Seeing Themselves: Reflecting the Military Side of Young Children from Military Families

Girl hugging military dad

Being a military kid is a big deal for a child! Big enough, in fact, for child care providers as caring adults to acknowledge and support it as part of the child’s developing self-identity and to reflect and respect it in the child care environment in which military kids spend a big chunk of their time.

How do child care providers do that? Below we discuss in depth four strategies to integrate reflections of military life into the child care environment in ways that are meaningful and appropriate for young children:

  • Display photos of children’s military life.
  • Provide military-themed children’s books.
  • Invite military-connected visitors.
  • Encourage military-themed pretend play.

Display Photos of Children’s Military Life

Do you have a place where you display photos of your children’s families? If you do, you’ll know how much children love looking at them! Encourage the military families in your program to provide photos that include their service member in uniform and at work as well as at home. If wall space isn’t available, use a photo album that’s always available for children to look through.

Don’t limit representations of military life to the family photo display. Incorporate appropriate, relevant military photos in other ways, too. Are you talking about transportation with the kids? Display pictures of military vehicles along with civilian vehicles. Talking about weather? Ask a family with a deployed parent to provide a picture of that service member with a description of the weather where he or she is. Not only does this encourage an interesting discussion about different kinds of weather, but it also helps the child feel connected to the deployed parent, a connection that is always a good thing to support!

When children see photos that reflect the things and people that have special meaning to them, they feel valued. Don’t miss this simple but powerful way of connecting to children’s military identity.

Provide Military-Themed Children’s Books

Much like photos, children’s books with military themes or characters give children rich opportunities to think and talk about this important aspect of their lives. Although there are not a lot of high-quality children’s books with specific military themes, the number is growing. For a list to help you get started, check out Children’s Books for Young Children in Military Families.

Some books with military themes, especially the more general ones, are great to have available to children all the time. Others may be more helpful when the events in the story, such as deployment or reunification, reflect the events in a child’s life. Reading the book with the child gives the two of you an opportunity to talk about the events and emotions represented in the book and the similar events and emotions the child is experiencing in the moment.

Don’t forget about “homemade” books! The process of creating a book can be very meaningful to young children. There’s no one “right way” to do it, as long as the children are given the freedom to include the things that are meaningful to them, including aspects of military life. The important point isn’t the details but rather the sense of ownership that children will have about a book they have made themselves that reflects their lives.

Military member blowing bubbles with kidsInvite Military-Connected Visitors

Having someone with military connections visit your child care program can be a wonderful way to strengthen a sense of belonging and pride for a military child and to help non-military children learn more about these important people. Hopefully, the military parents in your program are able to spend time enough time in the child care environment that they are familiar to all the children. But consider seeking out other service members to invite for a visit as well.

There are many different ways to incorporate a visitor into your curriculum/activity plans. Maybe the military aspect is front and center, as it would be if you were talking about different jobs or community helpers or if there was a special military celebration on the calendar. But you can also intentionally include a visitor with a military connection when the military aspect isn’t the focus. For example, during a study or project on dogs, you could seek out a service member from a Military Working Dog team or K-9 unit. A project about cooking or restaurants could include a visit from a military food service specialist.

If you don’t live near an installation, finding military service members to  visit your program will be more challenging. But don’t forget the vets! Veterans, especially those who have left military service relatively recently, are a wonderful resource to tap. Seek out veterans’ groups in your community for those who are willing to come for a visit. Whether you invite a veteran or someone currently serving, remember to seek out women as well as men. Unless the military children in your program have moms in the military, they may not be aware that women serve.

Encourage Military-Themed Pretend Play

It’s very common for children’s pretend play to include family themes, and that is certainly no different for children from military families. Often that means pretending to be Mommy or Daddy, doing whatever Mommy or Daddy does at work (however they might understand it). Children can also be seen acting out situations that they have experienced or observed in “real life.” When a child has a parent in the military, you can be sure military themes will surface in their pretend play. That’s because pretend play is THE place where a child’s home and school lives intermingle and where a military child deals with all the hard-to-grasp concepts and big emotions of military family life by acting them out, trying them on, exploring different roles, and testing different outcomes. (To explore the benefits of military-themed pretend play for military kids, read Reflections of Military Life in Young Children’s Pretend Play.)

The most important thing you can do is to support children’s pretend play. How? Allow it, first of all, even if it makes you a little uncomfortable. As long as the other children still feel safe, and no harm to people or property is resulting, allow the military child to play out his “script.” (For more ideas on how to keep “war play” appropriate for the child care setting, see our online article Ensuring That Children’s War Play Is Healthy, Safe, and Positive.) 

Secondly, keep your eyes open for props and toys with a military connection. Use your discretion about whether dramatic play props are toy replicas or the “real deal”; just remember that children’s play tends to be more in-depth and complex when they are using real props. Ask your military families for items they may be willing to contribute for pretend play.

Whatever the play may look like, encouraging a child from a military family to play out military-themed scenarios gives her precious time to explore her identity and experience as a military kid.

The Value of Respecting and Reflecting

These four strategies are just a sampling of the many, many ways that child care providers can intentionally connect to and support young children’s “military side.” By valuing, respecting, and actively supporting the military aspect of children’s identities, you are helping them develop a strong, positive, confident sense of who they are. And a positive, confident self-image is a key component to resiliency that enables these children to cope with the challenges that will come with military family life. 

For More Information

You may also be interested in our recorded 1-hr webinar, “Reflections of Military Life in Young Children’s Activity.”

To learn more about other ways that child care providers can support young children from military families, check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles:

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