“Chinese New Year,” as it is known in English, is also known as the more encompassing name “Lunar New Year,” or the “Spring Festival” (春節 in Chinese). Besides China, it is celebrated in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Tibet, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Many countries with large Chinese populations (such as Australia, the US, and Canada) also have large Chinese New Year celebrations. Despite the diversity of the people who celebrate this widespread holiday, and their varied traditions, it is universal at this time of year to gather with family to start the new year. Teaching kids about celebrations around the world broadens their minds and increases their cultural awareness.
I have used this lesson plan for the past several years in my kids’ classes with success- the kids love the props, remember the different elements, and are engaged and having fun while learning about a very important holiday. I’ve included books, crafts, and adaptations for different grade levels, so all ages can learn about Chinese New Year!
STEP 1: There are a number of supplies to gather, either from your home, from a trip to a nearby Chinatown, or even from on-line. Even better, have a parent volunteer (or your room mom) email the class with the list and solicit parents to each contribute something.
1) Cleaning supplies. Before Chinese New Year, families clean out their homes from top to bottom, washing the windows, cleaning out the bad luck and misfortune before the New Year starts. This mid-school-year cleaning is much appreciated by teachers, who can encourage their students to clean out old papers, wash off their desks, and start the new semester fresh!
2) Spring couplets. These red banners with spring-happiness poems written in calligraphy in black ink are hung outside doors with wishes of longevity, fortune, and happiness. You can print some popular sayings on red construction paper, and hang them outside your classroom door for decoration, or buy some already made. It is also fun to get several red, paper lanterns to decorate your class (or make them!).
3) Plum, peach, or quince blooms in vases. Decorating the house with sprigs of tiny, pink blossoms symbolizes rebirth and reminds us that without blooms, there would be no fruit. The peach is a symbol of longevity, and Chinese families often decorate their homes with these spring blossoms, or even with ornamental trees. If there are no real blossoms available, look in the silk flower section at your local arts and craft store (or see art project here!).
4) A bowl of mandarin oranges. These winter fruits symbolize abundance and good luck, and are often eaten, or given as gifts during Chinese New Year. The perfect snack for kids!
5) Pictures of typical food. Print pictures of food that is commonly eaten during Chinese New Year: each type of food represents a different type of blessing for the new year. My good friend Xin tells me that people in the north usually like to make dumplings as they resemble the look of the old chinese money “Yuan Bao” (made from gold or silver).” Those in the south like to make rice cakes, as the pronunciation ”Nian Gao” sounds the same as ”grow (prosper) in the New Year.” Notice what each food symbolizes, and how this ties into what is valuable:
- Spring Rolls: represent gold bricks
- Vegetables: cut in the shapes of coins to represent prosperity
- Tangerines, kumquats, oranges: good luck
- A whole fish (yu- sounds like the word for “surplus”) or a whole duck or chicken: symbolizes bounty
- Tray of prosperity: six-sided platter with sections for candied melon (growth and good health), red melon seeds (joy, happiness, truth), lychee nuts (close family ties), kumquats (wealth), coconut (togetherness), peanuts (long life), longnan (many good sons), lotus seeds (many children)
- Jiaozi: dumplings. There is a 400 year old tradition of serving them at the midnight meal on New Year’s Eve. Traditionally made from ground pork, garlic, chives, and cabbage. They are boiled, steamed, or fried (crusty and golden like golden coins).
- Noodles: not cut! Symbolize longevity, long prosperous life. In some families, birthdays were not celebrated until they new year, and noodles are always eaten on birthdays.
5) Brand-new clothes/pair of scissors. Typically, kids will get a haircut for New Year’s and a brand new set of traditional Chinese clothes. The clothes are especially lucky when red. In Chinatown, a children’s qipao (traditional dress) will cost around $10, though you could always print out a picture of one.
6). Fireworks (bubble wrap!). Certain Chinese New Year traditions began thousands of years ago as a way to scare away a monster (Nian) who was attacking the people. Nian was afraid of noise, light, and the color red. The people built fires, hung red signs, and long ago Chinese burned red bamboo to drive away evil spirits and bring prosperity. Then gunpowder (invented in China) was stuffed into the bamboo stems and fireworks evolved. At the very end of your Chinese New Year lesson, roll out a long strip of bubble wrap and let the children stomp over it to symbolize the fireworks heard at night that bring in the new year and scare away the bad spirits. If you have made the red Chinese lantern craft, have the student march on the bubble wrap to simulate fireworks while they carry their lanterns.
7) Red envelopes. Also known as hóngbāo, these tiny red envelopes are given to children by their parents and older family members. Inside there is a bit of money, in even quantities for good luck. Sometimes we buy gold candy (chocolate “coins”) to place in the envelopes for the kids. Here is a template to make them if you can’t find them in stores.
8) Lion and Dragon. Chinese New Years parades have 2 dances: the Lion Dance and the Dragon Dance. The Lion Dance consists of only 2 men, completely hidden by the costume, performing martial-arts style movements. It is used to scare away bad luck, and bring good fortune. Many times the lion (right) will dance in front of storefronts on the parade route, to bring a prosperous new year to the business.
Dragon dances include many men and are long and skinny (see below picture). A full article on the Chinese dragon is here; notice the dragon craft near the end of the article.
The Chinese Lion marionette and Dragon figure are inexpensive and plentiful in Chinatowns around the world, especially around Chinese New Year time. However, if you cannot find a Chinese Lion or Dragon puppet, you can show your students youtube videos, or print out picture for them. Many videos on youtube are mislabeled, but now you know the difference!
STEP 2: With your children sitting in front of you, take each of the props one by one out of a box and explain the significance. Ask for student volunteers to be “in charge” of each prop. They should learn what the name and meaning is, and be prepared to stand when you mention it again. The absolute favorite props I had were my dragon puppet and lion marionette- I need to get a couple more! Once you have passed out and explained all of the hands-on props, it is time to read a book (or two). Here are several books that do a nice job explaining Chinese New Year, though there are many more in the library:
Lanterns and Firecrackers by Jonny Zucker and Jan Barger Cohen; Lucky New Year! by Mary Man-Kong (with flaps and pop-ups); My First Chinese New Year by Karen Katz; Bringing in the New Year by Grace Lin.
As you read the story, have the kids with the appropriate props stand up when you reach their part. For example, when the book reads “Baba reads the spring-happiness poems,” the children holding the red banners will stand and show the class the calligraphy. There is a lot of audience participation with this activity and these children’s books because 1) kids love to stand up in front of everyone and feel special, holding their object for everyone to see; 2) they will be paying more attention when they have to listen for their object, or when their friend stands up; 3) using realia makes a book come alive. No longer are they looking at pictures, but actually involving their tactile and auditory senses as they touch the furry lion puppet or unroll the red banner. Once you are finished reading the stories, have the children walk around to show everyone their props. Let them touch and handle the objects, so their memory is engaged.
After you have studied the components and traditions of Chinese New Year, you might be interested making a craft with your students.