Young Children Learn About Immigrants to the United States

Judith Y. Singer and Theodora Harbour-Ridley

The Morris L. Eisenstein (MLE) Learning Center is an inner-city day care and after school program in Brooklyn, New York, that serves children from ages two through twelve. Many of the children enrolled in the centerís programs are immigrants or the children of immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America.

The program theme during the 1996-1997 school year was ìTogether We Are America.î It was designed to help children express, share, and take pride in their family cultures, and to teach about the contributions of all the people who have helped build the United States. It was also intended as a response to the increasing hostility in the United States toward new immigrant groups.

Teachers introduced children to the idea of immigration through childrenís literature. They read stories about different immigrant groups, which the children then acted out for the entire school. Books helpful for teaching children in these age groups about immigration to the United States are listed in the accompanying box.

For our fall Harvest Festival, the children created giant puppets representing immigrants to the United States from around the world. They dressed the puppets in traditional clothing from different regions and stuffed the clothing with newspapers to give them bodies. The puppet heads were made by covering balloons with paper maché and then painting faces. The children set a place at the table for each puppet to show that everyone was welcome.

Over the year, the children learn about other celebrations brought to the United States by different immigrant groups. In the early spring, we have a Carnival Celebration that integrates a number of festivities that share a carnival spirit. The children make a dragon for a Chinese New Yearís parade that winds throughout the entire center. The head of the dragon is made from a cardboard box, which is painted and decorated with crepe paper, while colorful crepe paper streamers form the dragonís body. Using feathers and brightly-colored cloth, the children recreate traditional carnival costumes from a variety of islands in the Caribbean. They also make Central American cascarones, egg shells that are dyed brilliant colors, filled with confetti, and smashed on one anotherís heads at the end of the festival.

Parents become involved in the immigration theme through workshops with teachers. They talk about their own ethnic backgrounds, their experiences coming to the United States, and aspects of their cultures that remain part of their everyday lives. Children, parents, and teachers all join in preparing foods from all over the world for the annual International Dinner, which is set against a backdrop of murals and maps depicting different carnival holidays.

This year, children in grades 3-5 who take part in the after school program created a large wall map of the world. It showed where the ancestors of the centerís children, as well as other immigrants to the United States, have come from over the decades. The map was created by making an acetate of a world map for an overhead projector. Children hung paper on a wall and projected the image onto the paper. After tracing an outline of the world, they took the paper down, darkened the borders, and painted in the continents. The map was then re-hung and decorated with crayoned self-portraits of the children accompanied by note cards telling where their families originally came from.

Judith Y. Singer is an assistant professor in Early Childhood Education at Long Island University, and former director of the Morris L. Eisenstein Learning Center, Brooklyn, New York. Theodora Harbour-Ridley is the current director of the Morris L. Eisenstein Learning Center, Brooklyn, New York.

Resources for Teaching about Immigrants to the United States


Bunting, Eve. Illustrated by Beth Peck. How Many Days to America: A Thanksgiving Story. New York: Clarion, 1988. Recommended for children ages 4-8. Political refugees arrive in the United States by boat from a Caribbean island.

Bunting, Eve. Illustrated by Ronald Himler. A Dayís Work. New York: Clarion, 1994. Recommended for children ages 4-8. A Mexican American boy accompanies his grandfather in search of work.

Bunting, Eve. Illustrated by David Diaz. Going Home. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Recommended for children ages 4-8. A Mexican family living in California visits their village in Mexico for Christmas.

Cech, John. Illustrated by Sharon McGinley-Nally. My Grandmotherís Journey. New York: Bradbury Press, 1991. Recommended for children ages 4-8. The childhood in Eastern Europe of a woman who later immigrates to the United States.

Cha, Dia. Diaís Story Cloth. New York: Lee and Low, 1996. Recommended for children ages 6-10. An hand-embroided ìstory clothî tells the history of a Hmong family that originated in China, fled Laos because of war, lived in a refugee camp in Thailand, and immigrated to the United States in 1979.

Cohen, Barbara. Illustrated by Michael Deraney. Mollyís Pilgrim. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1983. Recommended for children ages 4-8. A Russian immigrant girlís family arrives in the United States at the turn of the century.

Arthur Dorros. Illustrated by Elisa Kleven. Abuela. New York: Dutton, 1991. Recommended for children ages 3-6. Rosalba images she can fly as she and her grandmother, an immigrant from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, ride on a bus in New York City. Also available in Spanish.

Dorros, Arthur. Illustrated by Elisa Kleven. Isla. New York: Dutton, 1995. Recommended for children ages 3-6. Rosalba and her grandmother take an imaginary journey to the Caribbean island where Rosalbaís mother grew up and where some of her family still live.

Freedman, Russell. Immigrant Kids. New York: Scholastic, 1980. Recommended for children ages 8-12. This book examines the mass migration to the United States from Eastern and Southern Europe from 1880 through 1920. It includes photographs by Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.

Harvey, Brett. Illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray. Immigrant Girl: Becky of Eldridge Street. New York: Holiday House, 1987. Recommended for children ages 6-10. Becky is a ten-year-old Jewish immigrant from Russia. Her family lives in a tenement on the Lower East Side in New York City in 1910.

Levine, Ellen. Illustrated by Steve Björkman. I Hate English. New York: Scholastic, 1989. Recommended for children ages 6-8. A young girl from Hong Kong struggles to learn English.

Levinson, Ricki. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Watch the Stars Come Out. New York: Dutton, 1985. Recommended for children ages 3-6. An Eastern European family crosses the Atlantic Ocean on a steam ship and arrives at Ellis Island.

The Museum of Modern Art. The Great Migration. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Recommended for children ages 8-12. This book includes a collection of paintings by Jacob Lawrence that chronicles the African American migration north in the first half of the twentieth century. It makes possible a discussion of the similarities and differenced between immigration and internal migration.

Polacco, Patricia. The Keeping Quilt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. Recommended for children ages 4-8. A homemade quilt ties together the lives of four generations of an immigrant Jewish family.

Pomerantz, Charlotte. Illustrated by Frané Lessac. The Chalk Doll. New York: HarperCollins, 1989. Recommended for children ages 4-8. While Rosy is home sick, her mother tells her a story about growing up in Jamaica and the special dolls she played with.

Rosenberg, Liz. Illustrated by Beth Peck. Grandmother and the Runaway Shadow. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995. Recommended for children ages 4-8. The story of a young woman who flees pograms in Russia and immigrates to the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Say, Allen. El Chino. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Recommended for children ages 6-10. A biography of Bill Wong, a Chinese American who became a famous bullfighter in Spain.

Say, Allen. Grandfatherís Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Recommended for children ages 4-8. A man and woman migrate to the United States from Japan. They later return to Japan where their lives are interrupted by World War II.

Say, Allen. Allison. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Recommended for children ages 3-6. The story of a preschooler born in East Asia who was adopted and brought to the United States as a baby.


Cobblestone magazine has two theme issues on immigrants (1982-12 and 1983-01), and issues on Chinese Americans (1991-03), Greek Americans (1996-12), Hispanic Americans (1989-04), Irish Americans (1994-03), Italian Americans (1992-12), Japanese Americans (1996-04), Jewish Americans (1991-11), and Polish Americans (1995-05). They are recommended for children ages 8-12.