The month of May boasts some big-hitting holidays (Star Wars Day, anyone?), but the May holiday that takes the cake for Spanish educators is Cinco de Mayo.
Even just a mention of it makes me want to break into the Mexican Hat Dance and eat some chimichangas.
Cinco de Mayo has become an important celebration of Mexican culture in the United States. In fact, many say the celebration has become more popular in the U.S. than in Mexico itself.
Celebrating this holiday is a fun way to integrate some Mexican culture into your Spanish classroom and gives you an opportunity to break the monotony and plan some great activities for your students.
Before you break out the chips and guac and start party planning, though, let’s look at a little Cinco de Mayo history.
A Little History of Cinco de Mayo…
Let’s clear up one common misconception up right away: Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s independence day celebration. Mexico celebrates their independence on September 16. What is being celebrated on the beloved 5th of May, you ask? Well, on May 5, 1862, the French were busting through Mexico with the intention of taking Mexico City, but were surprised when the small town of Puebla stopped them in their tracks and gave them a good old-fashioned whoopin’.
While Puebla won that battle against all odds, the French went on to win the war and took Mexico City, but that doesn’t mean Puebla’s valiant effort went unnoticed. We all love a good Cinderella story and so on May 5th, we raise our glasses to the underdog and celebrate like it’s 1862.
10 Fiesta-worthy Cinco de Mayo Activities for Kids
When you’re planning your Cinco de Mayo festivities, it’s not a bad idea to keep the town of Puebla’s history in mind. I think it’s important to be mindful of why Mexicans originally started celebrating Cinco de Mayo as well as use this day to celebrate Mexican culture in general. Spanish education for kids should be language learning with a healthy dose of cultural exposure.
The following list is certainly not an exhaustive list of Cinco de Mayo activities, but will give you a good variety to choose from, whether you want your students to know the facts or just to enjoy the food.
1. Cinco de Mayo Fact Book
Time needed: 15-20 minutes
Materials: Copy paper, markers, scissors, Cinco de Mayo facts.
This is a good place to start because, well, history. Let’s be honest, a lot of Cinco de Mayo party-goers aren’t really aware of what the holiday represents. I would suggest choosing some interesting facts about the holiday so its meaning isn’t completely lost on your kids. Have your students create a little foldable booklet and then provide a list of facts for them to fill the pages of their book.
Here’s a little cheat sheet of the facts I would suggest including:
1. The original date: May 5, 1862.
2. The celebration’s origin: Puebla, Mexico.
3. What happened: A battle in which the Mexicans beat the French.
4. Interesting fact: While Mexico won the battle, France eventually won the war.
5. Something you need to know: It is not Mexico’s independence day.
6. How it is celebrated in Mexico: It is celebrated in Puebla with parades, dancing, food and a big party.
7. How it is celebrated in the U.S.: The world’s largest Cinco de Mayo celebration takes place in Los Angeles, CA.
2. Sombrero Cookies
Time needed: 10 minutes
Materials: Sugar cookies, gum drops, frosting in plastic bags with a corner cut off for easy application, sprinkles, nonpareils and other cookie toppings.
Call it cliche, but sombreros are a big part of Mexican culture… plus just about everyone can appreciate a tasty cookie shaped like a Mexican hat. For this easy activity, you’ll need to bring pre-made sugar cookies and frosting.
Put the frosting in a bag with a small hole cut in the corner so that it is easy for kids to squeeze out. Students will place a dot of frosting in the center of the cookie and then place a gumdrop on top, effectively making a sombrero–shaped treat. Students can then decorate the brim of the hat with frosting and sprinkles.
3. Talking Tacos
Time needed: Approximately 15 minutes
Materials: Taco ingredients and labels (shells, meat, beans, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, salsa, avocado, olives, etc.).
Tacos are kind of a big deal both in Mexico and in the U.S., so you can’t go wrong with setting up a taco bar for your Cinco de Mayo celebration. A fun way to get kids using food vocabulary and working with verbal fluency is by labeling each taco ingredient.
Ask them to make a list of the ingredients that they used in their tacos and then have a class discussion based on student ability. You can make this as simple or challenging as you need to by asking students to describe with adjectives, compare/contrast and create questions for other classmates.
Here are some simple questions you can ask to facilitate a Spanish discussion:
- ¿Qué pusiste en tu taco? (What did you put in your taco?)
- ¿Cuántos estudiantes agregaron aguacate en sus tacos? (How many students put avocado in their tacos?)
- ¿Cuál es el ingrediente más importante en un taco? (What do you think is the most important ingredient in a taco?)
- ¿Cuál es tu ingrediente de taco menos favorito? (What is your least favorite taco ingredient?)
4. Papel Picado (Mexican Paper Cutting)
Time needed: 10-15 minutes
Materials: Tissue paper, white construction paper, scissors, string for hanging.
Papel picado is a traditional Mexican art form used in almost all Mexican celebrations. It is a beautiful decoration that is made in the same way that you would make snowflake cutouts. Basically, students will fold tissue paper and make different cuts. When they open up their paper, they should have patterns of symmetrical shapes. Use some string to hang up your decorations to add some festive flair to your classroom.
