Celebrating Chinese New Year - ideas and activities for early years settings


Melanie Pilcher, quality and standards manager at the Alliance, shares some fun ideas for celebrating the Lunar New Year in your setting.

This article orginally appeared in the Alliance's Under 5 membership magazine.

Xin Nian Kuai Le! Or Happy New Year!

After the glitz and glitter of Christmas, January and early February can feel a little lacklustre at the best of times. The weather is not great and indoors the walls can seem bare when the tinsel and fairy lights that lifted our spirits during the pandemic have been packed away.

But while last year’s Christmas celebrations are well behind us, another festival is just around the corner. All around the world, millions of people are preparing for the Lunar New Year, which begins on 1 February 2022.

New Year celebrations can last for up to 15 days, known as the Spring Festival, so this is a great opportunity to immerse your setting in the festivities.

You will broaden children’s horizons and celebrate cultures and traditions that may already be familiar to many children and families.

Although we won’t have the array of spectacular celebrations in the UK’s largest cities, the occasion will not go unmarked, there will be plenty of decorations to see, even if the usual parades and gatherings are on hold. and many families will celebrate at home too.

"With customs including dragon dances, parades and fireworks there are possibilities for arts and crafts and activities that cover every area of the EYFS."

Meanwhile, many supermarkets will take this opportunity to promote a tempting array of Asian dishes, which are an important part of the celebration.

The end of the festival is celebrated with the Lantern Festival, bringing another chance to ignite the characteristics of effective learning.

New Year, also know as the Lunar New Year, runs on a cycle of 12 years with each represented by an animal. The many traditions that make up the festival offer plentiful opportunities to extend children’s knowledge and understanding of the world.

Practitioners should do some background research to inform their own understanding before planning for the children. There is a wealth of information available online.

With customs including dragon dances, parades and fireworks there are possibilities for arts and crafts and activities that cover every area of the EYFS.

The challenge will be staying focused and keeping the relevance of children’s involvement and their level of understanding and current experience.

Which animal are you?

This year is the year of the tiger, so why not begin by finding out together what that means for the year ahead?

Once you have learnt this, you can then work out which animal each of the children is using the year they were born in the chart below.

Your under fives are likely to be goats, monkeys, roosters or dogs.

Let practitioners join in too to give yourself a broader range of animals to include in activities.

People are said to have similar characteristics to their animal, so you can have fun deciding what each animal means. Is it a fierce, brave, kind or clever animal?

This is a great introduction to feelings and behaviours as part of personal, social and emotional development. If you successfully stimulate children’s interest they will want to spend more time finding out about their animal by looking at books, pictures or perhaps even observing first hand!

Chinese zodiac signs

a boy feeds a Chinese Lion to bring good luck

Rat: 2008 1996 1984 1972 1960
Ox: 2009 1997 1985 1973 1961
Tiger: 2010 1998 1986 1974 1962
Rabbit: 2011 1999 1987 1975 1963
Dragon: 2012 2000 1988 1976 1964
Snake: 2013 2001 1989 1977 1965
Horse: 2014 2002 1990 1978 1966
Goat: 2015 2003 1991 1979 1967
Monkey: 2016 2004 1992 1980 1968
Rooster: 2017 2005 1993 1981 1969
Dog: 2018 2006 1994 1982 1970
Pig: 2019 2007 1995 1983 1971


Red envelopes

Instead of receiving wrapped presents as we do at Christmas, children are given red envelopes, or hong paos, for New Year by family and friends. The envelopes are sometimes decorated with symbols like the Chinese dragon or lions for good luck. Greetings and good wishes written in gold letters are also often added.

To replicate this tradition in your setting, you can make your own envelopes with the children. Plenty of maths can be practiced here: one thick piece of red A4 paper cut into quarters will make four envelopes. Once your envelopes are decorated you will need to count out some coins to place inside, even a few pennies, as a gesture. Don’t put four pennies in though, as four is deemed to be an unlucky number in Chinese culture.


Red and gold lanterns and banners with messages can be hung everywhere, particularly by doorways and entrances to greet visitors. You can research traditional messages or make up your own with the children – there are no set rules. To encourage mark-making, you can provide children with the resources they will need to copy Chinese writing characters. Many are very complex but there are some that will be easier for children to replicate.

Provide children with plenty of examples of each symbol as well as paper and charcoal sticks or thick black paint and a selection of brushes. Black marker pens with thick tips are very effective and children don’t often get an opportunity to use them.

Paper firecrackers are also used to decorate homes at this time of year. Originally, loud firecrackers were also set off to scare away evil spirits. You can make your own, just without the bang. Simply roll red paper into a tube just a little thinner than a toilet roll. Edge each end with gold and decorate them. String them together in a bunch and hang them wherever you like.

Paint your dragon

Children will love the idea of a Chinese dragon. Make it a big, bright display or, if you are really ambitious, why not have a go at a dragon dance? You can make a dragon mask and decorate a sheet with ribbons and streamers, then watch a video of a traditional Chinese dragon dance and let the children have a go. The dragon dance can have many participants, but the lion dance should only have two. Children will have to work together and coordinate their movements if they are going to make this work.a little boy holds a mandarin - considered good fortune in Chinese culture

Don’t forget the food

New Year cuisine is as varied, colourful and as exciting as everything else to do with the celebration. There’s lots of well known examples available in the shops, but some items are easy enough for any setting to try out. Oranges and tangerine symbolise wealth, apples are for peace and tangerines are for good fortune. That’s surely a good start to any new year, so Xin Nian Kuai Le!


This article orginally appeared in the Alliance's Under 5 membership magazine in 2018 and was updated for 2022. 

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