By: Rabbi Miriam Burg
My son has decided that he is going to be a “candy man” when he grows up. He wants to be someone who gives out candy to anyone who wants some. Kind of sounds like a kid’s fantasy. Too bad his parents are rabbis. We did decide, though, to indulge his dream for a day. So, for his fourth birthday we had a “candy party,” which meant, of course, that he received many candy themed presents. One of them was a recipe book called Candy Construction which teaches how to build many amazing things out of candy. A few weeks later, I realized that I had a precious few hours of an afternoon to spend with my children and we embarked on a candy adventure. I bought all of the ingredients to build a candy castle. We followed the instructions exactly. And it was not working. It is not often enough that I have time like that to indulge my kids’ crazy fun desires and I really wanted to build something spectacular with them. As each wall and turret we tried to erect collapsed, my frustration grew. I was about to totally lose it, declare the experiment a complete failure, and apologize to my kids for a wasted afternoon, when my six year old piped up, “Ima, we don’t have to build it their way. We can design our own castle.”
With just those few words, my daughter transformed the candy castle experience for the rest of us. We put the book away and began to play. We played with cookies and frosting and candy. We played with each other. We laughed. We experimented with which building materials tasted the best and which construction techniques would be most effective. And we built a candy castle.
Current research about best practice in early childhood education demonstrates that children learn best through play. As contemporary author Diane Ackerman Writes, “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” Research also proves something that makes sense intuitively: engaging children’s curiosities is smart pedagogy. When we – children or adults – are interested in something, we enthusiastically pursue our questions, we more easily retain what we learn, and we creatively integrate that knowledge into our lives.
In my role as the Director of Educational Engagement at the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education, it is my responsibility to seek out families with young children who are not yet solidly connected to Jewish learning or Jewish living and inspire them to grow. We aspire to spark the curiosity of both parents and children. We aim to creatively, thoughtfully and passionately inspire families to connect with Judaism and Jewish community through meaningful encounters with our tradition. In order to do that, we make sure that our programs are both low-barrier and high-content. They need to be easy to access, but they also need to include significant, relevant Jewish content that motivates people to deepen their Jewish commitments and heightens their sense of curiosity about Jewish life. Parenting books about discipline often talk about the need for children to develop an internal locus of control. In the world of Jewish educational engagement, we need to develop an internal locus of curiosity.
Take, for example, an initiative we are launching this month, “PJ on the Town.” Each month between now and June we and a local synagogue are co-sponsoring an event at a cultural institution around town – The National Aquarium, The B & O Railroad Museum, The Walters Art Museum, The Sports Legend Museum, The Irvine Nature Center, and Spirit Cruises at the Inner Harbor. The events are being held in places that are familiar to families. At each one, families will have the opportunity to connect with each other, to enjoy quality time with their own family and to learn something Jewish that has the potential to make a difference in their lives. They will also be encouraged to grow from one event to another and, for those not yet connected with a synagogue, to consider further exploration. We hope that the experience will brighten whatever spark of curiosity brought them there in the first place and we hope that they have a great experience playing together.
And if you were wondering … the candy castle was delicious, made even sweeter by the opportunity to learn something from my daughter.