Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the third Monday of January. For a long time, especially since it comes on the coattails of the winter holiday season, it just felt like another day off for me. I didn’t put a lot of thought into how to celebrate MLK Day.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve recognized its importance far more. And I’ve come to know and understand the day’s motto of being “a day on, not a day off.” Here are some ideas on how to celebrate MLK Day with kids!
This guide for families on how to celebrate MLK Day with kids contains affiliate links, but all opinions are 100% my own. That means I earn a small commission if you purchase through my link, but doesn’t change your price.
Facts About Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is special because it’s the only federal holiday dedicated to serving others. The day celebrates the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., the incredible civil rights activist. It is a national day of service because of his belief in anyone having the capacity to serve someone else. Because of this, all Americans are encouraged to volunteer to improve their communities.
After Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, many started to push to create a federal holiday in his honor. President Ronald Raegan first signed the holiday into law in 1983, but all 50 states didn’t officially observe it until 2000. Since Dr. King’s birthday is January 15th, many states elected to celebrate near that date, although the actual date of the observed holiday changes each year.
Family Guide on How to Celebrate MLK Day: 17 Meaningful Ways to Honor Dr. King
Here are 17 meaningful ways to celebrate MLK Day with kids!
Martin Luther King, Jr. was, of course, an incredibly important figure in the Civil Rights movement. Learn about him and his work, and the policies for which he advocated. In addition to that, learn about the history of racial inequality, the Civil Rights Act, and generational inequality.
Additionally, spend some time learning about other important activists. While MLK did so much for the movement, there are so many others who deserve to be remembered. Some include John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and many more. In particular, learn about some of the women who did important work, whose names tend to be forgotten – Coretta Scott King, Ruby Bridges, and Ella Baker are all amazing!
Serve to Support Racial Equity
If you’re wondering what to do on MLK Day, one really important part is to find a way to serve. Services honors Dr. King’s legacy and also his impact of improving so many communities.
You can come up with your own way to help your community, or you can use this search tool. (Here’s another search tool to find volunteer opportunities!) Consider specifically if there is a way you can volunteer to support the Black community. It’s especially important that your service isn’t just focused on kindness, but that it pursues racial equity. This may look like supporting wealth redistribution or empowering marginalized communities.
As you serve, be careful not to do it in a way that exploits your power. Recognize that you’re not above the people you’re helping; you’re simply working alongside BIPOC, especially Black folx, for equity that should have already been present.
Is there any better starting point to learn, connect, and grow than with books? There are so many wonderful books children’s books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists. So if you’re unsure on how to celebrate MLK Day with kids, finding a solid book is a great first step.
Be sure to rely on materials from Black Americans. Continue reading below for a whole list of children’s books about Martin Luther King Jr.!
Music is great for setting the atmosphere. I love this list of 10 songs about Martin Luther King, Jr..
We always like to listen to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but it’s equally important to consider his many other less famous (but equally important addresses.
This year, I’d like to review his speech honoring the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. In it, Dr. King communicates the power of government to overcome systemic issues – an important topic for today.
Other resources to review:
- Letter from a Birmingham Jail
- Rare color photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. (thanks to Britt Hawthorne for sharing this)
Virtual Museum Tour
Several museums have online tours and other info about the Civil Rights movement and also about Dr. King.
- The National Civil Rights Museum has a virtual celebration of Dr. King’s birthday.
- The National Museum of African American History & Culture has a number of online exhibits.
- National Center for Civil and Human Rights has a virtual exhibition on Dr. King’s community.
- Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has parts of their MLK Day commemoration online.
- The International Civil Rights Center & Museum has a story hour and virtual seminar about MLK Jr.
Watching a movie or video about Martin Luther King, Jr. or other Civil Rights activists can also be a wonderful way to honor the day. This is a great way to spark some excellent discussions, too. Here’s a list of 7 kid-friendly movies about MLK and the Civil Rights movement.
There are also a number of educational videos for families of all ages. Here are some great ones!
Use the day as an opportunity to not just have a one-time discussion with kids about race, but as a chance to start some continuing conversations. Use it as a chance to explain systemic racism to kids, and also to consider some simple antiracist kids actions.
I’ve also included some MLK Day Discussion questions at the bottom!
Encourage your children to actively work for changes to racist systems by contacting Congresspeople to change laws and policies. (Here is info on how children can contact members of Congress.) You could also keep a journal of antiracist actions your family has taken, questions you have, or feelings on what it would have been like to be Black in America in the 1960s or now.
Consider attending a parade or a march in Dr. King’s honor, and to pursue social justice on behalf of someone else. Some parades are even virtual! You could also do a family march right in your neighborhood.
