Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is a Mexican holiday celebrated every November 1st and 2nd. It corresponds with All Souls and All Saints Day. People gather to remember loved ones who have passed away. They build ofrendas, or alters, displaying marigold flowers, sugar skulls, and candles. And they add foods like pan de muerto (bread), tortillas, and fruit. The act of preparing the alter is to appease the spirits so that they will in turn provide wisdom and protection through the coming year. In the central and southern regions, the Day of the Dead festivities include music, dance, and parties that last well into the night.
Sugar Skull Art
The art of elaborately decorated Mexican sugar skulls dates back to the 18th Century when Mesoamerican and European belief systems intertwined. Mexicans began adopting sugar art into their festivities after the Europeans introduced sugar to the New World. These sugar skulls would often have the name of spirit beautifully designed on the forehead adorned in brightly colored decorations.
I love introducing the art of sugar skulls to my students. They get so excited to create their own version of one. As a result, I’ve developed a game to go along with the unit because, well, what kid doesn’t love a game! It’s just like all my other roll-a-dice games in that they roll to select the parts used to create the design. The real creativity comes in the layout of the design and the chosen materials. And that’s where you come in as the teacher.
Get Your Creative Juices Flowing
In talking to regular education teachers all over the country (and beyond), I’ve learned that some have difficulty straying from the plan. It absolutely never occurred to me that teachers wouldn’t think to swap out materials, if need be.
Every week, an aide or teacher comes to me for suggestions on how to make a project work with their class and specified materials. I often hear, “Can I do this?” and “Will this work?” As an art teacher who is used to flexing my creative juices, I grapple with the idea that teachers wouldn’t know how to problem-solve a change of plans. I imagine in their heads it sounds something like this:
Teacher [inner dialog]: (Scanning Teachers Pay Teachers for ideas) “Oh wow, now there’s a cool Dia de los Muertos art project I could do with my 4th graders. Oh wait, it says you have to use markers and then wet them with a paintbrush. Well, I don’t have time for all that nor do I have small paintbrushes! And you have to print out the tracer and I’m in a 1:1 school so I can’t print anything. Let me keep looking…”
Deviating From the Plan
When planning an art project, it’s OK to change things up based on your time, materials, and experience. Art teachers do this all the time. We’ll see an idea that doesn’t exactly fit our needs and we just change it on the fly. (Of course, it helps to practice in advance before handing over a project to students).
Let me show you a simple change in materials for my Day of the Dead project:
Allowing students to select their own art materials to explore their possibilities is the best way to increase critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. In addition, it gives them the opportunity to express themselves in a way they see fit. So don’t be afraid to jump out of the box!
My Day of the Dead game will make a great companion for your next unit on Mexican art and culture.
- No prep, fuss-free!
- More than a coloring worksheet
- Interactive and engaging
- Hands-on learning
- Low cost, minimal materials
- Easy to implement