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Pivoting to Play: Religious School in 2022

A few years ago during the High Holiday season, I was teaching a class on teshuva (repentance) to a small class of fourth graders. My students were at least mildly interested and engaged with the concepts enthusiastically. Then one of my students raised his hand with a skeptical look on his face. “So you can do anything  — like, anything, even something super bad that hurts other people for the rest of their lives — and you can just do teshuva and it’s gone, like it never happened?”

Last year, in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, I developed private tutoring sessions for a sixth grader. The curriculum broadly focused on God and the Holocaust. At one point my student shared that she wasn’t sure she believed in God, but if she did, she believed in a God that makes mistakes just as often as people do. The only difference between God and people is that God doesn’t apologize, she told me.

When I started teaching extracurricular religious school, I was often surprised to hear students so young sharing insights like these. Now, after spending six years teaching in NYC-based religious schools of all denominations, I am less frequently surprised. These anecdotes demonstrate how students — and, as a result, education — are changing.

The fact of the matter is that kids are different now, and their needs and motives have shifted. Neither of the above stories are examples of adversarial preteens or teens. They — like so many of the other students I’ve had in the past few years — are asking questions and making comments that tell me there’s a lot more going on than the expression of independent identity through rebellion and antagonism. 

These students are in one of the most developmentally-important stages of their lives, in which they are learning how to evaluate themselves and the world around them, but everything around them is changing so rapidly that it’s a difficult task. The kids I work with don’t want me to convince them to believe in God. They want me to convince them to believe in anything.

How did this happen? I would argue there are many factors. In 2022, there are few institutions left that are above mistrust and reproach. Politics, family, faith, science, morality, identity, authority, and heroism have all been impacted by social critique, and our children can see that. In a 2021 global study of 10,000 teenagers and young adults, researchers found that 75% of the respondents studied think the future is frightening; they viewed their governments’ responses to climate change as inadequate and felt betrayed. New concepts such as “legal cynicism” are being studied now, as juvenile offenders report that they do not trust law enforcement officers. Advertisements target children and teens, and “exposure to advertising is associated with unhealthy behaviors in children and teens. A 2006 study found that the average is exposed to over 3,000 ads per day through TV and Internet use; it’s more than plausible there’s even higher exposure today given the proliferation of social media apps, with children up to 12 years old spending “an average of 5 hours a day in front of a screen.” A meta-analysis of adolescent mental health found that “the prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms during COVID-19 have doubled, compared with pre-pandemic estimates… prevalence rates were higher when collected later in the pandemic.” 

There is far more information (and misinformation) than ever before, and our children don’t know what they know anymore. And they learn differently, too. Generation Alpha — the generation of kids born after Gen Z, from 2010 and on, and broadly characterized as the children of Millennials — are understood to be the first generation of “digital natives,” or native speakers of the world of computers and the Internet. Despite the fact that educators and pedagogues are resistant to making significant change, Generation Alpha’s biggest divergence from earlier generations is their unique “educational expectations and experiences”, and refusing to pivot to new mediums of education will mean not meeting those needs.

From the outside, students today may come off as bored or critical. But rather than reprimand them for said behavior and try to fit them into our molds of proper students, the studies above highlight that perhaps we are misunderstanding these students entirely. What seems like chutzpah, or attitude, may in fact be wariness or feelings of hopelessness. What seems like a lack of commitment or belief may in fact be an exhaustion from the abundance of messages thrown at adolescents who spend hours online each day, and the educational paradigms that have served previous generations well just aren’t cutting it anymore. Religious education needs to make changes too — or risk losing some of these students.

Given all of this, religious school has a larger challenge than many other educational institutions, because a key aspect of our work is instilling a sense of faith in our students. And, given everything I have discussed, faith is a hard sell. Faith — the ability to trust in something bigger than you, without feeling the need to prove it — is rooted in creativity, imagination, and idealism. We won’t always have all of the information necessary to make perfect choices, and we need to be able to believe in things like our governing bodies, families, traditions, and religious leaders. The language of faith can transform the existential anxieties we face into opportunities for growth. Educating children in how to perceive the events they go through, and teaching them how they can structure these experiences around faith, can actually be a profound antidote to the confusion plaguing the children we teach, who are struggling to navigate the bombardment of messages they receive each day.

