Helen Keller was only seven years old, yet she had already grasped a universal spiritual truth: “For it is in giving that we receive.” (St. Francis of Assisi) How do we help foster in our students the human tendency to want to give to others? What are some suggestions we can give families who want to show appreciation to teachers and schools during the holidays?
Giving to Others: Mittens, Songs, Goats
There are many ways to give to others: time, money, service – even goats! Helping young children learn about people in need is a delicate task, requiring us to say enough to help them begin to understand, without overwhelming and distressing them. Some schools choose to contribute time or money to organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Oxfam, the Heifer Project or Roots and Shoots. Other schools collect toys, mittens, or canned goods; sometimes the children themselves get to deliver these gifts to homeless shelters or families in need.
The giving of treats, song, and good cheer are ancient holiday traditions. I taught at a Montessori school located next door to a retirement home, and the children loved singing to the residents during the holidays. The residents thanked the children in many ways, with big smiles, toe tapping, and sometimes by singing along. The elementary students also visited these elders regularly to recite poetry that they memorized.
Myrtle Farm Montessori School in California has a holiday tradition of encouraging families to give to a fund that provides people in developing countries with animals that they can raise for food and income. Every December the children (ages 3-6) add up the donations, fetch the golden beads representing the total amount collected, and study the brochure: “Honeybees cost $20, goats are $120…” The children discuss which animals to give: one water buffalo or several smaller animals? They exchange 100 squares for ten bars and unit beads to make different quantities with the beads as they debate the possibilities. “Is there enough left over for some chickens?” one child inquires.
Giving to Teachers and Schools
“What should I get my child’s teacher?” is a question many parents ask. Often teachers prefer a gift for their classroom instead of something personal and have a wish list that parents can choose from. Some schools have guidelines to give ideas to parents wanting to show their appreciation. A giving tree with decorative tags is popular in many schools. On each tag is written a needed item that families can choose if they want to give a gift to their child’s classroom. Some teachers appreciate a personal touch and enjoy a family’s traditional treat or a homemade card, especially if the child is involved in the giving. A coffee mug decorated with an apple will always be appreciated, even if there are already so many of them on the shelf.
Giving to Family Members
We can help children make gifts and cards by providing lessons and materials for these projects. One favorite holiday activity in my 3-6 classroom was practicing gift wrapping using precut sheets of holiday paper and large blocks or gift boxes. After wrapping one of these “presents,” the child would unwrap it (or invite a friend to do this), so the work would be ready for the next student.
One year parents were delighted by their children’s gift of their first needlepoint project. With green embroidery thread and a large needle, five- and six-year-olds used the running stitch to follow the outline of a pine tree drawn on burlap. After sewing on colorful buttons to decorate the tree, the gift was framed and wrapped.
Kindergarten and elementary students enjoy learning the practical life skills to make more elaborate gifts: knittingprojects, or making beeswax candles, birdfeeders, potholders, or holiday treats. This is an opportunity to invite parents and grandparents into the classroom to share with the children their skills in woodworking, quilting, and other handcrafts.
Giving and receiving are both important aspects of the holiday season. Maria Montessori recognized that expressing gratitude for what we have been given is a manifestation of the human spirit. By encouraging children to give thanks, we support their spiritual development. On a practical level, helping young children learn how to express appreciation can become the basis for lessons in grace and courtesy.
Writing and illustrating thank you notes is a favorite activity in many classrooms. During the holidays there are new opportunities for the children to say thank you: after receiving a gift for the classroom, after a field trip to the pumpkin patch, or after parents have shared their family’s holiday traditions (Kwanza, Diwali, Chanukah, Christmas). Sincerely Yours (Writing Your Own Letter) offers elementary-age children a step-by-step guide and fun sample letters to inspire their writing.
The desire to give is heightened during the holiday season; children can be given opportunities to express this human tendency through service, gift giving, and giving thanks. Giving to others and learning to receive graciously are all part of the innate goodness and spiritual development of the child that we as teachers have the honor to witness and encourage.