Janie Lai, M.S. CCC-SLP, PsyD candidate and I created this Lunar New Years social skills lesson plan that I have been using in speech therapy. It can also be adapted for classrooms, individual/group speech therapy and mental health lessons. If you use this, I would love for you to contact me and let me know how it goes!
Activity #1: What is the Lunar New Year?
Did you know that there are different ways of measuring time! Even something as objective as “time” has different cultural perspectives.
In the United States, the calendar we use to keep track is called the Gregorian calendar (also known as the Western or Christian calendar). One year in our calendar system is based on the amount of time it takes for the Earth to rotate around the Sun. The majority of countries in the world use the Gregorian calendar as their sole civil calendar.
Another way of measuring time is by looking at the time from one new moon to the next new moon as one month. The Lunar New Year is the celebration of a new year based on this type of calendar. There are many countries around the world that use this calendar and celebrate this New Year. The Chinese New Year is based on the Lunar New Year, which is a main holiday for more than one quarter of the world’s population!
Other countries which do not use the Gregorian calendar include Afghanistan and Iran (which use the Solar Hijri calendar), Ethiopia (Ethiopian calendar), and Nepal (Vikram Samvat).
Discussion questions (mainly for teens)
1. What are the pros and cons of using the same calendar worldwide? (For example, a pro may be that it’s good that we all use the same system so we can better understand each other and so we don’t get confused, but a con may be the some cultures have to conform to a dominant culture)
2. Are there times that it’s beneficial to align our behaviors with the dominant culture or situation (e.g., school, home, community centers, work)?
3. Children in some Asian countries (e.g., China, Taiwan, Vietnam) have to go to school on Christmas but they may get a week off (or 2!) for the Lunar New Year. How do you think it feels for Asian Americans in the United States to not see their culture represented, valued and/or celebrated? Would it bother you if you lived in a country that did not celebrate the same winter holiday that you celebrate (e.g., Christmas, Hanukkah, U.S. New Year)?
Activity #2: Chinese Zodiac Story: Using folklores and legends to teach perspective taking
I like using folktales and fables to teach social skills because it allows for opportunities to practice perspective taking as well as discussions of cultural values.
One popular story in Chinese culture related to the Chinese New Year is that of the Chinese Zodiac. Typically, I would use post-its with thought bubbles and speech bubbles to show the thoughts of each character when reading these books. Sometimes I can even add teaching moments related to eye gaze (What are the characters looking at? What does this mean they are thinking about?).
BOOKS that I recommend:
Story of the Chinese Zodiac – Monica Chang, illustrated by Arthur Lee, English translation by Rick Charette – bilingually written with traditional Chinese
Race for the Chinese Zodiac: Gabrielle Wang
However, you can also show the stories via the YouTube links below and pause to discuss each character’s thoughts/feelings. Below are two different versions. The first one shows that the rat is tricking the cat versus the second one, which shows that the rat tried to help the cat but was unsuccessful. This can lead to discussion of how perspective taking always has an element of GUESSING – we can never know for sure what others are thinking! We can only be social detectives and make the best guess possible.
Great Race by Christopher Corr (7 min)
In this version, there was a misunderstanding between the rat and the cat. The rat and the cat used to be friends – The rat tried to wake up the cat but was unable to.
This story also has themes of cooperation and flexible problem solving (e.g., swimming, hopping along rocks, flying, creating a wooden raft, getting distracted chasing sticks or eating apples). The Great Race – YouTube
Great Race Chinese Zodiac – Adapted by Dawn Casey (8 min)
This adapted version shows the rat tricking the cat, and explains this is why the cat and rat are enemies to this day. This clip also has opportunities for eye gaze (e.g., what are characters looking at, what might they be thinking about or feeling)? I also like how each animal has different strengths/weaknesses and different strategies for getting across the river (e.g., analogous to different learning styles). Story Time: “The Great Race: The Story of the Chinese Zodiac” by Dawn Casey – YouTube
Discussion Questions (for all questions, prompt students to justify their answers with social detective clues/other “evidence”)
1. Do you think the rat was tricking the cat on purpose? Support your answer with social detective clues.
2.Why do you think the cat and mouse felt intimidated when they saw the other animals? Has there ever been a situation where you felt like this and how did you resolve it?
