Celebrate May Day this Spring

Welcome spring as you explore various traditions for celebrating May Day.

By Eliana Osborn

May pole

May Day is not celebrated in the United States with the same zest that it is in other countries. So take the opportunity to incorporate May Day into your classroom, providing some fun, while sneaking in learning at the same time.

Celebrate International Workers' Day Locally

May 1st is known as International Workers' Day and is comparable to Labor Day in the United States, where the common worker is celebrated. After introducing this aspect of May Day in your class, here are a few suggestions to make the holiday more relatable for your pupils. Have them think of the unsung workers in their lives—the janitors who make the school run smoothly, the police who keep them safe, the grocer who makes fresh food available. Perhaps they can write thank you notes to some of these people, or to those in their community who work hard to make their lives safer and/or easier. A few more workers to consider are trash collectors, postal service workers, or bus drivers. Working together, the class can likely come up with an extensive list of people who would be considered unsung workers, and who would appreciate a little May Day recognition. 

Unions can be a contentious topic, depending on your community, so I suggest you tread lightly when discussing this topic. Talk with your class about democratic principles—having a voice, being able to petition leaders, and voting on issues that will affect one’s livelihood. This type of democracy applies not just to government, but to working conditions as well. The Teaching Tolerance website has some excellent materials and resources to teach about fairness. You can also cover the topic of labor and unions without creating too much controversy by showing the musical Newsies, which is based on a true story of child workers in New York striking over labor conditions.

Make a May Pole

As a class or as a school, making a maypole and having some kind of outdoor dancing festivity can become a cherished tradition. Does your school have a tether ball? If not, what about a light post? In a pinch, you could try this with a basketball hoop. Attach crepe paper, or plastic ribbon to the top of the pole, and have eight or ten ribbons hang down long enough to be about waist height for your pupils. About eight to ten ribbons should be sufficient for this celebration. In groups, have each student take a ribbon end and walk or dance around the pole, weaving a pattern. No one knows the original purpose of the May Pole, but it has become a fun tradition. Show pictures of the Bryn Mawr College May Day celebrations (available on flickr and through Google search), including shots of actress Katherine Hepburn in costume during her time there.

May Day Flower Projects

In France, lily of the valley is the flower of choice for May Day. Children typically make small baskets and deliver blooms as gifts. Wherever you live, May is an ideal time for growing things. How about taking a nature walk, and stopping to sketch plants? These drawings could then be turned into cards for May Day or even for Mother’s Day later in the month. 

For a hands-on project, consider making flowers. Tissue paper can be transformed into blossoms (see step-by-step instructions in a link after the article). Or you can practice small motor skills with simple paper strip weaving to create a basket to hold your handmade flowers.

May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii

In Hawaii, the first of May is known as Lei Day. It is a day set apart to celebrate traditional Hawaiian culture. If you don’t live in Hawaii, or if your region doesn’t have a significant Hawaiian population, it would still be fun and educational to include this celebration in your May Day lesson. In the classroom, wouldn’t a Lei Day be a great spring activity? Learn a hula dance to get some exercise, make paper chain leis as an art (and even math) project, explore the different floral habitats on the Hawaiian Islands, or discover the multitude of unsung laborers that have uniquely Hawaiian jobs, like those in the pineapple, sugar cane, or tourism industries.  

Whether you focus on Hawaii, flowers, May Poles, or common laborers, taking some time to recognize May Day will prove to be a unique, enriching, and engaging experience for your entire class.

More Lessons:

Make Your Own Flowers

Create a print, then go a step further and construct life-like blossoms. A perfect resource to fit with many cultural celebrations.

Learning about Unions

Discover the history of organized labor in the United States. Learners will explore the power of the worker individually and collectively.

Folk Dance

Explore traditional dances from all over the planet. Work in groups to research, then present your findings in an interactive way.