Seeing the Light: Hanukkah and Young Children

by Idie Benjamin and Dale Cooperman

As teachers of young children, we tend to be enthusiastic about the work we do in our early childhood classrooms. We want these young learners to know so much about each holiday, but in our desire to give children every opportunity and every bit of information, sometimes the train gets a little off track.

As early childhood educators, we know how children learn.

  • We know that young children are experiential learners. They learn from acting on their environment and manipulating objects.
  • We know that young children use their senses to learn about the world.
  • We know that young children understand and make meaning from having direct experiences with things.
  • We know that young children make meaning from having encounters with materials that enhance an authentic learning experience.
  • We know that young children are concrete thinkers and are not developmentally ready to understand many abstract concepts.
  • We know that a curriculum has to be meaningful and appropriate, both chronologically and developmentally..
  • We know that confusing children is never a good idea.

But in our enthusiasm, we sometimes get off track. And our Hanukkah curriculum can be such a place.

Consider two things we say when telling the Hanukkah story to the children.

“The Maccabees needed to find oil to light the Menorah.”

“They only found enough oil to burn in the Menorah for one day.”

In a world of light bulbs and candles, what does that mean to our experiential, hands-on learners?

What can these statements mean to our youngest learners, and why do we tell a story that most of these children can’t comprehend? If children can’t understand and make meaning out of what we are doing in the classroom, then we have to question why we are doing it.

Yes, the miracle of Hanukkah is central to the story that we tell our children. It is a beautiful tale of determination, faith, and trusting in God. During the darkest days of winter, it can bring us light and hope.

If we want our children to know this version of the story (Yes, there are versions that do not include the miracle), we must find ways to make it tangible and give it a context and meaning.

Olive Oil—What is it?

As part of your set induction in telling the children the story of Hanukkah, set up an oil lamp. All you need is a clear glass bowl, olive oil, and an easily obtainable wick for an oil lamp. Perhaps at a Shabbat celebration, talk about light—the electric lights and the Shabbat and Havdalah candles. What other lights do they know about?

Then light the oil lamp. Tell the children about how people lived long ago. While an abstraction, it demonstrates that in the time of the Maccabees people lived differently. If they know the story of Aladdin and his magic lamp, they will know what an oil lamp used to look like. Try to find a toy one or pictures. Camping lanterns are another type of oil lamp

Questions to explore—

  • How does oil give light?
  • How does it burn?

Only enough oil to burn for one day…

  • How does a menorah that burns oil work?
  • How long does it take for oil to burn up?

Set up your oil lamp again. Put a small amount of oil in it. This time put a little water in first, so that when it uses up all the oil, it will not burn the bottom. Light it and put it in a safe place where it can be observed by the children but not touched. You can also light different candles to see how long they will burn.

When it goes out, you can say, “There was only enough oil to last….”

Now the children have an understanding of an oil lamp and of how this small amount of oil would not have lasted for eight days. How does this change the children’s understanding of the story? What questions to they now have? What answers to those questions can they now formulate, having had this experience? Do they now want to take their learning in a new direction as they gain authentic knowledge about Hanukkah? A variety of teachable moments can now grow, and the children will have the opportunity to build on “what they know.”

Play with oil. Let the children touch it and explore it and use it for a variety of art experiences.

Make olive oil. YouTube has videos that will show you how. It takes some work. Now children can begin to have a basic understanding of why the Maccabees couldn’t easily have more oil.

Cook the traditional Hanukkah foods—latkes and soufganiyot—sharing the idea of oil as a medium for cooking, as well as the historical medium for giving light.

Let’s get the train back on the track. Let’s remember how young children learn. Let’s give them the experiences so that they can really understand the Hanukkah story. If we want them to be awed by the miracle, let’s help them understand how truly special it was.