3. Why do you think the Pig was the last to finish the race? Do you think some abilities are more valued than others? What are the strengths of the other animals? In what type of competition would the pig get first place?
4. Some people use this story to explain why cats and rats still don’t get along to this day. Do you think it makes sense to hold grudges?
5. When is a time you had to figure out if someone made a mistake or they were trying to trick you? What social detective clues did you use to decide the other person’s intentions?
6. What year were you born? What Zodiac animal are you? Do you agree with the personality traits for your zodiac? Why or why not? Partner up/Turn to your neighbor and ask them their zodiac sign. Do you see those personality traits in your partner? Why or why not?
7. Why and/or how do you think this story came to be?
Activity #3: Legend of Monster Nian – Origin of New Year’s Eve traditions
Practicing how to learn about and express our different traditions with cultural humility and respect
Whether celebrating the Western or Lunar New Year, many cultures have celebrations and traditions related to starting a new year. Some of these traditions have been passed along for many generations. For example, The Legend of Monster Nian tells the origin of Chinese New Year’s Eve traditions:
BOOKS that I recommend:
The Nian Monster – Andrea Wang, pictures by Alina Chau. This story takes place in modern day Shanghai. It tells the story of the traditional Nian Monster, and also has the Nian monster returning to Shanghai. The main character feeds the Nian monster traditional Chinese New Year foods (e.g., long-life noodles, fish for good fortune, and rice cake to sweeten the future) before tricking him to leave the city.
The Chinese New Year Dragon Nian – Virginia Loh-Hagan, illustrated by Timothy Banks. This storybook focuses on the traditional story of the Nian monster and how a little girl Mei scares him away.
Legend of Nian 年 animation – YouTube (Click the hyperlink)
This is a non-verbal animated clip that requires students to observe social context and character’s behaviors and facial expressions to figure out what is happening in the story! Pause throughout to check students’ understanding of emotions and behaviors (intentions and motives).
In this legend, there is a monster Nian which lived in the mountains. He would come on the first day of the New Year to eat livestock, crops, and even villagers. They painted the village red and set off firecrackers to scare the Nian away. This is the origin story for the Chinese New Year celebrations related to firecrackers and fireworks. The color red is very popular during New Year celebrations because it is considered to bring good luck and good fortune.
As you can see, some cultural celebrations have reasons for “why” they have certain traditions. Many countries and cultures have origin stories for their New Year traditions as well, but some may not. We will go around sharing some of our new year’s celebrations with each other. We can also talk about how these traditions came to be! But first, let’s talk about how we can share our different ideas, celebrations, and traditions in a respectful way.
*We left some blanks, to remind you to also listen for expected/unexpected comments and give corrective feedback.
Alright, let’s get started! Are there any cultural traditions that you celebrate? What are the origins of these traditions? When you hear silly or new traditions, remember to practice some of these expected responses! Here are some examples: 15 New Year’s Day Traditions From Around the World | Glamour
United States: Watching the countdown/ball drop in New York on television
China: Giving red envelopes with money inside for children. Eating long noodles before New Year’s Day for longevity. Not washing your hair on New Year’s Eve so that you don’t “wash your health” away.
Philippines: Wear polka dots and have a lot of round fruits (e.g., apples, plums) because they signify coins. Make noise like banging pots with ladles and pop fireworks to drive away bad spirits and bad luck for the New Year.
Spain/Latin cultures: Eating 12 grapes (one wish for each month of the new year) as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. Running around with a suitcase for more traveling in the New Year. Wearing red underwear for love/romance in the New Year.
Activity #4: Fact vs. Opinion activity
1. Define Fact vs. Opinion: Avoid stereotyping by emphasizing that “some not all” people within a culture will participate in the traditions.
2. Ask participants to name some facts that they may have learned today about how different countries may celebrate New Years.
3. Ask them to share opinions about these activities. Model appropriate responses first. For example: “In my opinion, getting red envelopes is awesome because I would love to have extra money to save to buy toys. In my opinion, eating grapes does not sound fun because I don’t like grapes. However, I think it’s a really interesting way to celebrate and I can see why it’s fun for others.”
4. Put people in groups and have them ask their partner their opinions and identify if it is the same opinion or different opinion. Talk about how it’s fun to bond over the same opinions, but also okay to have different opinions!
