How to Teach Little Kids about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

After the frantic weeks of December—decorating, shopping, cooking and baking—I love settling into the reflective time of January days. In a world of national and international strife, the inspiration and wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is right on time.

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As the teacher of young children, I had the special privilege of sharing his message to a very interested audience. For a child in nursery school, the concept of friendship is one that is just beginning to be understood. Combine that with a birthday celebration and they are all eyes and ears. The idea that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man whose dream was that “all children would be friends,” is something they embrace whole-heartedly.

With nursery school age children, it is a good idea to begin an introduction of this civil rights leader with a simple story about his dream of people getting along. While children with older siblings may volunteer more details about his life and death, our goal is to keep the story simple and stay focused on his message.

Paper friendship dolls can a big part of the celebration, complete with decorating and the naming of friends. Singing and dancing are part of every celebration, so we adapted the song “We Shall Overcome” to use the words, “We Shall All Be Friends.” Kids love learning to cross their hands to make a people chain. And for a dance tune, the Stevie Wonder tribute song, “Happy Birthday,” is perfect. Without suggesting it, children begin to include these themes in their drawings and creative dramatics.

Year after year, as children learned about Dr. King’s message, it was not uncommon to hear a child comment on another child’s kind act: “That would make  Doctor  Martin  Luther  King  Junior, very happy.” There is something about knowing and saying his full name that young children take a certain pride in…and so do I.

This post originally appeared on

I am a parent and grandparent with over four decades of experience in early childhood education. I share my passion, wisdom and experience, with parents and the people who care for and about children at Little Folks Big Questions, where we're out to answer the questions parents face in today's world.


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