The Early Years: Chinese New Year activities to try in EYFS

Having previously worked within the Early Years sector and with two nieces who are now 5 and 7 years old, I was surprised to find out just how widely celebrated and taught Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year, is in the Early Years (0-5 years of age). Even in primary school it is still a topical subject pupils learn about, especially in KS1 and KS2.

However thinking back now, it’s actually not that surprising, especially when I can still vividly remember it being a topic we covered in school and my dad actually came in to talk to my class about it. I remember it being a very proud moment knowing something from my culture was being taught to my classmates. For Chinese children in the U.K. today I can imagine it is still an exciting feeling and you feel a lot more special – particularly because you probably already know everything!

It’s also not surprising to know because other cultures and traditions are routinely taught in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Children also learn about Diwali, Hanukkah and Ramadan, as well as other national and global or religious celebrations. Before I left my role in the Early Years sector I was going to write a blog just like this one, but instead I’m putting it here (their loss!). Now that Christmas and the Gregorian New Year have passed, this post aims to give Early Years teachers some in advance ideas and inspirations for what to teach their classes over the Chinese New Year period, including for different lessons and arts and crafts activities.

For this post I consulted Ellen Wang, a Chinese Early Years teacher with experience working in KS1 and KS2 for accuracy, so her experience in EYFS and being native Chinese as well, allows you readers to know these are reliable methods and great activities you can try. They are also in line with what children should know or learn at this time and age range. Some activities are perhaps more suitable to children in KS1 and KS2 so only use the activities you feel your children are able to do. Feel free to use the below navigation to jump to each of the 7 different areas of EYFS:

  1. Literacy
  2. Communication and Language
  3. Mathematics
  4. Understanding the World
  5. Personal, Social and Emotional Development
  6. Expressive Arts and Design
  7. Physical Development

NB: Being Chinese I personally use the term “Chinese New Year”, however I understand that some teachers and others who celebrate this time of the year call it Lunar New Year. See below for a point of discussion about the difference between the two terms.

Young Chinese children in traditional Chinese clothing celebrating Chinese New Year.

Literacy

The Great Race is a fantastic story and a staple in teaching young children in the Early Years about the mythical history behind the Chinese Zodiac. There are plenty of books out there, but I recommend this one written by ethnically Chinese authors and illustrators. Why? Because there aren’t many of them out there in the English-speaking world of literature and this is a story about their culture.

By introducing children to the story of the Great Race so much learning and fun can stem from it. How much of the story can they read themselves? Can they recite the story later? Can they remember the order in which the animals crossed the finish line? Can they remember something about the personalities of each animal? You can also use hand or finger puppets, or plastic or soft toys of each animal to retell the story. Visuals and toys really help keep storytelling fun and interactive.

A highly recommended book that tells the story of The Great Race in both English and Chinese, including Pinyin for Chinese learners, whether they are children in the Early Years or adults.

With 2022 being the Year of the Tiger, this can be incorporated into what they learn too. Two great stories featuring tigers are The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr and Emily’s Tiger by Miriam Latimer. Both are good for simple EYFS, KS1 and KS2 literacy activities. In The Tiger Who Came to Tea can children identify the nouns and adjectives and understand what the apostrophes in the story mean? What other words can they think of to describe the tiger or the food? In Emily’s Tiger, can children identify the many verbs and adverbs in the story and think of similar words to them?

Other literacy activity ideas include asking the children to spell and write out words linked to Chinese New Year (for example, the twelve zodiac animals), seeing if they can link the words to pictures of them or objects, and even seeing if they can try writing simple Chinese characters. For instance, the numbers 1-10 mostly use some of the nine basic pre-writing shapes and will help with pencil control.

Communication and Language

Some of the activities above are directly related to communication and language. Once or as children learn to read and the more they do, their communication skills dramatically increase day by day as they pick up new words and can form longer sentences as well as being able to retell and repeat things they’ve learnt or read.

Using the two aforementioned tiger-centric stories, you can ask the children countless questions to see what they can communicate back to you about them. With The Tiger Who Came to Tea, see if they can come up with their own story about what would happen if another animal came to tea. Can they imagine where the tiger came from and also create a story based on that? Emily’s Tiger is about different emotions – in particular, anger – and how to control those emotions. What other emotions can children talk about and describe?

With learning about Chinese New Year, learning about the Chinese language is a great way to broaden children’s horizons. In the Early Years, learning a second language is not compulsory but many schools introduce foreign language classes in KS1 or KS2. Mandarin Chinese is not a common one to learn yet but it is growing in popularity in some places. Linking to Understanding the World you can talk about the basic facts about Chinese as a language – its difference to English, its written script, and its global reach and impact.

Using the below free downloads I’ve created, you can start to teach children in the Early Years very basic Chinese words and phrases. Language learning in the Early Years has been proven to be beneficial due to children picking up new sounds and being able to retain and recite them quicker, easier and more accurately than older children and even adults. These downloads help with numeracy as well but are mainly focused on Chinese New Year. You as a teacher, other Early Years educator or parent can learn along with them using the downloads. There are plenty of free apps you can download which also help with pronunciation if you wish to learn too. Or if you prefer and are able to if you have children with Mandarin-speaking parents in your class, you can invite their parents in to help teach these words and phrases to your class.

