Play in the Classroom

Incorporating Jewish Play into your Classroom

Over the past year it seems the topic of play has received a lot of attention. A recent story by NPR discussed the positive effects that play has on brain development; another story highlighted the connection between play and a child’s success in life.  Most people attribute the decrease in play in schools to an increase of standardized testing and a focus on a more “academic” curriculum. This has led to more time spent on rote instruction and less time for open-ended play.

Research shows that play is an integral and crucial part of learning and development for children. Play helps children develop skills such as language, self regulation, social competence, and emotional intelligence. Play has even been attributed to brain development. Educational philosopher Stuart Brown states, “Play is a vital way for the brain to integrate its divergent parts and build complex synaptic connections. [These connections] are critical to continued brain stabilization, organization, and development.” (Nell, Drew, Bush 15).  Classic educational theorists and researchers such as Friedrich Froebel, Lev Vygostky, Jean Piaget, and Erik Erickson all attribute and expound the importance of play in a person’s learning and development. If we accept that play in the classroom is important and we commit to providing time for it, what does play look like? Moreover, what does it look like in a Jewish classroom?

In any classroom, Jewish or secular, educators must provide a safe space and appropriate materials for children to be able to play. It is important to provide a variety of open-ended materials for children to explore. Educators can seamlessly integrate Judaism into play by adding some thoughtful elements.

Materials: By definition, there is no right or wrong way of using “open-ended materials” or loose parts. Children are not given instructions when using the materials (other than safety guidelines).  Rather, they are able to explore, create and use the materials as they wish. Open-ended materials used in a Jewish classroom can be exactly the same as those in a secular classroom. Educators can and should give children opportunities to experience specifically Jewish items, as well.

  • Do you have ritual items such as kiddish cups, shabbat candles and sticks, challah covers, kippot, a replica of a Torah, etc. available and accessible to children?
  • Do you have items used for holidays such as a lulav and etrog, chanukiah, building materials for a sukkah, seder plate, etc. available in your classroom for children to explore?
  • Are those items used for holidays available and accessible only during the holidays or are they brought out and explored at various times of the year?
  • How do you/your school/your community feel about letting the children explore Jewish ritual objects (in a safe and respectful manner)?

Music and classroom environment: Music can help create and shape the classroom environment. Educators should be intentional about playing music and the types of music being played. For example, playing Shabbat music on Friday mornings has a profound effect on classroom spirit. By playing music with holiday themes or Hebrew lyrics, educators can create a Jewish environment.

Values and Language: Play creates opportunities to discuss and teach values. Introducing language that supports values during play can encourage safe, appropriate play and offer simple ways to discuss values-based concepts in the classroom. Here are 2 examples of using play to discuss and introduce values:

  • Tikkun Olam, repair the world: Use recycled materials in the classroom. Egg cartons, empty food containers, scrap fabric, tile or wood can be used in imaginative and creative ways and offer an opportunity to discuss concepts such as recycling and caring for the Earth and resources.
  • B’tzelem Elohim, In G-d’s image: We talk a lot about treating each other with respect and kindness in preschool. For young children this value can be used to help promote the idea that all humans are similar and, although we may have differences, we should treat each other with respect and love. Highlighting this value can encourage self-regulation and cooperation.

Just like in secular play, the possibilities of Jewish Play are endless; so take a leap and explore the endless opportunities to incorporate Judaism into play in your classroom.

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