February is Black History Month, an opportunity to learn, reflect and pay tribute. While we intentionally read books with diverse representation and introduce our toddler to historical and contemporary examples of Black leaders and innovators throughout the entire year, this month presents an important opportunity to recognize and discuss some incredible individuals and historical events with our young learners, as many educators, organizations, and museums are sharing helpful resources in February.
Looking to acknowledge history, encourage curiosity, and celebrate Black joy and excellence with your little learner? From photographer Gordon Parks to athlete Wilma Rudolph, pilot Bessie Coleman to activist Fannie Lou Hamer, there are countless examples of bold creatives and inspiring changemakers to explore and honor. One of our favorites, and the inspiration for this space-themed play and learning setup, is Dr. Mae C. Jemison.
Materials we used:
- Children’s books about Dr. Mae Jemison (examples below)
- Learning Resources Primary Science Leap & Launch Rocket
- Learning Resources Helping Hands Fine Motor Tool Set (Handy Scooper & Squeezy Tweezers)
- Sensory tub/bin
- Uncooked black beans
- Glass beads or plastic glow-in-the-dark stars
- Small bowls or cups
- Children’s books about planets or space (optional)
To educate ourselves on Dr. Jemison’s many ambitions and accomplishments, we dove into books like Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed (picture book), Dream Big, Little One and Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison (board and picture book versions), and You Should Meet Mae Jemison by Laurie Calkhoven (Ready-To-Read/Early Reader). (Admittedly, some of the content is over our two-year-old’s head, but our goal is exposure and developing a love of learning and reading, so even if we only explore a page or two at a time, it’s still time well-spent!) We then reviewed some of the facts we learned while reading — an excellent opportunity to expose our little learner to some rich STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) vocabulary. For instance:
- Mae Jemison is a doctor, scientist, engineer, teacher and dancer.
- Mae Jemison joined the PeaceCorps and has traveled to many countries.
- Mae Jemison is fluent in several languages, including Swahili, Russian and Japanese.
- Mae Jemison was a NASA astronaut and the first African American woman to travel into space.
- Mae Jemison served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. She spent more than a week orbiting Earth, completing scientific investigations while on board.
Our toddler is very interested in all things star, moon, and space-related, so these latter facts about Dr. Jemison led us to create some astronaut-themed activities to engage both her body and mind!
Enter Learning Resources’ Primary Science Leap & Launch Rocket — a literal blast and a visual tool for discussing how Dr. Jemison launched into space on the shuttle Endeavour! This product comes with a launch pad, adjustable launcher, two rockets, and two target mats with sun and moon images (so future rocket scientists can strategize and attempt to aim the rocket towards a specific landing location).
When jumping or stomping on the air pocket launch pad, you or your child give the rocket power to fly across your yard or play space. By angling the rocket launcher, you can change where and how far the soft rocket will travel — great for critical thinking and problem-solving fun. Build anticipation and foster those early math skills by counting backwards until stomping on the launch pad’s dome for liftoff! Our toddler gleefully asked us to launch the rocket again and again, engaging her gross motor skills by chasing after it each flight to retrieve it for it’s next mission into space.
To complement this amazing imaginative and gross motor play, we set up a small, space-themed sensory bin inspired by young Mae Jemison’s dreams to be a scientist and reach for the stars. Using uncooked black beans and glass beads as our solar system base, we then added manipulatives like star-shaped stacking cups and scooping tools from Learning Resources’ Helping Hands Fine Motor Tool Set. This simple setup is an open invitation for our toddler scientist to examine, explore, compare and count her ‘stardust’ and ‘moon rocks’ to her heart’s content, all while building strong finger and hand muscles for important tasks like writing and cutting in future years.
Bonus: a rocket and sensory bin setup like this lends itself to ongoing play, so don’t pack it away after one encounter! Our toddler returned to her Launch Rocket and space bin multiple times throughout the week. All that repetition meant lots of opportunities for problem-solving, trial and error, and trying out all the new, rich vocabulary we had been discussing. In future play sessions, we returned to our Mae Jemison biographies, as well as other board and picture books about space, like Future Astronaut by Lori Alexander, Solar System by Jill McDonald, and 8 Little Planets by Chris Ferrie.
Looking to adapt or extend your play and learning even further?
- Honor Black history and celebrate other Black changemakers by exploring and discussing picture books like The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson, Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews and Bryan Collier, and Freedom Over Me by Ashley Bryan — all of which are written and illustrated by incredible Black creators.
- Looking for fiction featuring Black main characters? Check out some of our recent picture book favorites: Jabari Tries (sequel to Jabari Jumps) by Gaia Cornwall, Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love and Your Name Is A Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow. Your local library will have many more title recommendations!
- Extend the space-themed play by exploring the galaxy with the Learning Resources Primary Science Shining Stars Projector (highlighted in an earlier blog post, Cabin Fever Campout).
- Pair your space-themed books with some fun songs or rhymes like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “Zoom Zoom Zoom, We’re Going to the Moon.”
- Dr. Jemison was an engineer as well as an astronaut, so tap into both by engineering your own space mission with the Learning Resources Gears! Gears! Gears! Space Explorers Building set.
- Listen to an astronaut read a picture book aboard the International Space Station by visiting Story Time From Space.