7 Kwanzaa Activities and Lesson Plans for Elementary Students

Joyous Kwanzaa! On December 26, families across the U.S. will lay out their Kwanzaa mats, collect their unity cups, and light the first candle on their kinaras. The first Kwanzaa was held in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, who hoped to create an alternative holiday to Christmas and Hanukkah for African Americans to celebrate their history, families, and communities. The holiday spans seven days until January 1, when a feast is held and gifts are exchanged.

Each day of Kwanzaa has a symbol and a principle to go with it. Introduce each concept to your class with these Kwanzaa activities for elementary students—one for each of the seven principles and days of celebration.

Day 1: Umoja (Unity)

Memory Game

The first day is for Umoja, or unity when it comes to your family, community, nation, and race. For each day of Kwanzaa, there's a new principle to learn about and another candle to light. During this time, struggles are reflected on and acknowledged, and hope and peace are encouraged and celebrated. Umoja unites all of these principles together.

Help your students recognize which symbol goes with each of the seven principles with this Kwanzaa Memory Game. Once the sheet is printed, cut out each box, then shuffle them and turn them face down on the table. Flip over two cards. If they match, then keep them. If not, flip them back over and choose another two cards. Play until all pairs have been collected!

Day 2: Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)

Make a Paper Kinara

This is a day for defining, naming, speaking, and creating. One of the most well-known symbols of Kwanzaa is the kinara, or “candle holder” in Swahili. The kinara has seven candlesticks: three red, one black, and three green. Altogether, these seven candles are called the Mishumaa Saba, and each represents one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. An easy way to help kids learn the principles is to make a paper kinara.

What you’ll need:

  • Scissors
  • 2 pieces of paper
  • Glue stick
  • White crayon
  • Markers (red, black, green, yellow, and brown)

Step 1: Start by having the kids cut out paper strips that will be used for the candles. To make it easier to cut, they can fold a paper six times vertically, and cut along the seams. Cut the resulting strips in half to make them shorter.

Step 2: Kids can now write the seven principles of Kwanzaa on each candle with the white crayon. Once they have finished writing, they can use the red marker to color Kujichagulia, Ujima and Ujamaa. Use the green marker to color Nia, Kuumba, and Imani. Finally, use the black marker to color Umoja. The white crayon should show up once the markers’ colors are added.

Step 3: Now that everyone has their candles ready, it’s time to make the kinara! Take a blank piece of paper and line up the candles. Leave enough room at the top to “light” the wicks later. Underneath your row of candles, draw the kinara with the brown marker. It can be a rectangle, an upside-down triangle, or even one of the symbols of Kwanzaa! Feel free to add some other colors as well. Use the glue stick to affix the candles to the top of your kinara in this order: Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Umoja, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani. Remind the students what each principle means. Draw a wick at the top of each candle with the black marker, and then color circles of yellow on each for every new day of Kwanzaa, starting with the middle and then going left to right.

Day 3: Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)

Feast Math Activity

The focus for this day is on building a community of problem-solvers. Every day of Kwanzaa is a time for celebrating with loved ones and amazing food, but the final day is when a feast called Karamu takes place. Black-eyed peas, catfish, grits, jerk chicken, gumbo, yams, fritters, and collard greens are all options for your feast table, any combination of which would be a delicious way to end the year. For this math activity, students will adjiust the recipe for an old favorite—mac and cheese.

Have students complete the activity below for a recipe multiplication exercise for your students!

Day 4: Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

Woven Placemat

This principle is about building up and maintaining friend- and family-owned businesses together.

A popular craft for the classroom is creating a Kwanzaa mat, or mkeka. The woven placemat is used as a foundation for other Kwanzaa symbols like the kinara or corn, and can be replicated by your students by cutting strips of green and red construction paper and weaving them through a black paper.

Start by cutting 5–10 lines across the black paper, making sure to leave an uncut border around the outside of the paper. This can be easily achieved by folding the paper in half and cutting partially through the paper in even lines.

Cut out strips of red and green paper, and then weave them in and out of the black paper, alternating the dark and colorful squares.

Day 5: Nia (Purpose)

Corn Math Activity

Building and developing community are at the heart of this principle. Muhindi, or corn, is another important symbol of Kwanzaa, representing the children either in the household or the community.

A good activity to do, whether your classroom is virtual or in-person, is a math activity with popcorn. All the students need is one bag of popcorn. Once it is cooked, they can count up the kernels that popped, kernels that popped halfway, and those that did not pop at all. How many kernels were in the entire bag? Does their bag have more or less kernels than their classmates' bags?

The best part is, once they are done adding up their popcorn, they get to eat it!

Day 6: Kuumba (Creativity)

Unity Cup Seedlings

Using creativity by adding beauty to the community is the sixth principle of Kwanzaa. A unity cup, or kikombe cha umoja, is another important symbol of Kwanzaa and is used to connect the family before honoring the history of important African Americans.

In order to help give back to the community and teach students about a plant’s germination, have them decorate a plastic cup with paint the colors of Kwanza—red, green, and black. Have them fill the cup halfway with dirt or soil and then plant a seed. Herbs like basil, parsley, or oregano will grow the easiest in the plastic cups. Once the seed is watered, have them observe their plant until it sprouts. Once their plant is big enough, they can either plant it in a larger pot for their family or add it to a community garden!

Day 7: Imani (Faith)

Zawadi Card or Scrapbook

Faith is the final principle of Kwanzaa—not only faith in parents and community leaders but also in teachers.

On the final day of Kwanzaa, family members may give gifts, or Zawadi, to kids celebrating Kwanzaa. For this activity, children can make a "Joyous Kwanzaa" card for a family member or multiple family members. They can use markers, crayons, printer paper, or whatever they have on hand in the classroom or at home. Simply fold a paper in half, and then decorate the front and the inside with drawings and well wishes.

For a more involved project, have students print out photos of their family. Staple four pieces of craft paper—red, green, and black if available—together along one side to create a book. Using a glue stick, add the photos to the paper to create a scrapbook. Once the photos are glued down, students may want to add further decoration to the cover and around the photographs.

Use these Kwanzaa lesson plans and activities to help your young students learn everything they need to know about the weeklong holiday. Maybe some of them will even decide to celebrate it with their families in the future!

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