Support a Black-owned restaurant or market. Soul food is a great option, or you can choose a restaurant owned by someone of the African diaspora (we’ve loved trying Ethiopian!). Or you could try making a recipe that Dr. King loved (some ideas below!).
This is a perfect opportunity to create some art either inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., or that was inspired by a Black artist. Here are 10 great MLK Day craft projects, or here are 5 art projects inspired by Black artists. And here’s a free MLK Jr. coloring page!
While it’s obviously important to learn about Dr. King himself while you celebrate MLK Day, it’s also a great opportunity to learn about other Civil Rights activists (including and especially women, as noted above). It’s also important to connect the work of the activists to modern struggles around equity and social justice.
Also, while many discussions on MLK Day center around race, Dr. King was also active in speaking on poverty, gender inequality, etc. It can be useful to touch on those in intersectional social justice discussions, as well.
Buy items from Black creators. You can stock up on gifts, buy household items, jewelry, and more. I love this shop, this shop, and this shop.
Donate to organizations working toward equity and social justice. Some options are the ACLU, the Equal Justice Initiative, or Black Girls Code. You can find some other options here!
Celebrate Black Joy
While it’s incredibly important to learn the history and to continue in activism, it’s also radically important to celebrate Black joy and success. Learn about amazing Black folk – creators, engineers, artists, etc. in the past and present. Some wonderful people are Ella Fitzgerald, Mae Jemison, Kehinde Wiley, and so many more.
Plan what antiracist action you will take in the coming days, weeks, and months. Don’t allow your family to only celebrate for a day, but commit to continued action. Here’s a great of simple antiracist actions with kids.
Children’s Books About Martin Luther King, Jr.: Civil Rights Books for Kids
Here’s a full book list of children’s books about Martin Luther King, Jr. for all ages!
Martin Luther King, Jr. Picture Books Read Alouds
Here are a few read alouds of some of these amazing books!
Recipes for MLK Day with Kids
While it’s not necessary to have a culinary component to honor Dr. King, it can help bring the holiday to life to eat some foods that he enjoyed. Some options are fried chicken and pecan pie.
MLK Day Discussion Questions with Kids
- What does it mean to be judged on the “content of [your] character”?
- How would you feel if you were the first person who looked like you to attend a school, sit in a certain spot on a bus, etc.? How would it feel to NOT be able to do those things?
- What does it mean to protest?
- What are civil rights? How about equal rights?
- Racism was obviously present during Dr. King’s time. Does racism still exist today? If so, in what ways?
- There are different kinds of racism. A few common ones are:
- Internalized (when someone feels it against themselves)
- Interpersonal (when someone has negative feelings to another individual based on the color of their skin)
- Systemic (when entire systems disadvantage certain groups based on their skin color)
- Which of these do you think was most common during Dr. King’s time? Which is most common today? Are they the same or different?
- What does it mean to be “moderate”? Dr. King said that “white moderates” hindered the cause of antiracist work. In what ways can you work to not be moderate?
MLK Day with Preschoolers
- Read a picture book
- Do a simple MLK Day craft for preschoolers
- Stand up on the couch as a “podium” and talk about your dreams for yourself, your family, and the world
- Bake a pie and count the ingredients, and talk about how Dr. King also enjoyed pie (or patronize a Black-owned restaurant!)
Thanks for learning about how to celebrate MLK Day with kids with us!
We’ve loved putting together this resource with MLK Day books and activities for kids. We’d love to hear if you do any of these activities!
We hope to inspire curiosity and connection through exploring and learning, and we hope this guide helps you and your families. Please share any activities you do with us over on our Instagram. And we’d be delighted if you passed this MLK Day guide for families along to others, as well!
IF YOU LIKED THIS POST ABOUT HOW TO CELEBRATE MLK DAY, YOU MIGHT LIKE THESE POSTS TOO:
- 20+ Children’s Books About Martin Luther King, Jr.
- 8 Simple Antiracist Actions for Families
- Why Talk To Kids About Racism
- A-Z Diverse Global Picture Books for Kids
Thank you so much for doing all of this work and sharing these resources. I had no idea that today was the only federal holiday dedicated to service. We didn’t participate in any formal service projects today but picked up trash when we visited a park, dropped off books at a little free library, and baked muffins to share with neighbors. My kids and I watched some of the read alouds you shared and donated to two of the non-profits. My middle daughter is being making a slideshow to share your resources with her fourth grade class.
We are looking forward to doing even more next year.
I’m so glad it’s helpful to you. Thank you for sharing what you did – I loved reading that!
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