5. What are some unexpected/expected ways to respond to someone with a different opinion?
Activity #5 Be a Social Detective to figure out how people celebrate Chinese New Year!
What can you do to figure out your family’s [or other families’] cultural traditions? Learning more about our own cultures: Cultural celebrations have many hidden rules that require us to observe our surroundings and the behaviors of others. Sometimes Asian Americans are born in the United States have to observe their parents, older relatives, and/or grandparents to learn cultural traditions. Think of a cultural celebration that your family celebrates – how did you figure out what you are supposed to say or do? If students have a difficult time answering this question, ask them how they’d figure out what to do in a new environment (e.g., like attending a religious service that’s unfamiliar to you, participating in a street festival for a celebration you aren’t familiar with).
Here are some examples of how people celebrate Chinese New Year:
Decorate the house with red/gold (lucky colors) decorations, lanterns, paper cut outs, firecrackers, spring couplets
For younger classes – you can do some origami cut outs (such as below) so students have something tangible to make during these discussions. Other art projects for younger kids could be: writing New Year’s related Chinese words on red paper. It could be as simple as black marker and red construction paper.
Have a large family dinner with relatives on New Year’s Eve, having leftovers symbolizes wealth for the upcoming year! Common foods for this family meal vary depending on country and traditions, and may include Chinese steamed whole fish (Taiwan), turnip cake or turnip soup (Hong Kong), sesame balls, noodles (Japan), dumplings (China), and hot pot.
Older married individuals give red envelopes with money inside to younger single friends and family. Children say 恭喜發財 (gong xi fa cai) to their parents to get their red envelopes.
There are cultural traditions that include avoiding certain activities during the Lunar New Year: sweeping the house (sweeping away good luck), washing or cutting your hair (washing away health), and using scissors (squabbling with people). Some families partake in these traditions, while others may not!
BUT… be careful of making assumptions! We may see someone that looks Chinese and that may be a clue that they might celebrate Lunar New Year, but they may not celebrate Lunar New Year. What and how might you ask to figure out if someone celebrates Chinese New Year?
EXPECTED: Do you or your family members celebrate Lunar New Year?
UNEXPECTED: You celebrate Lunar New Year, right? , What are you doing for Lunar New Year?
Learning more about others’ cultures: Individuals that are not from cultures who celebrate Lunar New Year may join a cultural festival to learn these cultural traditions, or they can go to someone’s house if invited! What should you do to prepare? (Hint: What do I already know? What do I need to know? How can I find out?)
BEFORE attending: How would you ask someone what to bring? What would you want to find out beforehand? (e.g., what to wear). Are there any dishes/entrees to avoid bringing to the potluck? Is there anything else I should know? How do I address someone’s parents? (e.g., by first name or by Mr./Mrs. Surname) What time do people eat? (e.g., planning your own meals around the party so you won’t be too hungry or too full during the party)
DURING: What would you do if you don’t know or forget the cultural customs or traditions? (e.g, use memory recall strategies) Would you observe to see what others are doing? Would you look around for someone you know and ask them? How would you ask? How can you ask if the host needs help? (e.g., setting the table) What inferences can you make on body language/facial expressions if the host says they don’t need help but you think they’re just trying to be polite?
You can also look up cultural celebrations and make your own Chinese New Year decorations and host your own family dinner. However, we should all be careful to consider cultural appropriation:
Cultural Appropriation is when you profit or benefit from using (an) aspect(s) of someone else’s culture or identity. Are you selling something or posting pictures on social media? Be careful because this can be unexpected and give others negative thoughts! These following topics are complex and may not always have a clear cut answer!
Some considerations before posting on social media:
Intention: Do your social media posts reinforce cultural stereotypes or contribute to societal oppression? What is your intention for posting? Are you acknowledging or crediting the origins?
Impact: How do you think an Asian person would think and feel seeing your post? Different people may have different responses – why do you think that is? How would you feel if someone else posted something similar about your own culture? When deciding whether to participate in cultural celebrations, would you:
Wear a 旗袍 qipao (a traditional Chinese female dress)? Have you acknowledged the origins of qipao? Are you accessorizing with any sacred objects? Have you consulted with a person who identifies with that culture?
Bring or receive red envelopes? What is your own relationship with accepting and giving money? Would it be considered rude to refuse this cultural gift?