Celebrating Chinese New Year Occupational Therapy Style: A Cultural Spin on Teaching Handwriting

Spring 2019

By Tina Fletcher and Maria King

Eating with bright red chopsticks and dragon-dancing down the hallway are not typical activities in American schools after students return from winter break. How can these activities address special education students’ challenges related to weak and uncoordinated hands, an inability to maintain functional grasp patterns, and handwriting illegibility?

Occupational therapists work alongside general and special education teachers to help students meet curriculum and individualized education program goals. Slant boards, workbooks, and worksheets are common strategies used to address performance challenges, but teachers and therapists can also collaborate to implement engaging and culturally responsive teaching and therapy practices to help children improve motor skills and handwriting proficiency. A Chinese New Year handwriting program can provide a fun way to get a jump on writing and avoid making students feel singled out for yet one more remedial activity.

Chinese New Year is a lunar calendar holiday without a fixed date of observance. Instead, it is a series of events that usually begin in late-January and finish mid-February. Focusing on traditional Chinese New Year customs provides educators and therapists a nice break from implementing activities revolving around themes of snowflake art and Valentine crafts associated with the dreary winter months. Chinese New Year is also a secular holiday, so individuals from any religious persuasion can participate in the fun.

As soon as the new school year begins in the fall, I approach my students’ teachers at Cooper School* with a proposal to do a series of classroom occupational therapy inclusion activities related to the observance of the Chinese New Year with all of their students. Teachers are encouraged to look at their own curriculums to see if they can plan related activities to help students meet their learning goals for the year, and they usually find several ways that Chinese New Year activities can meet these goals.

As an additional consideration, simply engaging students in festive Chinese-themed celebrations may end up replacing one set of stereotypes with another, so I discuss with teachers how we can present a more balanced view of Chinese life, placing celebrations in the larger context of family and society.1 To this end, I offer to share information with students about how Chinese children live in both urban and rural settings, including their family roles and responsibilities; and how modern Chinese families live, what they eat, where they work, how they sleep, and a little about their current political and social lives. Students are particularly interested in Chinese schools. If students want to talk about international adoption, we do. Once a teacher and I have agreed on activities and a schedule, I am up and running!

When school resumes following winter break, the participating teachers and I discuss Chinese New Year with their students and introduce the Chinese zodiac animal that will be honored that specific year. With each participating class, I plan a series of four one- to two-hour sessions that will occur when I make weekly inclusion visits. Our series of events begins by preparing classrooms for Chinese New Year, surrounding students with words and images that evoke positive sentiments associated with the holiday, such as being with loved ones, having respect for others, and valuing knowledge. We look at ways to explore life in China during our second and third sessions and plan a celebration for our final session. In the celebration, students may share a mini-meal, participate in a dragon dance, and show others what they’ve learned.

During week one, students produce traditional scrolls and doorway decorations. They explore a variety of methods for holding pencils, brushes, and pens, and I encourage them to experiment with ways to control their writing tools to produce their best work possible. For older students, we look at some of the scenes from movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that focus on the production of calligraphy. Many students are hooked at this moment and relieved not to be making pink hearts for Valentine’s Day. I provide students with models of Chinese characters that evoke positive thoughts such as strength, wisdom, and happiness. Older or advanced students create freehand replicas, and students who are younger or need more support can trace or color versions of the characters. They try their hand at using paints on red paper or fabric and gold glitter applied with thinned glue “ink” for some of the characters. I teach skilled students how to apply gold leaf to their characters. For students needing simpler tasks, I supply Chinese character stamps (“chops”) they can use to make personal banners and scrolls. After applying a thin dowel to the top of the red paper with glue dots, we use golden threads to hang the banners and scrolls.

During the second week, we create fortunes for cookies that resemble ones students may have eaten in American Chinese restaurants. Constructing fortunes can involve multiple skills including using a ruler; writing on a line; keyboarding words and phrases; composing, editing, and revising text; and cutting with precision. Some students compose complex fortunes involving riddles and poems, while others focus on careful construction of one-word fortunes. We put the finished fortune strips in gold felt circles, folded in half and bent backward to resemble a fortune cookie. An alternate fortune cookie can be made by laying a fortune across a yellow pleated paper muffin cup and gently folding and bending it backward. Both “fortune cookies” can be secured by glue dots or double-stick tape. I bring a large plastic Chinese bowl for the students to display their cookies. Naturally, they finish this session by eating a real restaurant-style fortune cookie.