5. Easy Paper Bag Piñatas
Time needed: 20-30 minutes
Materials: Paper bags, tissue paper, glue, string, scissors, piñata filling (candy, peanuts, small toys, etc.).
A celebration isn’t a true Mexican celebration without a piñata, but have you ever tried making a real piñata? Unless you’re super crafty (and patient), making a piñata the traditional way will have you running to your local party store to buy one that’s already made.
With these easy paper bag piñatas, students will fill their regular brown paper bags and decorate them with tissue paper. Have them glue on fringes and streamers made from different colors of tissue paper. Add a little string to hang them up and you can bust them open in class or allow kids to take them home and make the mess there!
6. Vocabulary Go Fish! (Cinco de Mayo Edition)
Time needed: 20-25 minutes
Materials: Blank note cards, markers, list of vocabulary words relevant to Cinco de Mayo.
One of the best ways to get your students to acquire new vocabulary is to have them associate the word with a picture in their head. Helping them visualize each word with a picture that makes sense to them sets off all kinds of connections in their brains. Having students make Go Fish! cards and then playing the game with them will have the students learning the vocabulary words in a visual, auditory and kinesthetic manner.
First, you’ll give the students a blank note card for every new word you’ll introduce. As you introduce the new words, have the students draw a picture to describe the word on their card. Also have them write the word at the bottom of each card. Second, have the students get with small groups and play Go Fish!
Instructions: Pool the students’ cards and shuffle. Each player gets four cards and the rest of the cards are placed in a pile in the middle. Players take turns asking a specific player for a certain vocabulary card. The first player asks for a vocabulary card from a second player. If the second player has that card, it is given to the first player. If the second player doesn’t have that vocabulary card, the first must “go fish!” and take a new card from the pile of cards in the middle.
Students are trying to make as many vocabulary pairs as they can. Play continues until all hands are empty and there are no more cards to draw from. The winner is the player with the most pairs at the end of the game.
There are extensive lists that are relevant to Cinco de Mayo, but I would go with just a few good words depending on student ability. Some possible vocabulary words: batalla (battle), ejército (army), victoria (victory), bandera (flag), celebración (celebration), fiesta (party), desfile (parade), baile (dance).
7. Picture Books
Time needed: 5 minutes
You can’t go wrong with picture books. They’re great visual aids for cultural learning and usually introduce new vocabulary words that are relevant to your topic. Here are some great options that talk about Cinco de Mayo and/or Mexican culture.
- “Fiesta Time (Celebrating Cinco de Mayo)” by Sandi Hill
- “Cinco de Mouse-O!” by Judy Cox
- “Marco’s Cinco de Mayo” by Lisa Bullard
- “Celebrate Cinco de Mayo with the Mexican Hat Dance (Stories to Celebrate)” by Alma F. Ada and F. Isabel Campoy
- “Off We Go to Mexico” by Laurie Krebs
8. Mexican Hat Dance + Mariachi Maracas Craft
Time needed: 25 minutes
Maracas are a traditional Mexican instrument that can be easily made from dollar store purchases. All you need to do is fill plastic Easter eggs with rice. Then cradle the egg between two spoons so that the curved parts are quite literally “spooning” the egg.
Tape the spoons to the egg and the handles together and you have some Mexican maracas! Once your maracas are made, you can teach students the Jarabe Tapatío (Mexican Hat Dance). It can be complicated for some of your less coordinated pupils, but an easy tutorial can help your students become masters of the baile (dance).
9. Mexican Lottery Card Game
Time needed: 20 minutes
Materials: Bingo boards made with pictures of common Spanish vocabulary words, separate cards for the caller, chips or tokens.
The Mexican Lottery Card Game is a popular Mexican game that is played like Bingo. The bingo cards are made up of different pictures of things commonly found in everyday Mexican life.
A stack of the same pictures is used by the caller who will be announcing what picture to cover with a token. You can have the caller call out the vocabulary words or have them describe the pictures and have the participants cover the picture they believe is being described on their board. The Mexican Lottery Card Game can easily be made by hand… but if you’re short on time, you can also order the game online.
10. Puebla Floats from Recycled Materials
Time needed: 30-40 minutes
Materials: Tissue paper, construction paper, recycled materials, glue, scissors, computers.
This is a great hands-on activity that integrates authentic learning. Each year for Cinco de Mayo, the town of Puebla holds a huge celebration to commemorate their victorious battle. They have a big parade with dancers and floats.
Have the students research the celebrations that are held in Puebla and look for examples of floats that are made for the parades. Then have the students recreate the floats made from recycled materials like cereal boxes and oatmeal canisters. When they’re finished, they’ll obviously need to put on a parade showcasing their floats to celebrate!
Whether you go all out and teach your kids to Mexican Hat Dance like a boss or just bust out some chips and salsa, I hope this list inspires you to introduce your students to this popular holiday and celebrate Mexican culture.
Three cheers for Puebla and underdogs everywhere!
Tricia Wegman Contreras has spent the last seven years in Costa Rica working as a bilingual Learning Specialist with students of all ages. She enjoys using her background as an Intervention Specialist to help all types of language learners succeed.
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