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Dia de los Muertos for kids: 10 ideas for learning, honoring and celebrating

These activities can help teach kids the cultural history behind the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), as well as celebrate and honor the holiday respectfully.

Activities for celebrating and honoring Día de los Muertos for kids

For many Mexicans and other Latinx, Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) is a special time during which the living honor those who have gone before them. These days, it’s become more popular around the world, thanks to movies (we’re looking at you, “Coco”!), social media and a general love of sugar skulls. But being a cultural holiday (and even somewhat religious for some), it’s important to know the facts before celebrating Dia de los Muertos with kids (and even without).

Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) is a special time — every November 1st and 2nd — during which the living honor those who have gone before them.

Taking place annually on November 1st and 2nd, Dia de los Muertos is a two-day holiday observed in areas of Mexico and beyond based on celebrations observed by the ancient Aztec and Nahua people thousands of years ago. It was believed that the recently deceased passed on to the Land of the Dead before going to a final resting place and that the living could make offerings to their dearly departed on certain days to help them on their way. While their rituals were performed in August, Dia de los Muertos as it is now is a combination of these original celebrations combined with All Souls Day (which was introduced to Mexico by European colonizers), which is also observed in November. And while it is celebrated just after Halloween, it is not Mexican Halloween.

While Dia de los Muertos is celebrated just after Halloween, it is not Mexican Halloween.

Today, families gather to make foods and paper flowers and sugar skulls for their ofrendas (altars), don calavera makeup, visit and clean up the graves of their dead and generally celebrate the lives that were once lived. And though there are certain practices that shouldn’t be done by non-Mexican or non-Latinx individuals without being invited to do so by members of the community and having a good understanding of their significance, there are many ways in which anyone can celebrate Dia de los Muertos with kids respectfully.

1. Read books together about the holiday

Celebrating and honoring Día de los Muertos for kids

Before you get started with your festivities, it’s always good to educate yourself about the holiday. Take a trip to your local library or bookstore and read up on the history as well as Dia de los Muertos traditions. Here are a few recommendations (depending on the ages and reading levels of the children):

2. Make sugar skulls together

Activities for celebrating and honoring Día de los Muertos for kids
Image via Stephanie Chavez

Sugar skulls have become extremely popular in recent years, in part due to the commercialization of the holiday. But once you understand a bit more about their place in the festivities, making them is an excellent way to celebrate Dia de los Muertos with kids. Stephanie Chavez, a Mexican-American food blogger at Spanglish Spoon and small business owner, says she loves hosting sugar-skull-making parties with loved ones.

“Decorating sugar skulls with family and friends is a great way to add a personal touch to an ofrenda that only you can add because each sugar skull is unique to that person you are creating it for. Just like in life, no two are ever the same.”

— STEPHANIE CHAVEZ, BLOGGER, SPANGLISH SPOON

“Decorating sugar skulls with family and friends is a great way to add a personal touch to an ofrenda that only you can add because each sugar skull is unique to that person you are creating it for. Just like in life, no two are ever the same,” says Chavez. “It’s a personal, family-friendly experience that gives us an opportunity to come together at the table to have a different kind of conversation about life while creating new memories together.”

Chavez has a wonderful sugar skull recipe for folks to try at home. If, however, you aren’t quite as handy in the kitchen, you can always purchase a sugar skull-making kit from her Etsy store Sugar Skull Co. or another Latinx-owned shop.

3. Collect or craft marigolds (cempasúchil) 

Activities for celebrating and honoring Día de los Muertos for kids

The tradition of using Mexican marigolds (or cempasúchil) dates as far back as at least the 16th century, recorded as having been used in Aztec rituals to celebrate the dead, rooted in a romantic mythology. Today, we see both live and paper cempasúchil used on ofrendas, laid atop tombs and worn in flower crowns. 

After reading about its use, craft your own flowers with kids, using an online tutorial like this paper marigold DIY by Kathy Cano-Murillo (aka The Crafty Chica) or this tissue-paper flower how-to by Monica Olivera (MommyMaestra). You can also visit your local plant and flower shop to try and purchase fresh ones, or even purchase reusable paper chains of cempasúchil from a number of Latinx vendors, like Friducha Y Mas, Una Crafty Teacher and other Latinx-owned shops found on Etsy.

4. Create a nicho

Celebrating and honoring Día de los Muertos for kids

Nichos are small three-dimensional scenes created as shadow boxes or sometimes set inside tin boxes. They are fairly common in Mexican craft markets and are often used in Dia de los Muertos altars. 

