The Great MLK Day Snack Experiment

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

My wife, M–, or Ms. M– to her students, is a Montessori-certified preschool teacher, and darn good at it. Each year in the lead-up to MLK Day, she teaches a (age appropriate) unit on Martin Luther King, Jr. that is largely built around discussions of treating people fairly, and all that good, old Golden Rule stuff. I absolutely love this exercise and the stories that come out of it.

The lessons typically start off with a “circle” (full-class lesson time) involving the ‘snack experiment.’ In this exercise, the class is divided in half, or roughly in half. Usually, the division runs along gender lines, as that’s the easiest split to make, and one that the children will easily grasp. It also speaks to other forms of false divisions in our society, but I don’t think they get into all of that.

Anyway, depending on the age and temperaments of the children, there may or may not be an advanced warning that circle time involves an exercise in fairness and feelings. Each year, M– switches whether the boys or the girls get the snack at the outset of the experiment. For 2015, the girls got the snack first.

The group with the snack is encouraged to go ahead and eat the snack, while nothing is said to the group without the snack about whether or not they’re getting anything.

Inevitably, the group without a snack starts into fidgeting, and then a bit of grumbling, about why they aren’t getting the snack. Or they start asking if they’re going to get a snack at all.

Most often, there is also some hesitation on the part of those who have received something to eat, or at least from some of them, about whether or not they should be eating before everybody has been provided with a treat.

MLK blue

M— sits silent for a while, then starts the discussion. She asks, essentially, how everyone is feeling right at that moment.

The hands start to go up—usually from the slighted group. This year, the big word among the boys was “disappointed,” since the first respondent used that word, and it apparently sounded pretty good.

“I feel disappointed.”

“I feel mad…and disappointed.”

“I’m angry…and disappointed.”

“I’m disappointed…and sad…and mad.”

The side that got the snack sometimes has to be encouraged to give some input, which usually starts with some hesitant, and sheepish remarks.

“I feel good.”

“I liked the snack.”

It can take a little goading to get some other responses. But this year, the big breakthrough came from one of the older girls who raised her hand and said, “I don’t like it. I’m not happy. Because ( ) is my friend, and { } is my friend. And if they’re not happy, I’m not happy.”

Before long, other girls were joining in, offering up their thoughts on why it’s better when everybody gets a snack, and how it’s more fun when everybody gets to join in, why it’s hard to be happy when others are deliberately deprived of that same happiness.

When those empathetic thoughts start to come out, there is the beginning of a transformation throughout the class. Even without a treat, the snackless start to feel happier, realizing that others care about them, and are sticking up for them.

Of course, balance is inevitably restored. The snackless become…the snacked? Okay, let’s just go with ‘the hungry are fed.’

The discussion continues on, the children offering up sentiments that are occasionally amusing, occasionally profound, and sometimes both.

And, this year, the discussion was closed out when the youngest boy among them, after being prompted several times to raise his hand if he wanted to share his thoughts, finally did so. Then, talking through full cheeks, said, “I want more crackers.”

Happy MLK Day!

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