Child-Centered Jewish Exploration

Rebecca Milder

How can a child know, I matter? For out of this security, learning will proceed.

At the Jewish Enrichment Center, partnership with children is at the center of our work. We strive for an environment in which every child is known as an individual: interests, friendships, what brings laughter, what she does when tired or angry, what he wants to get better at, what’s happening at school and home. We also strive for an environment in which children know their peers to be resources for learning, and can voice their ideas in a respectful community.

Out of this base of belonging, educators and children together engage in long-term, thematic Jewish exploration, in a warm, Hebrew- and text-rich environment. Our community includes unaffiliated, congregational, and day school families. Currently, we enroll children nursery-3 through second grade, growing one grade each year. A public blog of our work is available at

An In-Depth Look at a Single Thematic Exploration

Let’s see what child-centered Jewish exploration entails by examining a final project. Picture 1 shows an installation from a first and second grade child-centered Jewish exploration. Two layers of Jewish ideas are visible in the picture. First, the large size signs and the visual stacking of layers of Jewish interpretation demonstrate the idea that we—Jews today—take part in a centuries-old interpretive process. Second, the picture shows individual children’s interpretive ideas, both about a particular Torah text (on the rainbow background) and about classical rabbinic commentary (purple, on the bottom).

Furthermore, it’s clear that children’s ideas play an important role in the installation, and that every child’s work is unique; every child asked a different question of the Torah’s text. The children’s thoughts about the Torah text and about the classical rabbis’ interpretation are included both as transcripts of dialogues among children (to the left of each child’s painting) and as visual expressions (in pointillism and comic strips).

There is a lot about child-centered Jewish exploration that cannot be seen in the picture. Not visible are the educators’ hours that made these final projects possible, spent planning for exploration, reflecting on children’s work, and collaborating on ideas. Or the Hebrew vocabulary and grammar incorporated into this thematic exploration. Or the morning our ideas were shared with parents and special friends to deepen our own thinking. Or the strides children made in learning to work together, and the language we practiced in order to make collaboration possible between young children. Or the numerous blog posts, Jewish texts, pictures, and book recommendations we posted in order for parents to continue the conversation at home.

We—educators and first and second grade children—began our exploration together by reading the Torah text closely (in this case, Noah’s ark, Genesis 6-9). We tried hard to understand the words of the text without preconceptions, to separate what we may have heard about the story from what the Torah was actually saying. As we read, children had many, many questions. We took transcripts and recorded conversations on our smartphones.

Educators noticed that some children’s inquiries had come to center on a particular element of the story that troubled them, so we invited children to share their “burning questions.” In Yetzirah (our art studio, which children visit nearly every session), children had been learning to mix colors, to reinforce Hebrew content for this theme and to offer children an additional tool for visual expression. Together, the Yetzirah specialist and the children’s lead educator decided that children would learn pointillism, and the final installation shows the connections between the children’s dialogues about their “burning questions,” their recorded ideas about the Torah text, and their pointillism textual interpretations (Picture 2).

At kibud (snacktime), educators read back children’s transcripts, and children discussed each other’s work. As children’s pointillism work drew to a close, educators introduced classical rabbinic interpretations related to children’s “burning questions,” and once again, ideas flew. Growing short on time for the theme’s exploration, we asked children to share their reflections on rabbinic ideas through an expressive form with which they were already familiar, a comic strip. Before the morning with parents and special friends, children reflected on their work, writing and drawing about what they learned and felt proud of. We then asked our visitors to do likewise in dialogue with the children.

What makes this kind of child-centered Jewish exploration possible?

Time for Reflection & Revisiting

Children need time to learn. Not only do children require time to practice new skills and vocabulary until they flow with ease, children need time to wrestle with new ideas. Each child comes to us with a different way of making sense of the world, and so every child will understand new ideas in his or her own way. I can read the story of Noah’s ark with a child, but I can’t tell a child how the story will be meaningful to him/her.

When we provide time and support for a child to become aware of how the story affects his/her worldview, this process, repeated month after month and year after year, offers children a structure through which to create a personally meaningful approach to Judaism. Placing children at the center of learning, then, requires educational modes that allow children time to process new information, and time to revisit ideas. Project-based learning provides a flexible structure in which educators can reopen a conversation that took place a few weeks earlier in order to unearth the development of children’s understanding and questions.

In addition, child-centered Jewish exploration requires a good deal of reflection time for educators. Educators need time to sit together and examine children’s work, searching for evidence of what children understand and what remains to be learned before the theme draws to a close. Educators require time to think through children’s words, to hear underneath children’s sometimes terse or oblique language what ideas children are grappling with. Educators, too, need time to collaborate and brainstorm their next educational moves. This reflection and collaboration needs to be part of educators’ paid work time. Nearly a third of staff’s paid time at the Jewish Enrichment Center is spent in professional development, reflection, and crafting an intentional educational environment.

Intentional Educational Environment

Child-centered Jewish exploration requires an intentional environment supportive of children’s engagement with material and peers. The physical environment—choice of furniture and its arrangement, educators’ use of wall space, materials available for children’s use—should affirm children’s right to explore materials and ideas (Picture 3). Can a child see him/herself in the room (and the school), represented through pictures, past work, quotes, and ideas-in-progress? Does the physical environment encourage children to explore ideas and skills at their own pace, alone and with peers?