Mathematics

As mentioned, learning Chinese numbers is one of the best first steps in not only learning the language but helping with pre-writing. pencil control and early maths skills. You can challenge children to match the right number of objects to the Chinese number or see if they can not only recall the order in which the animals ranked in the Great Race but put them next to the correct number between 1-12. If they are familiar with Numicon shapes, can they also match them with the correct Chinese number?

Further to the Chinese zodiac animals, using multiples of 12 and if children are familiar with reciting dates and years, see how far back in time they can go to discover the zodiac animals of their siblings, parents and even grandparents. Can they go as far back as 60 years, which equals 5 cycles?

You can set up simple exercises to help them practise their addition and subtraction. You could use Chinese play food or even real food if you can get them in. This can also lead to improving fine motor skills by challenging them to try and use chopsticks to pick them up. You can come up with different “one more, one less” questions, or use different amounts of coins (plastic, chocolate, or even real if you’re feeling generous) to you put in traditional red envelopes and ask them to add them all up.

You can also practise number bonds using this simple idea: draw and cut out fortune cookies (that actually originate from the Asian-American community in the US, not China) that are broken in half, and with the little paper that is inside them write a number, then ask the children to put the numbers in each half of the fortune cookie that add up to it. You can make as many as you want with as many different numbers to challenge them.

Number bonds are pairs of numbers that can be added together to make another number. They are some of the most basic and most important parts of maths for children in the Early Years to learn.

Understanding the World

There are many discussions that can be had revolving around Chinese New Year and Chinese culture. You can explain to children about the simple phases of the moon and how the Chinese calendar is based on that as well as the position of the sun in the sky (the “lunisolar” concept is of course very advanced, so this is not necessary to divulge on), hence why Chinese New Year is different to the standard 1st January date. You can of course talk through the cultural significance of Chinese New Year and see what the children understand or know. Why is it celebrated? Why is it also an important date outside of China? Where else celebrates it apart from China or other Chinese speaking countries? And why is it also sometimes called Lunar New Year in some places?

This book, aimed at young children, is excellent for teaching them just that and has all the information on the basics, from customs and traditions to food typically eaten and superstitions that are sometimes believed. There is also Bringing in the New Year, a story revolving around a Chinese American family celebrating the festival which is perfect for Early Years as well. Another one, entitled Yuxi Yichen, Chinese New Year is a good one to look at too.

A fabulous educational book all about Chinese New Year for Early Years children.

A sensory Chinese food tray, if possible to create, is a great idea to help children in the Early Years explore their senses, explore shapes, and understand more about the types of food eaten during Chinese New Year or associated with Chinese culture. The tray can include things such as dried rice, noodles, dried or fresh oranges, fortune cookies, fish, dumplings, and spring rolls (the latter three being perhaps play food rather than real, for obvious reasons). I appreciate some find “sensory bins” culturally insensitive but I also believe if you can explain the different foods and understand the sensory exploration and subsequent communication benefits that young children find fun and intriguing, it is ok and can be done.

Relating partly to the Chinese zodiac, you can discuss animals native to China. Below are two factsheets I have put together about the endangered South China Tiger and the Giant Panda. Other animals children can learn about are the Red Panda, the North China (or Amur) Leopard and the Golden Snub Nosed Monkey.

You could even talk about how and why China is such a powerful country, though this may be for slightly older children. You can list some inventions and see if the children can guess whether it was invented in China or not, for example: tea, silk, gunpowder and fireworks, lanterns, compasses, paper(making) and printing, to name a few, were all first invented in China.

Or why not talk to children about important and inspirational people of Chinese descent from throughout history to modern day times? Just as there are books such as Little Leaders which aim to educate young children on influential figures, children can learn about influential people of Chinese descent, such as Bruce Lee (martial artist and actor), Ching Shih (pirate), Chloe Zhao (director), Confucius (philosopher), Emma Radacanu (tennis player), I. M. Pei (architect), Li Bai (poet), Mao Zedong (politician), Teresa Teng (singer), Tu Youyou (scientist) and many, many more.

Personal, Social and Emotional Development

Back to Emily’s Tiger, which is perfect for this area of EYFS. Speak to the children about the different emotions they can have. If they are angry or sad, what do they do to calm themselves down or cheer themselves up? Discuss with them how they can also help each other to do the same. What else might a tiger do, especially when it is experiencing different emotions?

Emily’s Tiger can open up a lot of activities and discussions in the Early Years and beyond – learning about different emotions, how to spell them (and say and write them in other languages), communicating with other people, storytelling and art.

Returning to the twelve Chinese zodiac animals and the different personality traits associated with them (both good and bad), ask children to discuss whether they feel they are “the correct animal” in relation to the year they were born in. Of course, most children will likely be the same or similar ages so not all twelve animals will be spoken about. You as the teacher can start off this “Circle Time” discussion and ask them to follow on from you. They can also talk about the different animal years their family members were born in which they will have figured out if you did the earlier exercise in Mathematics.

