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Honoring Dr. MLK through kids' yoga: Story, empathy, and service

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's birthday, which our nation will recognize on Monday (and some states will, frustratingly, recognize this day as Lee-King Day and Virginia recognized this as Lee-Jackson-King Day until 2000...). In school, I mainly remember having a long weekend, coloring pictures of Dr. King, and beginning Black History Month biographies right after the holiday weekend - essentially, simplified ways to recognize an essential Civil Rights activist in our country's past. As a former science teacher, I mainly focused on issues of environmental justice with my students. As a white mom of a toddler and a kids' yoga teacher, how I will talk about justice, equity, and fairness is something I am still figuring out. A starting place I am interested in is how empathy can lead to social justice. And, in my current roles as a mother, yoga teacher, and Tinkergarten leader (our big focus this spring will be empathy!), setting the stage so kiddos can develop empathy is something I can actually do. Empathy is a learned skill, one that learned deeply, can motivate us to work for change. When we become skilled at seeing, and feeling, things from the points-of-view of other people, we are more likely to work for positive change because we can step in to what someone else needs and feels in some way. Dr. King, his wife and family, and so many other former and present Civil Rights activists have worked toward justice in BIG ways, yet as Dr. King said, "...anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love". I used this quote as a way to ground us in a yoga class in 2013 when I taught college students at UNC, a place where many students strove like crazy to do good, be good, etc, and it is one that sticks with me. There are so many ways to work toward a more just and equitable future, and we can start in small ways with our toddlers and K-12th graders, at school or a at home. I'm excited that we began this work this week in yoga and I cannot wait to continue it! Here's how we will be honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Story Time Yoga next week:


  • We'll discuss histories of oppression in an age appropriate way. Because our age range is from 10mo-4yrs, this will sound very different than it would in a Socratic Seminar in my high school classroom. Our conversation will sound something like this, "Sharing can be really hard. Adults have trouble sharing too. We like to have our own spaces and our own money, and we leave people out sometimes. There are a lot of people who have worked very hard to help adults share things so no one is left out. One of those people was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We celebrated him yesterday, and we are going to celebrate him today. He worked SO hard to make our country, which is bigger than our neighborhood and bigger than from here to the library (I'll point to a map), better. And today, we are going to read a story about other people who made their neighborhood a better place."

  • We'll read a story about another way to improve a community that has diverse characters. I love the story Maybe Something Beautiful by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, illustrated by Rafael Lopez, about a little girl who works with a mural artist to bring her whole community together to make her neighborhood beautiful (based on the real story of the Urban Arts Trail). Little kids cannot tackle systems of oppression, but boy, are they good at spreading cheer and beauty, just like the people in this book! As we read, we might notice which characters look similar to and different from us (starting around age 2-3 this is possible, yet it is hard to see similarities if we start with differences for kiddos that young, so we start there - like, "She has a pink shirt like me!", "Her hair and skin are darker than mine, and we both have braids!"). We'll talk about the places and people in our neighborhood. We'll then tell the story using yoga. There are a few sad and startling and lots of happy moments in the book, we'll act out and play with making faces related to those emotions. Toddlers are still playing with feeling and naming emotions and testing how to react to them, safe space to play is important!

  • From there, we'll jump into talking about our community. The kiddos in my group love making maps (which Tinkergarten helped us get hooked on :). We'll draw a few of our favorite places with black markers. Then, we'll add color as we think about different people and animals in our neighborhood. We live in a military community with gate guards, we'll add them and think about how they might be cold and how we feel when we are cold (sad, mad, snuggly). We'll talk about our neighbors and what they like to do. We'll think about our bird friends in the winter and how we can help them find food. We'll talk about how awesome it is that the people who work in the housing office let us use space for yoga.

  • We'll start to act in small ways! Families will be invited to make a card or grab a cookie to give to someone in the community who could use an extra smile or deserves a thank you. We'll head out to the playground to play or make bird feeders to hang. To take our acts of spreading beauty a bit further, all donations for class for the week will go to the local library or Boys and Girls Club (parents will get to choose).

By the end of our Story Time Yoga, our kiddos will have talked, read, and scribbled about feelings and community. We'll have played with and acted out these same concepts. Kiddos will leave with a card to give or feeder to hang. When we provide this many opportunities for kids and students to access information, they have the best shot at remembering it and using it later. Hopefully, a seed will be planted that everyone has different feelings and different stories, that we are all alike in lovely ways, yet still unique, and that even if we are small we can do things to make our neighborhood more beautiful and loving.

I can't wait to see how your family, class, or community honors the ongoing work of Dr King!

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