Death and Your Curriculum

Death is never an easy topic to talk about. It is especially overwhelming to think about explaining death to a young child. Here are some of the ways we have dealt with and explained death to the children of the childcare.

Gardening is where all the children at Shunk Child Care first learn about death. The children observe the life cycle of a plant. The plant grows through spring, summer, fall and then ultimately dies in winter. We use vocabulary like die, dead, and death. These are not words to be afraid of. I think it helps when a child has heard and experienced death on a smaller scale. It gives them a better understanding to such a difficult, abstract concept. It really helps prepare them for life.

Pets are another way children learn to cope with death. Over the years our family cats have died. Notice I did not say, pass away. This is a term used by adults, but can be confusing to young children. You never want to say “passed away” or “put to sleep.” This can make children afraid of going to sleep or just confuse them. You don’t want the child to think the animal (or person) has just gone to sleep and will wake up again.

Today a few of the older children noticed a dead bird by the shed.2 They quickly yelled “Elephant” (our word to alert a teacher if they see something unsafe and needs to be attended to immediately.) I ran over to see what it was. Indeed, a bird had died beneath the feeder. The questions the children had were fairly basic…”How did the bird die?” “Can I touch the bird?” “What kind of bird was it?” Children are concrete thinkers at this age. Of course the answer was no to touching the bi9rd. We used our backyard bird guide to determine it was a song sparrow. The children hypothesized how the bird died. The consensus was a larger bird attacked it. Just as we came to this conclusion a predator bird was circling overhead!

We bring the children in our program on visits to local cemeteries. Evergreen is our favorite to visit, as we can explore the ponds as well as model cemetery etiquette. We do not touch headstones (unless a family of the deceased says you can.)  I allowed the children to feel the headstone of my grandparents. We do not step on the plaques markers on the ground. We are quiet and respectful of others who are visiting.

Back to our bird today…

Because of their prior experiences, the children expressed the desire to dig a grave for the bird. They were eager to help and got right to planning. They chose a spot near where it died, right under the feeder, that way the other birds could come visit if they wanted too. Many of the children drew a picture and dictated their words. We placed the pictures into the grave and covered with soil. We found a rock to create a headstone and used acrylic markers to write our message. Each child and teacher had an option of saying a few words.

May you be at peace little song sparrow. 

I stumbled upon this book at the library last year, The Dead Bird, by Margaret Wise Brown. We have read this in our program before and we listened to the story again today. Our bird was clearly dead, we did not need to touch it. I would not promote any children touching dead animals. Though, I like how this story states very clearly how the bird’s heart was no longer beating. This is something concrete for a child to understand. They can feel their own heart beating, they can feel their friend’s hearts beating. This story also pulls in vocabulary words such as grave and funeral.

Another wonderful book to read to children is, The Invisible String, by Patrice Karst. It was recommended to us last year by a social worker. This book is a must for every childcare library! It is a story about how our love is connected even at the greatest of distances. It is great for separation of any sorts, whether it’s a caregiver leaving for work or someone you loved has died.

Discussing and bringing attention to the topic of death may be difficult but it is a very important one.  Even the death of plants can help build resilience in children and help give them tools and skills for later on in life. Today we had a example of our emergent curriculum at work. Something died in our classroom and we made it into a teachable moment right there and then. Do not let the circle of life catch you off guard, whether it’s a dead bird or a dead loved one. Start preparing, and encompass the topic of death into your everyday curriculum.

Additional Resources

Center for Grieving Children:

Book List

The Invisible String by Patricia Karst

The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown




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