Reading a book, wearing silk, and bringing in food are the easiest for all ages.
For all classes, but especially for the youngest:
Please remember allergies, especially for the youngest, and be sure to ask the teacher about them. Some 3 year olds have not been exposed to berries, nuts, peanuts, or shellfish and might not even know if they are allergic yet. For preschool, I have done long life noodles with just a bit of oil so they do not stick, and brown sauce (sesame paste and no peanut butter), grated carrots and grated cucumbers on the side. Do show chopsticks even if you are not comfortable using them to serve. I have also bought baozi (the steamed buns), and cut them into 2 or 4 pieces.
A lantern parade or a dragon dance is great fun. One piece of construction paper with slits can easily make a lantern. I made dragon heads one year by turning brown paper bags inside out and decorating them – and stapling on 2 yards of fabric x 22 inches. The handles on the bag really helped them keep the heads on. Most fabric is 45 inches wide so it came to a yard each. Take some music if you can. If everyone can have a bell, triangle or noisemaker that is best. Some preschoolers will not go in/under the dragon. This is fun, not just for preschool although you may need to get a real dragon head for elementary students. Bringing a silk vest or dress that they can touch or try on is fun.
Or each child can make a "personal" dragon. There are several patterns online, including:
If the classroom can be decorated that helps a lot. Anything you can leave for the children to look at is wonderful. Perhaps a tray with chopsticks and popcorn. Perhaps two handleless tea cups and something they can pour back and forth, like rice?
I have a friend who just walks into the classroom and says "ni hao" and walks out waving and saying "zai jian" and she repeats it until the children are speaking to/with her. I have walked into a classroom and just asked what day it is, and pretended I must be weeks late when the teacher said January (or February) -- since I was to come in the the first day of the New Year. That can lead to a discussion of the lunar calendar or the holiday.
More for Lower Elementary Classes:
I still usually bring food, some decorations, and wear a silk vest. Background music is still nice to have. What you do depends in part on what you are comfortable with and what you have already done with the class. As well as, of course, how much itme the teacher will give you.
If you have not discussed the lunar calendar, that is worthwhile. For more ideas on that you can also see my Autumn Moon Festival thoughts.
With elementary students, different years I have:
- Told the tale of Nian; spoken of new clothes, being with family, and food – with pictures of each, and gave out hong bao (real Chinese money, 10 or 20 fen each!)
- Discussed lantern festival (the 15th day of the first lunar month) and left lanterns each with a riddle on it (be sure to give the answers to the teacher).
- Done a simple Chinese writing lesson. I showed them words that were still similar to the pictures (person, big, fire, mouth, mountain). [Please only do this if you are comfortable, and preferably know the stroke order.] For “homework” they had to figure out how to say “volcano” – fire mountain.
- Made double coin knots of red rattail, and took a longer pieces of gold and maroon rattail so they could trace the knot. They had the option of hotgluing a pinback to the knot when done. We needed about 1 adult for each 5 kids for this. Make sure it is a class that has good fine motor control and can concentrate!
- Taught the children how to count to ten and showed them finger counting as well. You can teach yourself the Mandarin at
http://hua.umf.maine.edu/Chinese/games/numbers/chinese/one.html Once they can count to 7, you can teach them days of the week. If they can count to 12, you can say months. If they can count to 12, they can count to 99!
Learning finger counting is a bit harder. I do not know the ancient system I found (although it reminds me of an Indian system that I have heard of) at:
What I know -- and what I saw in mainland China this summer is much closer to this:
(except 9 is a bit different and for 10, I make it with one hand...