The Fifth Question–How Do We Help Children Make Sense Of Passover?

Idie Benjamin and Dale Sides Cooperman

Young child eating matzahIn December, we wrote here (Seeing the Light: Hanukkah and Young Children) about being reflective in the way we teach and offering children authentic curricula that they are able to understand. We said, “…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…”

A Pesah/Passover curriculum, unfortunately, is often one of these derailments.

Teachers “start” Pesah seconds after Purim is finished. There is storytelling with books, puppets, costumes, and plague props. There are songs to teach and some number of questions to learn. Teachers can be overwhelmed by the idea that there are so many projects to do and no shortage of things to make. There is a model Seder for which to prepare. This is a four-week long all out endeavor. Can children’s interest be sustained with all the talking “about” and not “experiencing” enough? Is it any wonder that by the time the first Seder arrives, teachers are totally spent?

Let’s first think about why so much energy and time in Jewish early childhood settings goes into Passover. Yes, Passover is a very important holiday. Without the Exodus from Egypt, we would not exist as a Jewish nation or as a people. It is also important to recognize most Jews consider Passover to be important. The 2000 National Jewish Population Survey found that 83% of American Jews attend a Passover Seder. That statistic informs us that many of the children will attend a Seder, and we want the children to be prepared for the experience… Yet, it is still essential that we remember that the only Seder some children experience may be at school.

Therefore, here are the questions for us, as educators of young children:

  • What does it mean for a young child to be ready for Passover?
  • What are we doing?
  • Why are we doing it?
  • What are the enduring understandings for this class of children at this chronological and developmental age, and with these particular interests?
  • How will it all connect and make sense with their lives outside of school?
  • In all the telling and rehearsing and making, have we considered what Pesah is really about?

It is time to liberate ourselves and our students.

What do we know about young learners? They are experiential and sensory learners. They are the reason for the plethora of Please Touch Museums and “Explora” science centers. We know that to really understand and make meaning of each new experience, children must “touch it” with all their senses. Abstract concepts are not easily understood.

A Pesah Seder is intended to be an experiential and sensory experience. It is the proof of “we are what we eat.” We do not simply march to freedom; we eat our way there. Perhaps the Seder is so successful because it is such an excellent example of what education should be. At the Seder, we talk about four children with different attitudes and abilities. Because each group of children is unique, we must teach them what they can understand. So, let’s use this example and what we know about our young learners to make learning about Passover meaningful and appropriate.

There are several ways in which we get side tracked. Think about all the times, children in our programs hear “At the Seder, you will….” Children live in the present, and have limited cognitive understanding of the abstract of time and of the future. Imagine being four-years-old, sitting on the floor hearing this over and over again. Understanding what is going to happen in four weeks is cognitively unrealistic. And what Seder, are we talking about? What, if any, are the traditions of the families of these children? Will the Seder that they are hearing about at school be anything like the ones they will experience, with their families?

Why do we eat matzah? The Jews were in a hurry to leave Egypt and did not have enough time to make bread. “Enough time to make bread” – What does that mean to a child who only knows that bread comes in a plastic bag from the supermarket? When bread was made at home several times a week, children knew that it was a time consuming activity. What we consider a core concept – again, that concept of time – may be not making any impact on them at all.

Too many teachers make matzah the first or second day of their curriculum. The Torah says we were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. Liberation takes time. A meaningful curriculum has timing and a rhythm.

Perhaps, the class made hallah already this year. So? The class will probably say that that was about Shabbat. Now, if it is appropriate for the group, it is time to make it again. This time the emphasis is on how long it takes and how many ingredients there are. It is about rising, and it is about time.

As the children are making sense of the story for themselves, when you see that they are making sense of that elusive concept of time, it is time to make matzah with its two ingredients and eighteen minutes. Now it is time to compare the recipe on chart paper, one very long and one very short, creating a visual understanding of what they have experienced.

If the group is too young for this to be meaningful, then they can know that we eat matzah on Passover. And if we are talking about matzah, everyone should be eating some. Have some for snack that day. Right then and there, children should be comparing it to bread with all of their senses. It won’t detract from making it later, as they will already have the memory and familiarity with the experience.

There can be a lot of talking “about” when children are learning about Pesah. “The slaves were so sad. At the Seder, we will dip parsley in salt water to remind us their tears.” Why wait? As you did with the matzah, allow the children to taste karpas, the second experience of the Seder. But to understand it in the future, children will need to do it now and in the present, when it is talked “about.” So, it is time for an experience table or a snack (or snacks) with a variety of vegetables. Involve the families and have them bring what they “dip,” and then have everything available for this dipping test and share the information with all of the families, using a chart or photographs.

“The slaves worked hard building for Pharaoh. They used mortar to stick the bricks together. At the Seder, we eat haroset to remind us of this.” Even after making haroset,will children understand what it means? Very few children have direct experience with bricklaying these days. What is mortar anyway?

To understand mortar and cement children have to build. Give them lots of small pieces of wood or Styrofoam in all shapes and sizes, a sturdy, large piece of cardboard for a base, and lots and lots of glue and let them create. Observe them as they figure out how to build a building that won’t fall down. They may need some guidance, but they will come to understand the importance of mortar. Are there bricks, cinder blocks, or tiles in the building? Find the mortar or grout lines. Push on a wall to see what happens.

Then introduce haroset. Now it makes sense. And it didn’t have to be “taught” on the first day after Purim.

Family traditions have an influence on the haroset your children will taste at their family Seder. Wouldn’t it be fun to have the families share some of their traditions for tasting? Better yet, if your children enjoy cooking, have parents come in and prepare some with the children. There are so many variations – even nut-free, to be found on the web. Asking the children which is the most like real mortar will enhance their understanding of this component of the Passover Seder.

We eat the haroset with maror. It is bitter lettuce or horseradish and tastes bitter. Horseradish is an experience. Smelling a fresh cut piece explains it very well. What words would children use to describe it? Those words will explain what “bitter” means. As always, chart those descriptions to return to as their learning deepens.

As you sit and learn with the children, it is essential to consider the words that they will hear. Are you using language that is relevant and understandable to them? Does it make sense for them to learn all the pieces of the story now? For example, what decision has your school made about introducing the ten plagues? What children learn “about” is not as important as the enduring understandings and the relevance of the meaning they make in the present. Experience is not the best teacher; it is the only teacher (Bev Bos). Help children to create meaning by thoughtfully providing meaningful experiences. Help them to understand what it means when we say that we all went out of Egypt.