Educator of the Week Shares UNICEF Birthday Activity

orange educator

Candace Voigt is an early childhood teacher at a Montessori school in Michigan. She has been teaching for 35 years.Photo of teacher with students

Activity: UNICEF Birthday Celebration
Grade Level: any
Time Commitment: Presentations take about 15 minutes. The UNICEF theme continues throughout the school year.

One example of a classroom activity that teaches interconnectedness is our UNICEF birthday celebration. Each child becomes a UNICEF sponsor on his or her birthday. At the beginning of the year, children gather to listen to stories on the important work UNICEF does helping children in need all around the world. I present a theme using a short story with pictures. The pictures, depicting things like clean water, children in schools, and babies receiving healthcare, generate conversations. The children then take turns presenting the idea in their own words. Understanding grows as children’s awareness widens and they experience repeated engagement through stories, geography lessons, and giving to UNICEF. The birthday sponsor typically offers a penny to each classmate, which children contribute to our UNICEF box. Since children have a natural desire to help others, they are happy contributors. This repeated community experience affords many shared conversations. Maps, photographs, flags, and geography manipulatives, like land and water form models, support spontaneous connections to the work the children do for UNICEF.

Photo of boy donating moneyOur children reap many factual and “heart” learnings through these experiences. They see themselves as partners with children they do not know but identify with. They want to know someone would do the same for them if they had the need. This is taking their personal need for security and protection to a global level as they help provide for other children.

How did this activity impact your students? Did students change an aspect of their behavior or way of thinking?

Children readily gravitated to the UNICEF birthday activity and embraced both handing-out pennies to classmates and the symbolic contribution to our UNICEF fund box. This ritual was preceded by presentations helping children identify the conditions of their fellow children in other regions of the world, showing their similarities but also their great needs. For example, I spoke about my experience in several villages in Tanzania. This evoked the children’s empathy and stimulated their desire to know more about these children and their lives.

As an Photo of a boy drawingongoing classroom experience, children used the Montessori geography materials to inform themselves and connect with global citizenship concepts. My students now identify with UNICEF and reference real life situations when working with the geography materials. For example, a child may be looking at pictures of countryside from a folder of South America, and say, “Maybe a UNICEF truck goes down that road with water to help those people.” UNICEF becomes part of their language when thinking of the world. UNICEF supports geography coming to life.

How does teaching with a global perspective impact your students?Photo of a girl holding a map

I have the privilege of working with very young children (ages 3 to 6). Teaching from a global perspective helps students think and respond to life with potentially higher dimensions of appreciation for—and inclusion of—diverse peoples. In my classroom, as a result of these UNICEF birthday experiences, I hear children speaking a language of caring, inclusion, and action for the betterment of their fellow children around the world. Their words and actions show they are ready to relate to the world and be part of an interconnected system even at an early age. Indeed, I would argue, it is important to give young children this kind of experience as early as possible—all the better to take hold of the child’s natural capacities to relate compassionately and respond productively.

What advice do you have for teachers who want to get more involved with teaching students about the world across disciplines?

I would simply advise to trust your idea about teaching world interconnectedness, and do it. There is no end to the possibilities in creating a better world through our students’ learning. Your teaching will take on a life of its own as you listen to and co-create with the children. My experience is that doing so affords rich and meaningful connections for children in many subject areas. It expands thinking, offering children a valuable path to openness and social concept formation.

What is one simple activity that any educator could do with their students to get them thinking about the world?

I recommend creating an experience to highlight UNICEF’s work and inviting children to participate in whatever way you decide. UNICEF is a proven entity with a track record of involving children in meaningful charitable giving and learning. It can be a key to learning philanthropy for your students and to understanding children and cultures the world over. Worlds can open up in terms of making meaningful connections between what children are learning about human needs and stimulating that knowledge to student activism and actual participation in their world. Another philanthropic organization with which our school’s elementary students have participated with good result is Heifer International.

Do you have a favorite book or blog that inspires your teaching?

I recommend the writings of Dr. Maria Montessori, especially her work entitled Education and Peace. I also recommend the work of Marshall B. Rosenberg and Chick Moorman. These authors discuss how to understand communication and evoke education “from the heart.” Byron Katie, Dr. Wayne Dyer, and Brene Brown also offer powerful thoughts/understandings on connecting to wholehearted living, from the interpersonal domain to the interconnected world.

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you in your personal life or in your teaching?

“Of all things, love is most potent. All is nothing unless there is love. It holds the universe together. This treasure is to be found in every individual. Human unity does exist and there is no unity without love. The child is a wellspring of love.” – Dr. Maria Montessori

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