Stemming from learning about Chinese New Year, talking about diversity is extremely important in the Early Years. Just as teaching about different countries, nationalities, ethnic groups and languages is part of the EYFS, KS1 and KS2 curriculum as well as discussing the physical and aesthetic differences – particularly in the Me, Myself and My Family topic – so is talking about anti-bullying. You can talk to the children about understanding and accepting other people’s differences and champion anti-racist and anti-bullying teachings. Why are Chinese people sometimes treated differently, especially in recent times? How can we learn to embrace differences and stand up against racism and bullying?

I came across a book entitled Dragons Roar Inside of Me by Kate Staves (Chow) in a Facebook group where the author was campaigning to raise funds to get it published and am happy that she managed to achieve her goal! Currently available to pre-order, this wonderfully illustrated book written in rhyme teaches children in the Early Years about the joy and beauty of Chinese culture, traditions and history. Kate wrote this book (with illustrations by Chau Pham) in response to the rise in anti-Asian racism, to allow ESEA children to see people just like them in books and to educate others of all backgrounds about Chinese culture, making the reason it being written an excellent starting point for discussion before or after reading it. Although it’s not out yet I know this is a book I’ll definitely be buying for my nieces – hopefully just in time for Chinese New Year in February!

Expressive Arts and Design

There are many different creative activities to try that can help supplement children’s learning about Chinese New Year. Here are some:

Drama: Ask children to team up to act out the stories The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Emily’s Tiger. Who will play who and how will they recreate and retell the story? Let their imaginations run free!

Music: If music classes are part of your Early Years setting or KS1 and KS2 lessons, you can incorporate Chinese New Year learning into it. This simple Chinese song for children is very popular and you can teach them to sing along with it, in either English or Chinese. If they know how to play an instrument, particularly the piano, see if they can play the aforementioned song, which is a very simple piece of music. There are also many Chinese translations of classic English-language songs and nursery rhymes they can learn on YouTube.

Arts: Print off different black and white pictures of different tigers, both fictional and real and let the children use their creative juices to colour or paint them in however they want. You can either let them use whatever tools (crayons, felt tips, paints, glitter, etc.) and colours they want or you can direct them; perhaps see what different shades of orange or closely related colours they can use (for example, some reds, yellows and browns have orange hues in them or they can make orange by mixing red and yellow together).

If they want to, see if they can draw a picture of a tiger. Can they even draw ones with different emotions and faces? Or try and make some tiger masks. Other art activity ideas include drawing and/or colouring in the other eleven zodiac animals or colouring in Chinese lanterns or a Chinese New Year scene. Explain why red, yellow, gold and green are the most commonly used colours during this festival and in general Chinese culture.

Go here: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZM8oR8ker/ to watch my easy to follow video of how to make your own red envelopes – a great, simple craft activity for children in the Early Years!

Crafts: Some great crafts ideas you can try are making your own Chinese lanterns (though making actual usable ones are not recommended due to the danger to the environment they can pose) or decorations, decorating plain Chinese fans, making and decorating dragon or lion heads (you can make them out of egg boxes, cardboard, empty boxes or papier-mâché-mâché, as examples), or making your own lucky red envelopes or “Hong Bao (红包)”. See my above video to see how it’s done!

Physical Development

If you have twelve children in the class you can ask them to each be one of the twelve zodiac animals and have their own Great Race. To make things fair you can put names into a hat. The children can race as normal or pretend to be the animal they are given and race as if they were that animal, which for some will prove to be a challenge but will allow them to think of imaginative ways to move and further enhance gross motor skills.

If you have more than twelve children some can team up to “turn into” some of the animals, for example two can pretend to be a horse or three or four can work together to be a dragon. To make things a little harder you can also create an obstacle course using whatever you can find or whatever resources you have available in your outdoor space or field. Who will win in this new Great Race?

Show children videos of lion and dragon dances and talk to them about how they are performed. Can they work as a group to replicate some of the dance moves they’ve seen? The lions can be solo or duo performers, while the dragon can be as many they’d like. Use cloths and fabrics if you’ve got ones large enough to cover their bodies when they are moving about. Doing these dances can help with expressive movement, gross motor skills, teamwork skills, timing and rhythm, and muscle memory. It will of course also help complement their understanding of the world and different cultures and traditions.

Children at China Spirit learning Taichi.

For quieter, less rigorous physical activities, see if you and the class can try some Tai Chi moves. Tai Chi is an amazing way to teach discipline, improve concentration, coordination and balance, calm you down, enhance gross motor skills, and increase flexibility. It can also help with children’s self-esteem, confidence and overall physical development and strength.

Thank you (谢谢) for reading this guide and I hope you found it useful if you were looking for activity ideas to use in EYFS. Please feel to share with other Early Years, KS1 and KS2 teachers if you liked it and feel it would be helpful to them as well. Happy Chinese New Year (新年快乐)!

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