Early Childhood

100 Days of School: A Wacky Celebration Goes Viral

By Christina A. Samuels — February 15, 2019 4 min read
Two young kids (one girl and one boy) dressed up as old people, holding hands, and standing in front of an empty light blue wall.
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You know who the Pinterest moms are. The ones who pack camera-ready lunches for their children with lovely handwritten notes. The parents who are ready and available for every volunteer activity and whose homes are the neighborhood clubhouse.

And then there is me. I’m the mom who counts it as a victory if we leave the house each morning fed and wearing clean clothes.

So when my child was asked to dress like a 100-year-old man this week to celebrate the 100th day of school, I headed my Facebook page to gripe. Where did THIS made-up “holiday” come from?

Turns out, marking this “special” day of the school year has been around for a while. As the parent of a kindergarten student, I hadn’t experienced this. But my friends with older children, as well as teachers and principals who responded to me on Twitter, shared their “100 Days” experiences from around the country. Here’s just a small sample:

Pinterest is filled with pictures of cute costumed kids. A national party supply store in my neighborhood even had a display area of “100 Days” themed gear—"grandma” and “grandpa” outfits, gray wigs, fake pipes, inflatable walkers, pencils and certificates. Clearly, I have been out of the loop.

100 Counts for a Lot in Math Education

So when did this start? David Barnes, an associate executive director for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, isn’t exactly sure, but he suggests that it comes naturally when early-grade teachers start teaching about the calendar. “That leads into counting days, which leads to the 100th day,” he said. (For older students, many schools have also adopted activities around “Pi Day”, or March 14; the first three numbers of the geometric ratio are 3.14.)

There’s plenty of counting objects on the day and trying to make the number 100 concrete to young children, Barnes said. It’s all meant to show that math is fun and enjoyable. But another element teachers can wrap in is not just counting to 100, but using 100 to talk about the importance of the math concept of place value. The number 1 with no zeroes represents a single object, but because of place value, when 1 is written with additional zeroes it describes a much larger number.

Talking and thinking about the importance of place value offers an additional experience beyond just counting objects, Barnes said. Kids could talk about what grade they’d be in on their 1,000th day of school. They could think about whether they would be in school for 10,000 days.

“We want kids to enjoy math and to enjoy and think with numbers and realize that there’s lots of questions you can ask about this,” Barnes said. “There’s a level of rigor and sensemaking that we would like kids to engage in with mathematics, so that it’s not just rote.”

For more ideas, the organization’s magazine, Teaching Children Mathematics, published an article, 100 Activities for the 100th Day.

So What About the Costumes?

For all the frivolity, the 100th day celebrations do have a problematic side. As a reporter who also writes about children with disabilities, I wasn’t sure what to think about canes and walkers used as props.

It turns out I wasn’t alone. Catherine Sears, a Virginia mother, was taken aback when she saw a young child in her son’s school bent over and using a mock walker. Her infant son was born with a brain injury, and many children with similar injuries need a gait trainer for mobility when they get older.

“I don’t want to sound super uptight or anything,” Sears said. She knows the activities are all meant in fun; her own son created a treasure box of 100 polished stones as part of the school’s 100th day events.

But the dress-up aspect is based in the idea that young children wouldn’t need the same mobility aids used by older people, and that’s not the case. “It’s supposed to be cute to have a 6-year-old using a walker. Humor is when something is the opposite of what you expect it to be,” she said.

But for the mom of a kid with a disability, assistive technology is not incongruous with childhood. “It’s what you expect.”

Last year, three organizations that advocate for older adults drafted a letter for educators pointing out alternatives that can celebrate aging, not mock it. Among their ideas: invite an older person (even a 100-year-old, if they are in the community!) to the school to interact with students, or gather stories about elders or 100-year-olds from students’ families or from books.

“This is something we talk about a lot—are we being too sensitive?” said Penny Cook, the executive director of Pioneer Network, an advocacy organization for providers of long-term care and other services for elders. “But what about the other ‘isms’ out there? To me, ageism is just one of the other ‘isms.”

In contrast, getting rid of the canes, hair curlers and fake wrinkles and choosing a more positive alternative can “introduc[e] children to what aging is all about. They have the opportunity to see the wisdom that aging can bring,” Cook said.

100 Days of School and Beyond

I confessed to Cook that for my son, I just went with the “dress like you’re 100 years old” option. My son’s school offered an alternative—dress in your favorite clothing style in the past 100 years—but that seemed even more complicated. I sent my son off to school with plaid suspenders and a bow tie, drew in some wrinkles with a brow pencil, and added a generous dusting of baby powder to turn his hair “white.”

At the end of the day, he reported that he was one of the few people in his class who dressed for the occasion. And on the 100th day of school, I graduated to Pinterest Mom.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.