“Everything I learned about Judaism I learned at Jewish pre-schools.”
I troll lots of webpages and early childhood education catalogs for new ideas to incorporate into our school. You never know what visual memory tool in bright colors or attractive, touchable materials might spark an interest in children these days, what with all the images flooding TV and children’s videos and internet sites vying for their attention.
And the reason I spend so much time on the earliest years of a child’s life is simple: what we teach children through age six remains embedded in their memories for decades to come.
For children, preschool years are a critical time in the development of cognition, personality and identity – including religious identity. On top of this, when children enjoy Jewish learning and rituals at school, they bring them home and the family has these Jewish experiences together. (by Lisa Farber Miller, Cathy Rolland, and Mark Horowitz)
The same goes for a child’s formal Jewish learning, which doesn’t begin when a child enters 3rd grade. Every time we sing a silly song about a “dinosaur, knocking on my door, knocking 1, 2, 3….. who wants to spend Shabbat, who wants to spend Shabbat, who wants to spend Shabbat with me,” it becomes a positive “earworm” that resonates in our children long after we have stopped singing. Every time they listen to the shofar being blown, every Pesach bag of plagues we create with them, every costume we dress them in on Purim underscores at least three positive messages:
Judaism is fun!
Judaism is for me!
Judaism links me to my friends and family!
But there is one more thing kids learn, or we hope will learn: Judaism is important to us.
As parents, as the first teachers of everything that molds a child’s brain, we have the power to make a lasting and positive Jewish bond, not just with our children, but for them. Think they’re not paying attention when they ate the bananas and pretzels and chocolate chips as they are creating their edible hanukiyyah at our Tot Shabbat in December? Think again. Combine those three things together next year, and see what they do. Start to hum a familiar melody, or bake seasonal hamenstashen or guide their hands in braiding challah just as we do when we teach them how to tie their laces (I’m old; my children didn’t use Velcro), and a year or two or more from now, they will show you how much they remember.
When you ask your 5 year-old, “What did you learn today at temple?” they might answer, “Nothing.” But if you follow up a lesson they learned at our school about Tu-Bishvat once they get home, by planting parsley seeds to use at the seder, they might tell you that the birthday of trees reminds us of the spring festival of Passover. Anything they can see, hear, taste, feel or touch will imprint itself on their minds, and more important, on their souls.
In a Talmudic passage we learn, “With each child the world begins anew.” Each seed we plant in this fertile ground can grow if properly cultivated. Our children will learn from you, their parents and grandparents, and from all of us whose passion is teaching your children from Pre-K on. Let’s be partners. Let’s truly invest together in creating our community’s and our family’s Jewish future.