But it’s easier said than done. If we are engaging with students that are more informed, more misinformed, more exposed, more skilled, more anxious, and more depressed than ever before, finding the space for faith is a tall order. But there have been suggestions in recent years that pave the way to helping students consider how they might change the way they see the world around them.

One paradigm shift that is occurring within education right now that targets exactly these learning traits is the development and nourishment of imagination through play. Helping students understand new ways of interpreting the world around us is an exercise in imaginative play, and we need to ask ourselves how to go backwards and capture some of the openness and imagination these kids are losing at a younger age than ever before. If we are invested in their religious identity, this is essential.

Play is hard to define, but we all intuitively know what it’s not — kids sitting for hours without moving; filling out repetitive worksheets. “Researchers have found five characteristics that embody educational play experiences: those that are meaningful, actively engaging, joyful, iterative, and socially interactive,” summarizes a recent study sponsored by the LEGO Foundation, an organization that supports play-based learning. Play-based learning can look like a lot of things, and that varies based on classroom needs and amenities, but there are common underlying properties.

Companies like Facebook, Disney, and Apple have incorporated play in their offices through ping pong tables and rock climbing walls available to use onsite; they found that offering these outlets boosted productivity and employee satisfaction while reducing burnout. Play develops skills such as resiliency and creativity, and it encourages both adults and children to lose themselves in out-of-the box, imaginative thinking, which supports their development of new perspectives on and faith in the world around them.

Play-based learning is fairly young, but it’s been heavily researched. Play has been implicated in regulating children’s responses to environmental stressors and has been found to positively impact adolescent mental wellness. “Professionals working in childcare, education, and pediatrics need to be aware of the importance of children’s play, in all its many forms, and how opportunities for playful experiences can be supported in domestic, educational, and therapeutic settings,” posits a 2017 study that looked at children’s mental health and play.

If this convinces you that play-based learning might at least be worth a try, the next question is how to incorporate it. Researchers at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education write that “learning through play is contextually determined—what playful learning means and how to nurture it differs from community to community and from school to school.” In other words, what may work in public school or a day school may not work in private school or an extracurricular program, and vice versa. One of the foundations of play-based learning is flexibility; both students and teachers must be willing to listen, learn, pivot, move, grow, and develop. So I can’t tell you exactly what a play-based learning environment should look like for all students, but I can tell you what it looks like for mine.

Movement

So much of pedagogy tends to be dogmatic. One of the worst things that is typically true of the classroom, in my opinion — especially in the day and age of low attention span and hyperactivity — is the expectation that anyone should be required to sit down at a desk for hours, with the exception of a short bathroom break here and there. Studies have shown that it’s not how our minds learn best. A 2015 study from the CDC showed that movement in the classroom improves academic achievement, memory, focus, and clarity. It stimulates the brain, and the area of the brain that processes activity also processes learning. And it’s unfair to both young and neuro-divergent students whose bodies have difficulties staying still. 

Incorporating movement can look like many different things:

  1. Hebrew Through Movement — Hebrew through movement allows students to learn by speaking to them in Hebrew and having them respond to Hebrew commands. A 2020 article found that Hebrew Through Movement has become popular among religious school students. In my classes, we adapt songs or games associated with physical movements such as the Hokey Pokey and Simon Says and add in Hebrew phrases — “you put your yad (hand) in, you put your yad out… l’histovev (turn around)!” or “Shimon Omer (Simon Says): rub your beten (belly).” In addition, you can learn new songs with movements, such as the pronoun song (Ani is I, atah is you, at is for a girl, and it means you too…). I like to speed up the song as we get more familiar with it, or slow it down, so that we’re working to continually process and integrate the word-motion association. 
  2. Body breaks — these are exactly what they sound like. Whether you schedule these or take them with your students on the fly, there are many options to allow students to move their bodies when they need a pause from the rigidity and structure of traditional learning. Yoga, silly dances, jumping jacks, hopping competitions… the options are just about endless.
  3. Body freedom — this is like body breaks to an extreme. Anecdotally, it’s one of the most important changes to my teaching that I’ve made, because it allows students the feeling of control over their bodies. In my classes, students know they can get up and move around as needed — for the entire time we’re together, if they’d like — as long as they aren’t disruptive. They can take off their shoes or move to a couch or the floor. If they need a break from classroom stimulation entirely, they can leave for a  few minutes. Sometimes you’ll find students in my classroom lying down with their eyes closed as they listen. As paradigm-shifting as this approach sounds, I find it frees up a lot of the effort and energy students use in keeping their bodies still, and students use that focus for my lessons. 
  4. Teacher movement — frontal teaching seems less and less effective in my classes each year. I keep my movements fluid, moving between different areas of the classroom and between the floor, my desk, others’ desks, and standing throughout my lessons. The classroom’s direction might literally turn around as I teach. As my students crane their necks, leave their chairs, or turn their desks around in response to my movement, it allows them a short and subtle moment to recalibrate.