Week three involves creating noisemakers and practicing dances with the dragon to be used during the final session celebration. According to Chinese tradition, drums, tambourines, and other instruments are rattled to scare the dragon from homes and towns. While students work on their noisemakers, I reach out to other school personnel. For example, the music teacher may allow students to borrow real noisemakers. Once we determine our available noisemaking resources, I work with school administrators to decide on the “parade route” with careful consideration for noise levels in an educational environment.

Meanwhile, students practice using real Chinese words to greet parade-watchers. Learning Chinese words is very motivating for some students; for their part of the parade route planning, students practice simple Chinese phrases such as “ni hao” (hello) and “xie xie” (thank you) and plan to share these phrases with other students and teachers along the route. The Play & Learn CHINESE with Mei Mei series offers simple Chinese language instruction for many levels of student learners and are available on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ez1mCasVFc or on DVD). 

Week four begins with the exciting dragon parade. Students form a long marching line underneath a cloth attached to a cardboard dragon head. As a team, they roar and make dragon curves. They may execute simple dance steps. Students who prefer not to hide under the dragon’s cloth back may lead the way with noisemakers and Chinese language greetings. After looping around the school and playground, students return to class to enjoy rice produced in a rice cooker right in the classroom. Students use chopsticks to eat their rice. Practicing a variety of fine-motor movements needed to eat rice provides students an opportunity to refine their hand coordination and skill. In addition to managing chopsticks, they also explore the fine-motor dexterity needed to sip tea from tiny handle-less cups.

I conclude the four Chinese New Year sessions by congratulating students for such well-done work and distributing red and gold lucky money envelopes to all. Each envelope is filled with a pretend dollar for luck, a fortune strip with wishes for a Happy New Year, a set of wrapped chopsticks, and a piece of wrapped red and gold Chinese lucky candy. The students are reminded to respect their parents and grandparents, to keep up their strength with good health habits, and to increase their knowledge by doing their best at school. They are encouraged to ceremonially bow to their honored teachers, wishing them a prosperous and auspicious new year.

Chinese New Year celebrations offer endless possibilities for school therapists and teachers to collaborate, and students benefit by improving their hand coordination and handwriting skills, learning a little about another language and culture, using teamwork, and paying their respects to their teachers and therapists. As an occupational therapist, I feel I am contributing in a small way to creating a more global society by encouraging the exploration of cultures of other lands and giving students an opportunity to think about the world beyond their school doors. As occupational therapist Michael Iwama has observed:
Often the culture embedded in our lived realities goes unnoticed. The features of our shared experiences remain unremarked, perhaps because the perch from which we universally judge other elements of the reality around us is itself exempted from scrutiny. If we can, for a moment, lower that perch and descend from our own point of reference in order to view and appreciate other worldviews and perspectives of reality, we gain insight into our own culture and our own particular ways of seeing and knowing.2

Through observing Chinese New Year in school, students not only learn more about Chinese culture, but they may see occupational therapy in a positive light. My therapy students often tell me they are happy to be part of such an interesting project. Too often, students feel the stigma of being different when they are placed in therapy. In this context, they can feel they are part of a special process and, with a little skill and luck, can meet and internalize their occupational therapy individualized education plan without even realizing it.

*Tina Fletcher was the shared services arrangement occupational therapist for 10 school districts in Delta, Hunt, and Hopkins counties in rural Northeast Texas. Cooper School is one of those schools. Maria King co-wrote this article.


  1. Bette Bonder and Laura Martin, Culture in Clinical Care: Strategies for Competence, 2nd ed. (Thorofare, NJ: Slack, 2013).
  2. Frank Kronenberg, Salvador Simo Algado, and Nick Pollard (eds.), Occupational Therapy Without Borders: Vol. 1: Learning From the Spirit of Survivors (Edinburgh: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone, 2005).
Tina Fletcher

Tina Fletcher (TFletcher1@twu.edu) is an associate professor of occupational therapy at Texas Woman’s University in Dallas, where she teaches courses in pediatric and school-based occupational therapy.

Maria King

Maria King (ME.King@etch.com) is a pediatric occupational therapist at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital in Knoxville.