't have one already. (Grades 1-3)
- After finding out about students' prior knowledge, use this short video from PBS LearningMedia so kids can learn more about the origin and traditions of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. (Grades 2-6)
- Older kids can read this article from National Geographic about the solstice and how various cultures marked this time of year. (Grades 3-5)
- Learn more about Kwanzaa's seven-day celebration of African American culture and heritage with this video from PBS LearningMedia. Check out the supporting materials for more resources. (Grades 3-6)
- Learn about Kwanzaa's history and meaning from Education.com, and then do some research to learn more. Allow some space for kids -- or you -- to share what you know already! (Grades 4-6)
- Incorporate Native American perspectives and histories into your Thanksgiving lessons with resources from the National Museum of the American Indian. (Grades 3-12)
- Find overviews of different winter celebrations, including Christmas, St. Lucia Day, Three Kings Day, and more, in this article from Learning Liftoff, then encourage kids to talk about their own winter traditions. (Grades 5-8)
- Though some people know the Christmas gift-bringer as Santa, that's not true everywhere! Talk about the different cultural characters who bestow presents around the world, and then explore some of the other resources about Christmas on the Why Christmas site. (Grades 5-8)
- If you want to dive into how Christmas is celebrated around the world, check out this article from the History Channel to travel to places like Sweden, Australia, Ukraine, and more. (Grades 6-12)
- Find out why some people cut down trees and bring them inside during Christmas by reading this article from the History Channel. Extend the learning by researching how politics, religion, and fashion shaped other traditions. (Grades 6-12)
Activities to Learn About Gratitude and Kindness
Underneath the festivities, winter holidays almost always involve gatherings and togetherness. Tap into that deeper current of connection with the activities below.
- Sing along with Daniel Tiger's Thank-You Song, then have kids think of someone they want to thank, and share why they feel grateful to that person. (Grades PreK-K)
- Listen to this well-known bilingual Christmas song, and sing along in both English and Spanish. Make sure to include opportunities to acknowledge other holiday traditions as well. (Grades PreK-K)
- Find out what happens to the main character in Sylvester and the Magic Pebble when all of his wishes come true, and see how he learns to be grateful for what he has. Have students discuss the story and share what they're grateful for! (Grades PreK-2)
- Join Elephant and Piggy creator Mo Willems for Thank-O-Rama. Think of someone to thank, make them a card, and sing a thank-you song. (Grades K-2)
- Listen to this podcast from the Imagine Neighborhood where students can use their imaginations to talk about the things that matter, with the people who matter most. (Grades K-2)
- Because the winter holidays can be both an exciting and stressful time, use this video to help kids get prepped to practice mindfulness, meditate, or just chill out. (Grades K-3)
- Enjoy Kindness Is Contagious, a warmhearted documentary (available free on Tubi) about the benefits of kindness. (Grades 4-10)
- Check out this video from the Be Kind People Project that gives practical tips about being grateful, using deep breathing, and more. (Grades 5-9)
- Watch this video from Wellcast to find out why being grateful makes us happier. Dive into the science a bit more, or just reflect on how to practice gratitude. (Grades 5-9)
- Print out these cards from Amplify to help students explore different values. Use the activities to reflect on which values matter most and then express why. (Grades 6-12)
- Challenge kids to use a journal over winter break to write down the things -- big and small -- that they're grateful for. Use this resource from Character Lab to get started. (Grades 6-12)
- Explore this volunteering site with students to discover all types of opportunities and ways to get involved with important causes, especially ones that will give others a boost around the holidays. (Grades 9-12)
Also, consider these fun offline activities for gratitude and kindness:
- For a fun offline activity, decorate a large cardboard box. Use it to store gifts for local charities. Put in toys to donate, food to give away, and more! (Grades PreK-12)
- For another offline option, decorate a gratitude jar as a class. Whenever someone feels grateful, they can write or draw the reason on a paper and put it in the jar. Read the results each week. (Grades PreK-12)
- Create a Kindness Challenge! Think of a way your classroom or school can show kindness to each other. How can you help each other or make the day better? Share ideas and make a plan to get the challenge started. (Grades PreK-12)
Activities to Learn About Creativity and Connection
Sometimes the best way to access the personal meaning of the holidays is through creativity. Let kids make, bake, and write their way to the spirit of generosity and connection that's the backdrop of the season.
- Use some around-the-house supplies to make it snow inside. Follow the instructions from Kidsburgh and watch the blizzard begin! You can use the jar as a way to practice deep breathing and mindfulness as kids watch the snow settle. (Grades PreK-2)
- Make this Tinkergarten tree of thanks together, and start a gratitude practice in your home or class. (Grades PreK-3)
- Make "snoball" cookies with this winter-inspired video and cookie recipe from The Kids Should See This. Though this one won't work at school, you can send it home for kids to do over break! (PreK-12)
- Have students use this writing prompt from Education.com to reflect on what winter means to them and how they know when winter has arrived. (Grades 1-3)
- Kindness rocks! Write inspiring notes on rocks and leave them for your friends, family, or community to find. (Grades 1-6)
- Use these questions from Family Tree Magazine (or write your own) to interview a family member. Write down or record their answers, and share with the whole family. (Grades 3-6)
- Read this poem by David Young. Then, as you think about your mother or another caregiver, identify some of the everyday ways that person shows you love. Show your appreciation with a note or hug. (Grades 5-12)
- After you read this poem by Alberto Rios, write about your own family legend or story with as much detail as you can. (Grades 6-12)
- Make a paper model of the solar system that helps students visualize Earth's yearly orbit around the Sun. How does the darker time of year affect us? How do our celebrations contribute? (Grades 6-12)
- Have students read this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, then write one sentence that captures its theme. Students can also write about the role of love among our basic needs. (Grades 6-12)
- Participate in Storycorp's The Great Thanksgiving Listen! Interview an elder or loved one in person or virtually, and share your own unique oral history with the world. (Grades 9-12)
- Have students explore and record their family's history -- there's never been a better time. Use this guide from Atlas Obscura for tips and inspiration, then get recording! (Grades 9-12)
Also, consider these fun offline activities for creativity and connection:
- Use some art supplies to create a bouquet of "forever flowers" for a classmate or family member. Write notes or draw pictures to go with them. (Grades PreK-2)
- Students can write down some family traditions, whether they're for holidays, birthdays, or other special reasons, then share with the class. (Grades 2-12)
- Over the break, have students create and send out a family newsletter. It can be digital or a real, physical object. Tell them to try including a variety of stuff: news, interviews, history, recipes, and more. (Grades 3-12)
- Over the break, students can take some time to curate their best family photos and put them into a digital (or physical) album. Create a theme or just choose your favorites. Ask kids to share when they get back from break! (Grades 3-12)