At the Jewish Enrichment Center, for example, our rooms’ Pinat Ivrit (Hebrew corner) includes puzzles, games, writing materials, magnets, children’s Hebrew work, pictures of children working on Hebrew, and more (Picture 4). The physical environment should also provoke children’s curiosity and extend children’s thinking, as in (Picture 5). A rich physical environment, intentionally crafted and updated frequently, will support children’s Jewish exploration.

In addition, for child-centered Jewish exploration, educators must intentionally craft the social environment. Children need an emotionally safe space in which they can explore ideas and practice working together. Educators can create such a space by prompting children to consider their own thoughts and feelings, make decisions, and turn to peers and books for assistance. Children become certain that their opinions count, both about Jewish topics and about next steps for a small-group project. Educators’ language, too, can support children in thinking creatively to solve academic and social challenges, and support children in developing stamina for trying multiple solutions. Furthermore, when we practice language for friendship and problem-solving, and when this emphasis is school-wide, children internalize the knowledge that using kind words and actions matters.

Flexibility During Exploration

In child-centered Jewish exploration, we make room for children’s ideas and interests to influence the trajectory of an exploration. Before starting a thematic exploration, educators and administrators can brainstorm possible directions that children’s ideas will take, but we can’t know, in advance, exactly what ideas will catch our children’s imaginations. Flexible exploration requires that educators leave space in our own minds to hear what children are expressing, rather than hearing what we expect children to be saying.

The second kind of flexibility required during exploration is a kind of creativity, in which educators must match children’s interests with the kinds of exploration opportunities (e.g., games, discussions, art, imaginative play) that we imagine will open doors for children to take their ideas further, build skills, and deepen friendships. Educators can maintain flexibility by asking, What questions and ideas are the children most engaged with? How might we match children’s interests with long-term goals? What might we offer children to increase understanding and take ideas forward?

Imagining a Thematic Exploration

When starting a new theme, administrators and educators have much to consider before the first, heart-pounding week with children. Even with careful planning, the first week (or longer) can be messy, as educators assess what previous knowledge children are drawing on and exactly where children’s questions and interests lie. During the initial phase of an exploration, educators may offer children exploration opportunities that turn out to be only tangentially related to the trajectory of the theme. It’s not wasted time; it’s time spent grappling with core ideas in order to figure out how to match long-term goals with children’s questions and interests.

Extensive planning by administrators and educators, though, is essential for child-centered Jewish exploration. Let’s start with the administrators’ perspective.

Imagining a Thematic Exploration: Administrators’ Perspective

One of the most important roles fulfilled by administrators is to ensure that thematic exploration matches the culture and Jewish orientation of the school. For example, at the Jewish Enrichment Center, we aim to set children in the context of an evolving Judaism, and partner with children to develop skills and attitudes for making a meaningful Jewish path for themselves. Our thematic exploration is oriented within this idea. Other orienting ideas for schools include, for example, living a life of mitzvot, or social justice through a Jewish lens.

An administrator’s role is to work with educators to define Jewish content boundaries of a theme, set motivating Jewish texts for exploration, and define language for the theme, all based on the values and philosophy of the school. Staff text study helps establish the school’s orientation towards the text as distinct from educators’ personal orientations, and also offers educators a role in developing language for a particular theme supportive of the school’s orientation. At our center, because our community holds diverse beliefs and practices, we develop language for Torah study that values our different approaches to the text.

Imagining a Thematic Exploration: Educators’ Perspective

Before starting a new theme, educators consider what we know about the children with whom we work, both academically and socially. What do we know about how a particular group of children likes to learn—through dialogue, games, imaginative play, or otherwise? Are there particular social-emotional foci needed right now, or that fit well with the theme? Educators consider, too, how to connect the upcoming thematic exploration with previous learning: What big ideas are children still wrestling with? What misunderstandings/confusion do children have related to long-term goals that might be addressed through this theme?

In addition, educators can plan opportunities for integrating Hebrew language learning and review, and potential avenues for connecting with parents and community members around the theme. If children are working on specific tools for self-expression, such as painting or storytelling, or have expressed fascination with three-dimensional work, for example, educators can consider how these skills and interests may be developed through the theme. Educators plan, too, a starting point for the educational environment: what materials to make available to children and what visuals to put on the walls. And then we’re off on our exploration, partnering with children, maintaining flexibility for what children offer and how we can together meet long-term educational goals.


Child-centered Jewish exploration is challenging. This kind of children’s learning may require changes to a school’s staffing structure, physical layout, and timing of the school day—not small changes. At its core, child-centered Jewish exploration may require a shift in thinking about children. Placing children at the center of learning requires us to believe that children are resourceful, capable and imaginative; that children are naturally curious, enjoy discovery, challenges, and achievement; that children learn through play, observation, reading, listening, art, games, reflection, questioning, and relationships with peers and adults. We must trust that children, given the opportunity, will offer their best.

For when we give children time to grow skills and make meaning of Jewish ideas; when we are intentional about creating a learning environment rich in exploration opportunities and social-emotional support; and when we maintain flexibility for matching children’s interests with long-term educational goals, children know they are in a safe learning environment that values them in their fullness. In such a Jewish environment, a child knows, I matter. The boundaries for learning become limitless.♦

Placing children at the center of learning, then, requires educational modes that allow children time to process new information, and time to revisit ideas.

Rabbi Rebecca Milder is founding director of the Jewish Enrichment Center, a new center for afterschool and Sunday Jewish enrichment in Hyde Park, Chicago. She can be reached at [email protected].

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HaYidion Bold Ideas Summer 2013
Bold Ideas
Summer 2013