You can create a nicho box as a way of commemorating the life of a lost loved one by using a photo or drawing of the individual, including aspects of their life (their occupation in life, their hobbies, etc.). The International Folk Art Museum has a great nicho box DIY and lesson plans, but you can find plenty more throughout the internet, including YouTube videos like this paper niche how-to from Craftología.

You can also attend classes  online like this nichos-making workshop from the Latino Cultural Arts Center of Colorado in Denver.

5. Bake (and eat) pan de muerto

Activities for celebrating and honoring Día de los Muertos for kids
Image provided by Nicole Reyna

Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is one of the most common foods placed on the ofrenda, so why not try your hand at baking some? Nicole Reyna, a Greek-American food blogger at Flan and Apple Pie, taught herself how to bake it and now celebrates the holiday respectfully with her Mexican husband and son. 

“The sugar-dusted bread that is laced with orange zest welcomes in this season of remembering those closest to us who have passed on. Each year, we look forward to filling our kitchen with these smells and making memories together as a family.” 

— NICOLE REYNA, BLOGGER, FLAN AND APPLE PIE

“I love making pan de muerto every year, not only to add to our Día de Muertos altar but also to nibble on as an after-dinner treat,” says the Pittsburgh-based mom. “The sugar-dusted bread that is laced with orange zest welcomes in this season of remembering those closest to us who have passed on. Each year, we look forward to filling our kitchen with these smells and making memories together as a family.” 

Try making her pan de muerto recipe with curious children. 

6. Cook or bake even more traditional foods

What is a celebration without food? There are so many different kinds of Dia de los Muertos food to make. Mole is a dish that’s so complex it’s often only used on special occasions, and what is Dia de Muertos if not one of the most special events of the year? Lola Wiarco Dweck of Lola’s Cocina has an excellent mole negro with chicken recipe up on her blog that will definitely impress your entire family. It’s a multi-day project, so a great way to bond with kids as well! For dessert (and for the ofrenda), you can also try her marigold and orange blossom sugar cookies (get some skull-shaped cookie cutters for the little ones to help with) as well as Mexican hot chocolate (a popular ofrenda recipe youngsters will love stealing sips from).

7. Cut up some papel picado

Celebrating and honoring Día de los Muertos for kids

Papel picado is a form of folk art found in Mexico and some other Latin American countries and created by cutting up tissue paper into elaborate designs. The result is colorful and beautiful, with intricate images of anything from flowers and animals to calaveras (skulls) and more. It’s also often used to decorate the ofrendas, which is why this is another fun craft you can do in preparation for celebrating Dia de los Muertos with kids. Check out this papel picado Youtube tutorial from LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes or this papel picado activity from the Hispanic Society Museum and Library.

8. Build your altar

Now that you’ve crafted and baked, it’s time to put together your ofrenda. Have kids scout a good location with a table (preferably with an additional stand or two — you want lots of space and levels to it, if possible). Next, have them gather up supplies including photos of the deceased, candles, the cempasuchil, the pan de muerto, papel picado, calaveras , fruits and the nichos, and have them arrange them on the altar space. Alcohol (like some mezcal or tequila) is also often left on the altar, but you can do that part yourself. You can look online for more Dia de los Muertos altar ideas as well!

9. Enjoy some Dia de los Muertos movies

While movies are no substitute for reading about and experiencing Dia de los Muertos first hand, we know that days of crafting and cooking might leave you and the littles looking for some downtime. Fortunately there are a few good films to watch about this Latinx celebration. Chances are you’ve watched Disney’s “Coco” at least once — but if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?! The movie is absolutely gorgeous and features an incredible soundtrack to boot. But if you are looking for more, we also recommend watching “The Book of Life” (on Disney Plus), “Dia de Muertos” (on Amazon Prime), and the short film “Hasta Los Huesos” (on Vimeo), among others.

10. Attend a local dia event (put on by the Mexican/Latinx community)

Activities for celebrating and honoring Día de los Muertos for kids

One of the best ways to celebrate this holiday, however, is by experiencing it yourself. If you’re able to travel internationally with your family, going to Mexico to celebrate is unbeatable. If that’s not in the cards, however, it’s great to find U.S. cities that host festivities, such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, even Ft. Lauderdale. Just make sure that the event you attend is being hosted by the Mexican, Chicanx, and/or Latinx community, that they are represented and that the traditions are being respected. And then, of course, have fun!