Nov 17, 2009

The Goal: Having a Blast!

I think it's time to revisit and rethink the role of crafts, activities, performances - in other words, the non-text based learning, that we do both at home and in school.

Let's take crafts for starters - what is the purpose of the arts and crafts a 2-3-4 year old makes for the parsha or yomtov? I've wondered, when seeing an outline of a chicken with feathers pasted on, for a Kapporos craft for nursery, whether the child can relate this craft to an actual chicken (which they may never have seen) and the kapporos ritual. I don't think they can! Ditto for most parsha-yomim tovim crafts. 
So I think that step one ought to be answering the question - what is the purpose of this activity?

I strongly suspect that with the youngest children, 4 and under, the goal is to keep them occupied, and chinuch plays a minimal role in the choice of activity.  Since these tiny tots are being sent out of the home for large chunks of the day and just having them do "free play" all day doesn't seem right, the time has to be filled and one way to fill that time is with what is billed as "experiential" or "hands-on" activity.  The activity is connected to the parsha or Yom Tov and that makes parents think they paid for more than babysitting.

A graduation from pre-1A, a Chanuka or Purim play, a Purim carnival, acting out the makkos, color-war - what are the educational goals? Is it to have fun because you can't learn out of a book all day, day in and day out? Is it to impress Torah ideas on the children?

In days gone by, (I bet the arts-and-craft idea in the sense we're talking about it has been around not much more than 50 years in frum schools) whether in Eastern Europe or North African countries, children did not do arts and crafts projects for the parsha and yomim tovim, they listened to stories! If hands-on activities impress a lesson on children, why is it a recent innovation in our schools? Were the teachers of yesteryear unable to come up with activities that reinforced their lessons?

 Many years ago, I asked "Uncle Yossi" (Rabbi Yossi Goldstein, principal of Bais Yaakov of Boro Park) about early childhood education and he said that the educational goal for preschoolers is to instill middos tovos and to tell them a lot of stories. 

I wonder whether many educators no longer think about what the educational goal is and merely do what teachers before them have done.  In discussing this with a longtime morah, she had this to say:

"A lot of these activities don't really give the kids a real perception of what it was all about.  I remember how I perceived the parsha stories as a kid and wouldn't want unreal images to ruin that for me.  When teaching parsha I sometimes draw things on an experience chart (wells and camels etc.).  More often I don't draw anything.

"My students often ask me 'draw pictures, draw pictures.'  I tell them that I won't because I want them to imagine their own image in their mind's eye. It's scary how many of them tell me they don't know how to imagine!  Sometimes I practice with them, telling them to think of a tree, their mother, etc. and many of them can't.  I know different people are more or less visual than others, but I also think that overindulging kids with images sometimes takes away from the serene perceptions they get from just hearing a story."

So too, regarding camp activities. There are things that are done because that's what you do in camp. Maybe they were useful forty years ago, maybe not, but isn't it time to re-examine every aspect of camp life and school life to see what might be done out of habit and is really pointless or worse? Like is "Lazy Day" a good chinuch message for kids in camp? What is the purpose of "Topsy Turvy Day"? What is the goal in "Hat Day"?  Is "having a blast" a legitimate goal for frum children?

I am certainly not opposed to crafts, and certain activities are nice like taking a pre-bar mitzva boy to see how his tefillin are made, but wonder what the purpose of a "Shabbos party" in a frum school is when the children will have a real Shabbos that night at home.

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