5 Ways to Celebrate Juneteenth with Toddlers and Little Kids

published Jun 16, 2023
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Kid playing
Credit: Alexa Rivera

I have a 3.5 year old son. His name is Garvey Crown. (You can see his room here!) When I was writing my cookbook, Watermelon and Red Birds, one of my hopes for the book was that twenty years from now it would be a guide for my son on how to host, entertain, and honor his ancestors. I also hope it’ll be a tool for him to understand American history.

In the meantime, he’s young, and so the cookbook is not for him right now. (Although he does show up within its pages, particularly next to recipes for a few of his favorite foods!) Here are 5 other things I’m doing with him now to help him understand and celebrate Juneteenth:

First, an Important Note on Juneteenth.

June 19, 1865 is the day that General Granger arrived on the island of Galveston and told enslaved Black Texans that they were free, which freed more than 200,000 enslaved people in the state of Texas. Crazily, this was more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. I think it’s so important for us to say that fully, and not to say to our family, our friends, and our kids that Juneteenth was ‘the day that slavery ended in the United States,’ because this is not that. All over the American South, enslaved people found out at different times about the Emancipation Proclamation and that they were free, so it’s important to know that, while Juneteenth is the holiday or the date that’s inside all American’s brains right now, from Charleston to Richmond you’ll find varying emancipation day celebrations.

Now, on to the ideas!

5 Ways to Celebrate Juneteenth With Young Children

1. Read The ABCs of Black History together.

I read The ABCs of Black History Book to Garvey on a regular basis, and the poster is prominent in his room. I have a stack of books right next to the rocking chair near his bed that are not only about Black culture but about Indigenous culture, about Native Americans, about Mexican culture in the US. Now is the time to cultivate and expose him to the beautiful differences in the US. I especially recommend The ABCs of Black History Book and poster because inside the book, J is for Juneteenth, which is an easy way to start the conversation.

2. Explore the Juneteenth food pyramid.

There’s a very colorful Juneteenth food pyramid inside my cookbook, Watermelon and Red Birds, that’s intended to be a nifty guide for adults when they’re shopping at the farmers market, or the grocery store, or the supermarket. It shows the fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are found in the cookbook, and you can use the pyramid as way to shop. It’s also a great way to introduce summertime fruits and vegetables and herbs and edible flowers to young people! The pyramid was designed by George McCalmin, the creative director and illustrator for the book. I’d like to make it a printable so families can take it to the grocery store or put it on the fridge to spark conversations about fruits and vegetables. (More on that soon!) I love when I’m walking around New York City with my kid and he looks at an object and says “That’s a cucumber!” or he sees a mango and says “Mango!” It puts a smile on my face because I know I’m introducing him to foods at a young age and cultivating a curiosity. 

3. Make something good to eat!

The Zucchini Corn Dogs with Corn Crema is one of my favorite recipes from the cookbook. (It’s also the recipe in the cookbook that features a photo of Garvey standing and smiling.) Kids love the whole process of putting a hot dog or, in this case, a baby zucchini on a stick, dipping it in the batter, and watching it fry. It’s a beautiful activity to bring the whole family to the countertop. You can do it on Juneteenth day or on any day you want to bring the essence of Juneteenth —  joy, excitement, jubilation, and the centering and honoring of Black people’s contributions to America — to your family celebrations.

4. Put family photos in a vintage viewfinder.

Several years ago I bought a vintage viewfinder from the Brooklyn Flea, because viewfinders totally remind me of my own childhood. Recently I found this really cool custom viewfinder service that puts family photos inside of a vintage viewfinder. So, for Juneteenth, why not take some of those family photos stuck on your phone, particularly ones of family celebrations, and put them in a viewfinder so your kids can look at them? It’ll give you an opportunity to talk about the past, the present, and the future. I have photos of my great-uncle Ben’s fish fry, and I can show Garvey and say, “That’s Uncle Ben, that’s Aunt Elizabeth, who was really a cousin…” He can see our family before he was even born, and see some of the memories that we cultivated when he was a young kid, particularly our memories around Juneteenth.

5. Let your kids free play.

I love a good chalk activity, so for Juneteenth, have some chalk on hand for kids to free play and just be themselves. One of the most important gifts that we’ve gotten from Juneteenth and from our grandparents and great-grandparents is that they wanted us to have a better life, they wanted us to have freedom and choices and be able to express ourselves. What’s important for me for my young son on the newly-recognized Juneteenth holiday is just letting him be a free little Black boy — sheltering him a bit from the crazy world outside, yes, but mostly creating a cocoon where he feels the love from extended family and friends and where he feels the love in his own space and in his own house. Creativity and art always help with that.

Originally published June 2022