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How to Use Picture Books to Teach Themes and Concepts

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How to Use Picture Books to Teach Themes and Concepts

Using picture books to teach themes and concepts engages learners by integrating rich, visual storytelling with educational content. They offer an opportunity to explore complex ideas through accessible narratives, allowing children to develop a deeper understanding of various themes ranging from emotions and diversity to resilience and social justice

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How Do You Use Picture Books to Teach Themes?

Picture books cover a wide array of themes, from everyday experiences to complex concepts like diversity and emotions. They offer children a relatable lens through which to explore big ideas.

Children’s picture books cover a wide range of themes that are relevant to students of various ages. Here are some key themes explored in picture books, along with examples and their purpose:

1. Using Picture Books to Teach Emotions and Mental Health

Examples: Fear, happiness, anger, grief, anxiety

Purpose: Helps children identify and express their emotions, promoting emotional intelligence.

Picture Books:

  • A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon: A humorous story about Camilla Cream, who tries to fit in but ends up with a bad case of stripes when she loses sight of herself.
  • Elmer by David McKee: Elmer, the patchwork elephant, learns to accept his unique colours, teaching children about individuality and self-acceptance.
Illustration from a children's book showing Elmer, the patchwork elephant, and a young pink elephant in a colorful flower garden with a big orange sun in the background.
Click on the image for Elmer activity ideas and questions

2. Using Picture Books to Teach Friendship and Relationships

Examples: Making friends, sibling dynamics, family bonds, empathy

Purpose: Encourages positive social interactions and understanding of different relationships.

Picture Books:

  • The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S. K. Ali: A beautiful story about two sisters navigating the first day of school and dealing with hurtful comments about one sister’s hijab.
  • Enemy Pie by Derek Munson: A boy learns valuable lessons about friendship after his dad makes “enemy pie.”
Illustration from a children's book showing a close-up of a girl in a blue hijab, with a background scene of kids playing under a large yellow sun.
Click on the image for The Proudest Blue activity ideas and questions

3. Using Picture Books to Teach Diversity and Inclusion

Examples: Cultural diversity, disabilities, acceptance, gender identity

Purpose: Promotes empathy, understanding, and appreciation for differences.

Picture Books

Illustration of a diverse group of children and adults engaged in various activities in a colorful classroom setting with international flags and the phrase "You are welcome here.
Click on the image for All Are Welcome activity ideas and questions

4. Using Picture Books to Teach Resilience and Growth

Examples: Perseverance, courage, overcoming challenges

Purpose: Inspires children to develop a growth mindset and resilience.

Picture Books

Colorful illustration of various animals watching a giraffe by a campfire in a jungle at night, with text narrating the scene.
Click on the image for Giraffes Can’t Dance activity ideas and questions

5. Using Picture Books to Teach Social Issues and Advocacy

Examples: Environmental awareness, poverty, activism, kindness

Purpose: Introduces children to important social issues and empowers them to make a difference.

Picture Books:

  • Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson: A poignant story about the impact of kindness, or the lack thereof, on others.
  • The Water Princess by Susan Verde: Based on the childhood experiences of Georgie Badiel, this book raises awareness about water scarcity.
A watercolor painting of a person with curly hair standing by a pond, their reflection visible in the water, surrounded by lush greenery.
Click on the image for Each Kindness activity ideas and questions

6. Using Picture Books to Teach Imagination and Creativity

Examples: Fantasy worlds, adventures, creative problem-solving

Purpose: Encourages imaginative thinking and creative expression.

Picture Books

  • The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch: Princess Elizabeth outsmarts a dragon to rescue Prince Ronald, turning traditional fairy tales on their heads.
  • Journey by Aaron Becker: A wordless adventure where a girl’s red crayon creates a magical world.
Illustration of a green dragon breathing fire towards a small figure holding a shield in a defensive stance on a plain background.
Click on the image for The Paper Bag Princess activity ideas and questions

7. Using Picture Books to Teach Historical and Cultural Stories

Examples: Biographies, historical events, cultural traditions

Purpose: Provides educational insights into history and diverse cultures.

Picture Books:

  • Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport: Introduces young readers to the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai: Malala shares her story of advocating for education for girls worldwide.
An illustration depicting a Black mother and son observing racially segregated facilities labeled "White Only." The image includes an inspirational quote.
Click on the image for Martin's Big Words activity ideas and questions

8. Using Picture Books to Teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)

Examples: Space exploration, nature, inventions, mathematics

Purpose: Introduces STEM concepts in an accessible and engaging way.

Picture Books:

Illustration of a busy, colorful scene showing a child in an attic surrounded by whimsical, handmade machines and gadgets, with text describing a sleepy moment.
Click on the image for Rosie Revere, Engineer activity ideas and questions

9. Using Picture Books to Teach Identity and Self-Acceptance

Examples: Self-confidence, individuality, embracing differences

Purpose: Supports children in developing a strong sense of self and self-esteem.

Picture Books: 

  • Mary Wears What She Wants by Keith Negley: Inspired by Mary Edwards Walker, who challenged gender norms by wearing pants.
  • I Am Enough by Grace Byers: A lyrical ode to self-acceptance and the power of embracing oneself.
Illustration from a children's book showing a girl in pink encountering various groups of people, with dialogue about not wanting to get married, set in a stylized, colorful village.
Click on the image for Mary Wears What She Wants activity ideas and questions

10. Concept Books

Examples: Colors, shapes, numbers, alphabet

Purpose: Builds foundational skills for early learners.

Picture Books:

  • Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault: An alphabet story with rhythmic rhymes that make learning letters fun.
  • Counting on Community by Innosanto Nagara: Encourages counting and community spirit.
Colorful graphic featuring abstract designs and a variety of multicolored letters scattered around, with partial text and leaf illustrations.

In Summary

Picture books are a powerful tool for you to introduce and discuss these themes, helping students understand themselves and the world around them while encouraging empathy, curiosity, and critical thinking. Use these books to spark meaningful conversations and provide children with diverse perspectives and valuable life lessons.

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