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How to teach kids the meaning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

What is MLK Day? And why do we celebrate his life? Get kids of every age involved.
/ Source: TODAY

Martin Luther King Day offers a chance for moms and dads to teach children of every age that it’s not just a day off of school.

It’s an opportunity to share a message about the significance of the national holiday that falls on the third Monday in January, and explain why grown-ups and kids have it off to honor the late civil rights leader.

Hopefully every kid is learning in school about Dr. King, who was born in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929 and became a Baptist minister and civil rights leader who fought in the 1950s and 1960s to end Southern segregation through peaceful protests and nonviolent marches and was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

But as a parent, what personal message do you want to send to your children about MLK? As a mom or dad, you can extend the learning experience as kids enjoy free time on Monday, said Steven Friedman, a middle school social studies teacher at Brandeis Marin School in San Rafael, Calif.

“Martin Luther King Day is the perfect time to get the message across that when there’s injustice we need to stand up to it,” he told TODAY Parents. A teacher in a school that is mostly white, he adds that “it’s also a chance to share a message about the beauty of diversity — something to remember every day.”

If you need a little inspiration on how to make the most of the day with kids, here are age-appropriate messages about the meaning of MLK Day.

For preschoolers and Kindergarteners: Focus on fairness.

Little kids may not be ready for all the details of civil rights, but they can understand the core message: Every person should be treated the same and with kindness. In Marni Shapiro’s Kindergarten class at Brandeis Marin School, where she’s taught for 40 years, students learn freedom songs like “This Little Light of Mine.” And, she told TODAY, they talk about the “need to have a world where all people are treated with kindness and respect. We refer to the colors of our skin and actually everything that someone sees on the outside of our bodies as our ‘wrapping paper.’ In order to really know about someone's kindness, you have to actually be with them, talk with them, play with them. Judging someone by their wrapping paper tells you nothing at all.” (“My kids will be re-enacting the Alabama Bus Boycott for their parents,” she added.)

At Brandeis Marin School in San Rafael, Calif., Kindergarten teacher Marni Shapiro's kids will be re-enacting the Alabama Bus Boycott for their parents as part of learning the story of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Marni Shapiro

For elementary school kids: Read all about it.

Books of every reading level are excellent ways for kids to learn about Dr. King’s life. Ask Abbey Mathis, who teaches first grade at Hickory Grove Elementary School in Dunlap, Illinois, outside Peoria. “We spend a week reading the book, ‘Martin’s Big Words,’” she tells TODAY. The picture-book biography by Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier tells the story of King’s life and what he stood for. “We learn the vocabulary word ‘courage,’” says Mathis.

For middle schoolers: Follow the dream.

Delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a call to end racism in America, is one of the greatest speeches in history. In it, he looks to a day when his children will “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Friedman’s students discuss King’s powerful speech, as well as stereotypes, assumptions and biases. “I screen the short movie, “The Lunch Date,” he said. The 10-minute 1990 film brings the concepts of biases and perceptions into sharp focus.

"Judging someone by their wrapping paper tells you nothing at all," Marni Shapiro tells her Kindergarten class, as part of her lessons on why we celebrate MLK Day. Marni Shapiro

For high schoolers: Talk the talk; walk the walk.

Teenagers can understand the modern civil rights movement and King’s leading role in it as he risked his life to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and the March on Washington in 1963, which helped facilitate passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, abolishing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or nationality. “Dr. King dedicated his life to fighting injustice,” said Friedman. “If you see it, get involved with a cause. It doesn’t even have to be directly linked to civil rights or fighting racism.” In his community, kids have rallied and volunteered to help a family in the aftermath of a fire. “Getting involved is the key,” he said.