Synthesis & Activity

When I say synthesis and activity, I’m talking about a mix of games and arts and crafts. What I’m not referring to is coloring pages or word searches.

I’m not here to criticize activities that work in others’ classrooms, but I have personally found that lessons that repeat the same activities (i.e. color-by-number Parsha sheets) tend to bore my students. I spend a lot of time thinking up arts and crafts activities that emphasize innovation and technique rather than fill-in-the-blank space type of activities. Whether that’s working with multiple mediums or textures — such as using watercolor paint over dried glue and pastels, or having students engage with a mixture of felt and foil paper — I find that these satisfy the sensory needs of my students more than paper and crayons do, and tend to be more “fun” to work with. 

In my time as the Youth Program Director at Isabella Freedman last Pesach, I put a lot of this to use. The last frontal teaching I did for our unit on Shmirat HaOlam was explaining the obligation to be custodians of our earth; after that, students were given thousands of recycled products — egg cartons, cardboard, bottle caps in all different colors, old ribbons, rubber bands, soda cans, and more — and asked to imagine uses for them. And they did. By the time we created our end-of-retreat gallery, we had dozens of creations, including handcrafted instruments, soap holders, fidget toys, and sculptures. When students needed support with different tools or techniques, or asked me to assist in troubleshooting, I would briefly step back into the shoes of the traditional educator once again. 

Some examples of student creations at Isabella Freedman.

Students love an old-fashioned game of Jeopardy; they get competitive and excited when they review material on Kahoot. I can and do innovate other games throughout the year as different lessons come up, but even these can be loosely based off of existing games. A few years ago, an “Ethical Dilemma” game based on Candy Land was such a hit with my fifth graders that I was asked to play it every single week until they blessedly forgot about it months later. I really would not have anticipated that my top hit that year would be a game where you had to answer what you thought the halachic answer to difficult moral questions would be, but you live and learn with ten and eleven-year-olds.

I use skit-making, presenting, planning, and writing a lot in my classes. If my students are going to be making silly TikToks both in and out of the classroom, then I want to see silly TikToks that show me Torah stories or the Jewish calendar. If we’re learning about characters in NaCh, I want them to show me that they are envisioning the personalities and mannerisms of these individuals in a wax museum.

These ideas are fun. And they’re also educational. It’s a win-win.

* * *

Play-based learning can be life changing for both students and educators. It can turn disengaged students into enthusiastic ones, and it can allow burnt-out and cynical teachers to recapture some of the joy and idealism of their early days. Incorporating play into the classroom should be a consideration for any extracurricular program that wants to access its students.

After all, it’s about time religious school entered the 21st century.

About the Author
Ruthie Hollander is the Principal of NYC-based Hebrew school Jewish Youth Connection, where she is able to indulge in her passion for educational accessibility and asking "the big questions" with her students. Ruthie is the Programming and Development Manager for creative arts sleep-away camp Tizmoret Shoshana, is partnering with the mayor of her city to build a sustainability-focused community garden in her neighborhood, and is the founder of Achayot: a community network that enables Jewish women to find support, friendship, free events, and Shabbat meals. She lives in New Jersey with her husband Max, her daughter Mila, and her dog Momo.
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