Haida author and artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ beautiful picture book, The Little Hummingbird, illustrates a poignant message: each of us can make a difference, no matter how small we are and no matter how big the problem seems.
The book opens to a terrible fire burning in a forest. The largest and fiercest animals run away, with even Wolf howling that he is “so small” compared to the ravaging disaster. The animals gather at the edge of the fiery forest and watched the only animal brave enough to try and extinguish the fire: Little Hummingbird. The tiny bird flies to and fro between the stream and the forest, picking up a single drop of water in her beak and dropping it on the blaze.
When Big Bear asks what she’s doing, Little Hummingbird simply looks at the other animals and says, “I am doing what I can."
Little Hummingbird may have been one of the smallest animals in the forest, but she was the only one brave enough to help her friends in a seemingly helpless situation.
The Little Hummingbird is a beautiful short story to use as a jumping-off point to explore themes of kindness, compassion, helping, and altruism with children. This book is also relevant to exploring the Personal Awareness and Responsibility and Social Responsibility core competencies of BC’s revised curriculum for elementary school students. Further, as The Little Hummingbird is based on a South American Indigenous story and adapted with Yahgulanaas’ unique Haida Manga style, the book can be used to integrate diverse Indigenous perspectives and art forms into the classroom.
It’s never too early to start exploring these themes with children. Felix Warneken’s research at Harvard University has found that toddlers as young as 14 months will naturally help out strangers, even when they’re promised no reward for doing so.
Nurturing our children’s kind tendencies won’t only affect the people they’re being kind to, either. One study found that students’ levels of pro-social behaviour in Grade 3 better predicted their academic achievement in Grade 8 than their Grade 3 academic performance. Another study by Layous et al. found that students who engaged in random acts of kindness experienced significantly bigger increases in peer acceptance than students who did not practice random acts of kindness.
6 Activities to Inspire Kindness
Here are six activities you can try with the children in your lives to explore the themes of The Little Hummingbird and help them understand that no matter how big the problem, they can help out and make a difference:
1. Have a book discussion
Here are some helpful questions to explore with children some of The Little Humingbird book’s themes:
Were you surprised that Hummingbird tried to stop the fire, even though she was smaller than the other animals? What surprised you about what she did?
Why do you think Hummingbird tried to stop the fire, even though it was so big?
How do you think Hummingbird felt after helping put out the fire?
Can you think of a time you felt like the other animals, where a problem seemed so big you felt you couldn’t help?
How about the Hummingbird? Have you ever tried to help even though the problem may have seemed too big?
What did you learn from reading the story about the Hummingbird?
2. Organize a Kindness Fortune Event
Many of us will likely not be faced with the same dire situation as Little Hummingbird. But we can still model and encourage our children to take small actions to catalyze a kindness ripple-effect in our communities.
Take it from Highlands Elementary in North Vancouver, where parents decided to actively create opportunities to "grow kindness" throughout the school. On special days like World Kindness Day, Pink Shirt Day, and Pay It Forward Day, student volunteers handed out brightly coloured paper slips encouraging students and staff to take a kind action, like “say something nice to someone," "thank a teacher, friend or family member for something nice they have done" or "help someone at school." Learn more about how you can host a Kindness Fortune Event here.
3. Take action as a team
Kindness activities don’t have to be school-wide. You can volunteer or raise money as a family or classroom towards a cause you’ve brainstormed about and feel inspired to help with.
Find an extensive list of volunteer ideas for kids here.
No matter what you choose to do, end the activity with a reflection on how the smallest actions can make a difference.
4. Chain of kindness craft
Most of us know that kindness is contagious—but did you know it’s been proven in research, too? Harvard researchers found that when someone is kind and cooperative, their actions ripple-out to influence people up to three degrees of separation to act kindly.
A simple fun craft can help children visualize how their commitment to kindness can also ripple out into something much bigger.
-Colourful 8.5 x 11” construction paper cut into two-inch thick strips
-Glue or tape
1. Have a brief discussion with your children about kindness: What is it? How does it make you feel? When was the last time someone was kind to you? Describe a time you showed kindness to someone else?
2. Hand out paper strips to children and ask them to write down a “kindness commitment”—an action they will commit to doing to make the world a kinder place. You can offer simple examples, such as being kind to their siblings, sticking up for a friend or helping out at home.
3. Collect each strip and tape them into a long paper chain.
4. Marvel at how a few simple kindness commitments put together have made a big, colourful chain! Discuss with children how kindness is like a chain—each small decision to be kind helps us make our classrooms, schools, homes and communities kinder and more beautiful places to be!
(Adapted from Sugar, Spice and Glitter’s A (Paper) Chain of Kindness craft)
5. Gratitude journal
Recognizing the kind things others have done for us can inspire us to do the same, gratitude expert Robert Emmons has written, “true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people…gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives".
A recent study suggests that gratitude journaling can increase adults’ likelihoods of acting altruistically. In class or at home, have your children journal for 10 minutes about a time someone has done something kind for them. Prompting questions can include: What did they do? How did it make you feel and why? Why do you think they were kind to you?
You can end the activity with a quick reflection discussion on what they’ve written- try an activity like our Gratitude Art/Photo Project, or have the children write a short letter to the person who was kind to them—continuing the cycle of kindness!
6. Create a culture of kindness and gratitude
Create a “Gratitude Corner” in your home or classroom where you and your children can post messages acknowledging kind things peers, siblings or adults have done for them in the past week. At the end of each week, take time to acknowledge and discuss their messages. This way, The Little Hummingbird’s lesson doesn’t have to end once you put down the book—its message of the power of helping can last all-year round.
7 (bonus!). Spread kindness through music
Music can be a great way to spread positivity in the world. Children love to sing and play music so why not encourage them to learn songs with messages of kindness that they can have fun sharing with others. An elementary school music teacher in the United States composed a song for her students to perform at their winter concert where the theme was "Be a Rainbow". Here's a video of their adorable performance where they sing - "Be a rainbow in someone else's cloud. I will be kind".
Kindness Activities to Engage Adults
1. Why not learn about ways kindness has been shown to benefit adults too!
Plan a noon hour staff meeting where you explore the benefits of kindness on both adult and child well-being. Watch the 2 minute video, The Science of Kindness, to ignite an interesting discussion on how your school promotes kind action on both individual and collective levels, to foster compassion and kindness in students.
2. Organize a parent evening where you showcase Little Hummingbird inspired student learning and reflections, such as the Gratitude Corner, Kindness Chain and Photo Projects. Encourage a discussion about the role of kindness in families, and how kindness and compassion are modeled and supported through parenting practices and family values.
Conclude the evening with a screening of the powerful 6 minute video “Kindness Boomerang: What Goes Around Comes Around”. This charming short film depicts the ripple-effect of kind acts -- the way in which receiving an unexpected moment of generosity from a stranger can cause us to become more aware of the needs of those around us and to take action to become a vector of goodness.
The Dalai Lama Center gratefully acknowledges partial proceeds of sale of The Little Hummingbird book, written by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, are donated to our Center.
The Little Hummingbird book is available locally at Odin Books in Vancouver BC, as well as through other major booksellers.