Going Past Pretty to Sacred: What Early Childhood Classrooms Can Be

Idie Benjamin and Dale Cooperman

Early Childhood teachers preparing for the beginning of a new school year spend a great deal of time on the aesthetics of their classrooms. Hours are spent making the room “beautiful.” All that “doing” misses something so crucial. Getting ready for school is not ONLY about preparing the classroom. We want to go deeper than “face value,” or the attractiveness of the classroom.  We want to talk about a different kind of “atmosphere” and a very different perspective on preparation.

I am a little person.  Today is the first day of school.  And I have some very important questions, but I am too young to articulate them.

  • •          Will I be safe?
  • •          Will I be taken care of?
  • •          Will I be respected for the person that I am?
  • •          Will I be happy?
  • •          Will I have fun?
  • •          Will I have a friend?
  • •          What will happen if I am sad?
  • •          What will happen if I am sick or hurt?
  • •          What will happen if I want something?
  • •          What will happen if I make a mistake?

The answers to those questions are not in the colorful decorations or the cute cubby signs.  They are not in the arrangement of the physical classroom.  The answers will be found in the sacred community that the teachers will create.

Long ago, the Rabbis knew that a classroom is a sacred space.  They said that wherever there is a classroom, the shehkinah, the nurturing presence of God, can be found.  (Joel  Grishaver)

What does it mean to see our classrooms as sacred spaces? How does it feel to be a part of a kehillah kidushah, a holy community?  If the nurturing presence of God is present in these rooms, how does that change our perception of what we do and how we do it?  Does this not elevate the importance and the nurturing role of the early childhood educator?

Of course, we want to create an engaging space for children to learn, but the most important goal is to create a classroom community. Klal Yisrael is a Jewish value, and it means “we are all responsible for each other.” In a makom kodesh, a sacred space, everyone is safe and respected. No one is excluded or ridiculed, or made to feel less valued than anyone else. Everyone uses derekh eretz, good manners and common courtesy.

Are you wondering what does sacred space has to do with an early childhood learning environment?  Aren’t the sanctuary and the chapel the sacred spaces in the building?  Aren’t sacred spaces for Shabbat and holidays?  Is our school that religious?  What exactly IS sacred about early childhood education, anyway?

A sacred space is a place where we focus on something greater than ourselves and celebrate our blessings.  When we bring God into the classroom, we celebrate the world and its creator.  We stop and note moments of wonder.  There is an attitude of gratitude, and it becomes a place full of life and joy.  We honor God and ourselves by being intentional and being our best selves. An appreciation of positive values guides everyone’s behavior.  Then a room becomes something holy, a sacred space.  Isn’t that where children and teachers would want to be?

How is this sacred space, this community created?

Teachers must be present at the door every day as the students enter. Each student should receive a personal greeting and a question about their day, something that you know is happening with them, or reminding them of a positive experience you and the child shared the day before. You will take a look at him/her and have a sense of how the day has been so far. You will be connected.

Create ways to connect with parents in meaningful ways. Communicate with them via conversations, notes, emails, and phone calls. Tell them when their children have a great day, or do something extraordinary, not just when there is a problem. Technology has given us so many ways to communicate with families electronically. Many teachers create blogs that can include anecdotes and photographs of the children.  Technology gives parents the real answer to “What did you do today?” instead of “Nothing.”

This community must have a special place to meet – it is a sacred space within a larger sacred space.  The space must be large enough for the group to sit in a way where everyone can see each other.  Community is founded in conversations and in listening.  As an example, what can help to transform the block area (usually a larger, open space) into your makon kodesh, special sacred space – a wall hanging of Jerusalem or of a sunrise indicating the east and Israel?  A ceiling hanging (if your licensing allows it) that gives the feel of a tent as in the prayer Mah Tovu (How good are you tents, Jacob?)  What would the children like to make to create this sacred space in their classroom?

Create a classroom mezuzah. When we move into a new house or Jewish institution, we hang a new mezuzah. It says that this is holy space where we will be connected and create Jewish memories together. Find a large container that has room for every child to add his/her decoration (a clear tennis ball container, for example). Decorate your special, class mezuzah and add the klaf, the parchment. When together you say the brakhah/blessing, you dedicate the space as your own. It has now become your kehillah, with a commitment to sharing all that happens in that space during the year.  Invite the Rabbi and/or Cantor to join you as you celebrate doing this mitzvah together.

Use Jewish rituals and minhagim (customs) to celebrate accomplishments. Say blessings for beautiful trees, thunderstorms, beautiful smelling fruit, and odd looking animals.   Celebrate “sheheheyanu moments:” firsts (toilet training, putting a head in the water at swim class, going down the fire pole on the playground) Create a siyuum to celebrate the completion of a special project. Say a blessing for a new sibling, new home, safe return from a trip, recovery from an illness.

In a classroom that is seen as a sacred space, children learn and live Jewish values because the teachers provide Jewish ways to express feelings and ideas, Jewish ways to behave, to talk, to think. All students feel welcome and valued.

In this classroom the teacher’s personal connection with each child has more significance than any art project. Because this is a sacred and safe space, learning will occur. Because this is a sacred and safe space, you will help in creating a joyful, lifelong learner. In this community, the children eagerly come to school because they know how special each day will be.  The language you use, the learning opportunities and strategies you make available to children and families, and the structure of your days together will foster that kind of community.

With special thanks for the inspiration of Carol Starin and  Let Me Count The Ways, Vol. I and II (Torah Aura Productions)