Ideas for Teaching Kwanzaa to Kids

Every year, people around the world celebrate a seven-day festival called Kwanzaa.  If you want to emphasize character education with your students, then this is the holiday for you!

What is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is the African American and pan-African festival which celebrates family, community and culture.  Created in 1966 by activist and author Dr. Maulana Karenga, the holiday’s rituals promote African traditions and “Nguzo Saba”, the seven principles of African heritage that Karenga described as a “communitarian African philosophy”.

Karenga’s goal in creating Kwanzaa was to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society”.  Despite this, people of all ethnic backgrounds can celebrate Kwanzaa, as the principles highlighted in the festival are universal.

When is Kwanzaa?

Though it is celebrated in late December, Kwanzaa is not an “African” Christmas celebration, but dovetails nicely with the Christmas ideals of joy, hope, love and giving.  It also fits well with the values taught during Hanukkah.  Because it’s a celebration of ideals, people of all faiths can feel comfortable celebrating Kwanzaa.  Unlike holidays in the world’s major religions which are often tied to the lunar cycle, Kwanzaa is always December 26-January 1.

What does the word “Kwanzaa” mean?

“Kwanza” is a Swahili word meaning “first”, drawn from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” or “first fruits”.  Choosing a word from Swahili is significant as it is the most widely spoken language in Africa, spanning national boundaries, and thus establishing Kwanzaa as an inclusive holiday.  Kwanzaa does not originate in any of the 55 countries on the continent.

What is celebrated during Kwanzaa?

Five common sets of values are at the center of the festival: ingathering, reverence, commemoration, recommitment, and celebration.  The seven principles of Kwanzaa use Swahili words:

  • Umoja (unity)
  • Kujichagulia (self-determination)
  • Ujima (collective work and responsibility)
  • Ujamaa (cooperative economics)
  • Nia (purpose)
  • Kuumba (creativity)
  • Imani (faith)

Each of the seven candles signify the principles, and one is lit each day.

The symbols of Kwanzaa include crops (mzao) representing the historical roots of African-Americans in agriculture and the reward for collective labor.  The mat (mkeka) lays the foundation for self-determination. The candle holder (kinara) reminds people of their ancestral origins in African countries.  Corn/maize (muhindi) symbolizes children and the hope of the younger generation.  Gifts (Zawadi) represent commitments of the parents for the children.  The unity cup (Kkimbe cha Umoja) is used to pour libations to ancestors.  Finally, the seven candles (mishumaa saba) remind participants of the seven principles and the colors in flags of African liberation movements — 3 red, 1 black, and 3 green.

How is Kwanzaa celebrated?

In addition to candle lighting, gifts are exchanged during Kwanzaa.  On December 31 participants celebrate with a banquet of food (“karamu”) — often cuisine from various African countries.  People greet one another with “Habari gani” which is Swahili for “how are you/ how’s the news with you?”  Celebrations include music, dance, poetry, and storytelling.  January 1 is a day dedicated to reflection and recommitment to the seven principles and other central cultural values.

How can I celebrate Kwanzaa in my classroom?

Well, since most schools are closed for the winter holidays during the week between Christmas and New Years, it is difficult to celebrate Kwanzaa in your classroom on the exact dates of the festival.  Why not celebrate it during the week leading up to your school’s holiday break?  Obviously if you are a homeschool, you can do Kwanzaa starting on December 26.

Since Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, it can be celebrated by all students regardless of their family’s beliefs.  Your classroom library should include books about Kwanzaa, but if not, ask your school’s media center director for Kwanzaa resources.  Scholastic offers reasonably-priced Kwanzaa books for kids.  The classic book for the holiday, My First Kwanzaa Book by Deborah Newton Chocolate, is available on Amazon, but it is quite pricey.  You may wish to opt for the YouTube version where a teacher reads the story aloud.
I highly recommend the film “The Black Candle” for older students.  This vibrant, landmark documentary, narrated by Maya Angelou and directed by M.K. Asante, Jr., uses Kwanzaa as a vehicle to explore and celebrate the African-American experience.

Kwanzaa activities for elementary children

Help Teaching has many Kwanzaa-themed worksheets and activities in Language Arts, Math and Social Studies. 

Kwanzaa song

Preschoolers and kindergarteners will enjoy this song sung to the tune of Three Blind Mice!

(Author Unknown

Red, green, black,

Red, green, black,

Kwanzaa’s here,

Kwanzaa’s here,

The decorations are quite a sight,

We light a candle every night,

The holiday is filled with light,

Kwanzaa’s here.

Make a kinara

An important symbol of Kwanzaa is the kinara, a candelabra which holds one black, three red, and three green candles.  Red, black, and green are the colors of the Pan-African flag, which symbolizes unity among African people all over the world.  Each candle on the kinara represents one of the holiday’s seven principles.  Your students can make their own kinara, or one for the classroom.

Supplies needed: 

6 small cardboard tubes (toilet paper tubes are perfect)

1 long cardboard tube (paper towel roll works)

Green, red, and black paint

Yellow or orange tissue paper

Elmer’s (white) glue

Instructions:

Paint three of the small tubes red and the other three green.  Paint the long tube black.  When the tubes are dry, glue them side by side forming a line, the green tubes on one side, the red ones on the other and the black tube in the middle.  Crumple up a piece of the tissue paper and push it into the top of each tube so that it looks like a flame.

Benne Cakes

A food from West Africa.  Benne means sesame seeds.  This would make a fun project for your class.

Ingredients:

oil to grease a cookie sheet

1 cup finely packed brown sugar

1/4 cup butter or margarine, softened

1 egg, beaten

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup toasted sesame seeds

Method:

Preheat the oven to 325°.  Lightly oil a cookie sheet.  Mix together the brown sugar and butter, and beat until they are creamy.  Stir in the egg, vanilla extract, and lemon juice.  Add flour, baking powder, salt, and sesame seeds.  Drop by rounded teaspoons onto the cookie sheet two inches apart.  Bake for 15 minutes or until the edges are browned.  Enjoy! (from Mr. Donn’s Site for Kids & Teachers)

Additional educational resources

Official Kwanzaa Website

Seven Interesting Facts about Kwanzaa at PBS.org

African Burial Ground National Monument, New York 

NC State Univ. African American Cultural Center

Kwanzaa Facts & Worksheets from KidsKonnect.com

Loads of craft ideas from Artists Helping Children

Try this Kwanzaa interactive from PBS’ “Arthur” series

Virtual Kwanzaa Celebrations

St. Louis County Library

NJPAC (New Jersey Performing Arts Center) 

Creative Suitland of Prince George’s County, Maryland

Anne Arundel County Public Library

Image source: Happy Kwanzaa from Freepik.com

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