What's the deal with the birthday wall?
**This post was originally written several years ago and has been revamped and reposted. Enjoy! **
I’m just going to be blunt – I don’t get the whole concept of a birthday wall. Never have.
The oversized cupcakes and giant balloons filled with children’s names and birth dates and plastered on the walls of early childhood settings, have never made sense to me. And each year, as the “help, what should I do for our birthday wall?” posts invade the early childhood Facebook community, I find myself asking “why?” In the words of the amazing Lisa Murphy “What are you doing, why are you doing it and who are you doing it for?” I feel like perhaps this is one of those “because we’ve always done it this way” situations. For the most part, as a sector, we have moved past this way of thinking, but every now and then something pops up and I think ‘hmmm… it’s still lingering.”
Now, before you start commenting or rage-emailing me… stick with me for a minute! I’m not saying that celebrating children’s birthdays is a bad thing. I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t display said birthdays in our early childhood settings. But what I wonder is, why the need to have an adult cut out 12 giant balloons, write the names and dates on each balloon and cover the walls with them?
Here are a few key arguments I have heard in defence of the birthday wall over the years (and my responses to them):
- The children love looking at them! Yes, I am sure children do love looking at them – when they are at a child appropriate height. Yet, often these 12 balloons or 12 cupcakes or whatever the style is for the year, are tacked up so high that a child would need to stand on three chairs to see them! If you are displaying anything “for the children” – then it needs to be down low, where they can actually see and engage with them.
- They brighten up our bare walls! Bare walls are not such a bad thing. As the year progresses and evidence of children’s play and exploration emerges, those bare walls can play host to a gallery of photographs, documentation or artwork that enables children to connect with their experiences and revisit their learning.
- It’s great for literacy and numeracy! I am a huge advocate for children being exposed to letters and numbers… in real, meaningful ways. But I have to wonder if a red balloon on the wall with “Katie – 5th June” really encourages children to connect with literacy and numeracy. Perhaps if they can view and interact with the display independently it does, but if (like in point 1), they can’t actually see them, then I’m not so sure.
So, what can we do instead?
- Calendar – if you really want to display children’s birthdays and have them engage with literacy and numeracy, use a calendar! This is a real, meaningful way to record dates of significance, one used in many homes (ahem…connection to home life) and workplaces. Calendars show a connection between dates and help to make concrete sense of quite an abstract concept. I remember when my eldest got his first calendar at five years old and set about recording family birthdays and dates of interest for him and then plotting out the time between these events, using it to countdown in anticipation!
- Do it with the children. If you feel this is something of value for the children in your setting, start a project with them, don’t do it for them! Discuss the concept of birthdays, talk about how different families celebrate, encourage them to display their birthdays in a way that is meaningful to them (if they wish to!) Don’t just come in on the first day of January, print off a list of names and birth dates and create a display in the name of belonging. True belonging comes through ownership, collaboration and connection.
So, I urge you… not to ditch the birthday wall (because perhaps you’re just not there yet and that is okay!) but to at least reflect on it’s purpose, on it’s connection with the children and on your reasons for creating one year in, year out.