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East LA preschool teaches toddlers gratitude every day

Teacher, Mia Castro, reads a book to her preschool class at the East Los Angeles College Child Development Center. Teaching concepts of thankfulness, gratitude and appreciation happen year-round, not just at Thanksgiving time.
Teacher, Mia Castro, reads a book to her preschool class at the East Los Angeles College Child Development Center. Teaching concepts of thankfulness, gratitude and appreciation happen year-round, not just at Thanksgiving time.
Deepa Fernandes / KPCC

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Just about every school across the country uses the Thanksgiving holiday to teach lessons on gratitude. But in some places - like the East Los Angeles College Child Development Center - those lessons come year-round.

“It’s important to help young children learn what they appreciate,” said Marcia Cagigas, the center's director. “Developmentally children are self-centered” between the ages of 2- and 4-years-old.

"They are going to want everything. Everything is mine. Mine mine mine. And developmentally that’s OK," she added. "They’re slowly learning how to share with each other."

But she said the center doesn't beat kids over the head with it.

On Monday, classroom teacher Mia Castro lead her 4-year-olds in a session that many preschools are doing some version of this week:  “My name is … And I am thankful for…”

Sophie Madrigal said she was thankful for “my family.” Angel Martinez Torres, for his “mami and papi.” Daniel Sura-Cuevas broke the mold. He's thankful that he can “play with friends.” Sarai Fuentes was grateful for “candy.”

But many of the lessons are more subtle.

Teacher Irv Kaplan led his group of 5-year-olds in a drawing lesson in their hand-made notebooks.

“Do you remember how we've been talking about families and you’ve been drawing pictures of your families and then we were talking about them?” he asked the students. Kaplan talks about being appreciative.

This drawing and descriptive story-writing exercise encourages kids to realize how much their families give them - without necessarily using the words grateful or thankful.

One of the ways the school teaches gratitude is by linking it to another feeling: happiness.

Sharing feels good, Cagigas said, so her teachers link feeling good to something for which children can be thankful.

Another tool is stories.

Deborah Glickman, who teaches in the three-year-old classroom, said one of her favorites is  called Stone Soup.

“Its a story of a young man who’s traveling and he’s tired and hungry, and he finally comes upon a house and so he knocks on the door and a woman answers, and he says he’s very hungry and asks the woman if she can share her food,” she explained.

The woman first says she has nothing to share, but eventually the traveler convinces the woman to share her food by making a soup out of stones to which the woman eventually adds a carrot that she does have in her garden, and other vegetables too.

The ah-ha moment comes when the children realize that the woman wants to share her limited food with a stranger. The woman feels good about sharing even though she was reluctant to at first - and the traveler is so thankful.

Glickman goes all out with the lesson.

“I have them bring in their favorite vegetable and then we put it all together and we make our own stone soup,” Glickman said. Sharing is a big concept she's been working on this year and stories and role playing are the key ways she's imparting that lesson.

While the class actually cooks the "stone soup" - and later families arrive to share the meal -  Glickman emphasizes the group collaboration and sharing and how good it feels. This, she spells out to her 3-year-olds, makes her feel “grateful.”

The use of storytelling in imparting values is, of course, ancient.

Indigenous cultures use storytelling from birth to teach children about the concept of thankfulness, according to Abenaki Tribe member, Joseph Bruchac, who writes children and young adult books. He said Thankfulness is one of  their most important virtues.

Parents teach Abernaki children explicitly about gratitude, he said, by modeling behavior.

"Even if you take a glass of water,” Bruchac said, “you say 'thank you for this gift of water which helps keep me alive.'

“When you start off doing it, it is deliberate," he said, "but then it becomes second nature.”

For instance, Bruchac said all Abernaki toddlers learn a story about a farmer who was suffering greatly but was still thankful.

“The crops failed week after week, month after month. There was no food it seemed but this man who was the planter had always been thankful to the creator," Bruchac recounted. "As he slept one night, in the dream that he had, the creator spoke and said because you are thankful I’m giving you a special gift and a time to use it.”

The story ends with the farmer getting large seeds and a favorable break in the cold weather to grow them. He said Abernaki children incorporate these lessons into their lives.

Children can express gratitude even before they can talk, Bruchac points out, through actions like hugging or smiling.

Cagigas, the director of East LA College preschool, agrees. She said 2- year-olds can connect happiness with something to be thankful for.

“One of the 2-year-olds said the other day, 'mommy, this has been a great day'" Cagigas said. "And that shows a lot of gratitude."

Want to incorporate these lessons yourself? Both Lee & Low Books and Kids Discover put together resources.