Warning: This one is for teachers and parents who do Passover with kids, and will likely be boring to others
That’s not really true. Many frogs are, arguably,quite cute. These three, for instance.
The frogs I am referring to are a plague, and plagues are anything but cute. They are also not funny or fun. That point seems far too obvious to make. And yet, standard procedure in the world of Jewish early childhood education is to act as if we don’t know this. Cute frog crafts and songs abound this time of year, and this gets my goat (then comes the cat to eat the goat…). They bother me both for the attitude they represent about the Exodus story and about children. Everything I say about frogs goes double for those plague bags, too, which include stuffed representations of all sorts of horrors for children to play with.
When we read about the plagues at the Seder, we do not cheer for the suffering of the Egyptians; we mourn it, removing wine from our glasses for each plague. The Talmudists noted that the joy of Pesach is not the same as it is for other holidays, tinged as it is with the collateral damage to the Pharaoh’s soldiers and other subjects. You might object that I am being a buzz-kill and taking this too seriously. But here’s the thing: it is serious. Jewish educators of children of all ages should take the Torah really seriously, and I think that we mostly do. Just as we are encouraged to feel that we ourselves experienced exodus, we should feel personally compassionate to those who suffered the plagues. Making light of plagues rejects this attitude. Surely, we would not make cute crafts of anything that led to suffering of people on our behalf in more modern times. If, besides the frogs, Pesach was a dry and boring holiday, I would find the froggy crafts more compelling. I firmly believe, and I think Pintrest will back me up here, that there are about a million meaningful things to make and do with children to learn about Passover that have nothing to do with amphibians, dead cows, or lice. I’ll list some at the end of this piece.
But, one might argue, it is part of the story, and since we are telling the story to children we need to do it in a child-friendly way. That means doing it with googly eyes and puppets, right? Wrong. Yes, it is part of the story. The whole story, though, is long and dense. I suspect that very few, if any, teachers read preschoolers a translation from the Torah. That would not be pedagogically appropriate. We put things into language appropriate for young children, and focus on the parts that help them get to the core concepts of the holiday. I do not think details of the plagues gets to the essence of any of the mitzvot of the holiday as it can be understood by a very young person. In fact, focusing on the plagues is more likely to distract from the lessons of faith, gratitude, freedom for all, and deep connection to our ancestors we strive to impart. I am not suggesting re-writing Torah and telling a story about a Pharaoh who happily says yes when Moses first asks for freedom. I think it is more appropriate to say something like ”bad things, called plagues, happened when Pharaoh said no to Moses”, then answer honestly but briefly if asked for details, then move on.
Now to the way in which these activities misjudge children: Children do not need to do things that are cute. They deserve meaningful experiences of the holiday. Children already have knowledge of sadness and bad things happening. When we share stories with them with sad or scary parts, we insult them by putting googly eyes on it. It is important to note that my objection to cute frog activities for Pesach does not mean I think children should not be allowed to do play about the plagues or other hard parts of the story. I believe deeply that children should be encouraged to play about everything. This doesn’t mean though, that we give them plastic prop guns or colorful crafts about divorce. We know they take those things seriously, and honor it, and them, by not making it cutesy. The same should be true for the suffering of others, even our enemies. It doesn’t mean I don’t like googly eyes, either. I love googly eyes. A world with more googly eyes would be a better world. They have the power to make the normal extraordinarily silly. Pesach is full of extraordinary wonders all it’s own, and children deserve to experience them.
An incomplete list of ideas of things to do for Pesach that are not about plagues:
Make baby Moses and float them
Make dolls or puppets or some other representations of the story for kids to act out
make/provide costumes and props for acting out the story
Learn about rivers and reeds though experiments and weaving
Cook pesach food
Cook for hungry people in your community
Have some oldsters come and tell about Seders from their youth
Plan for a seder
Make quality usable items for children to use with their families at their seder: kiddush cups, Elijah’s cups, Miriam’s cups, seder plate, afikomen bag, matzo plate, matzoh cover, decorative centerpiece
Make pillows for reclining
If you really want to make animals for Pesach, how about the sheep Moses was with when he saw the burning bush, or the dolphins in the splitting red sea, or the snake from Moses’s staff.
Have a search for chametz in the classroom
Have an afikomen search in the classroom
Fire! After finding chametz, find a way to safely burn it, and do other cool stuff where they see things burned up by fire, so that they understand how special the burning bush was
Make instruments and dance like Miriam and the women
Learn about Egypt and build block models of those antiquities
Sing the gazillion songs and read the gazillion stories about Pesach that are not making light of the plagues
Make your own songs
make giant illustrated lists of what we appreciate about our freedom
Learn and sing and observe and make art about spring
Make your own midrasheem about parts of the story- what was 5-year-old Moses like? What was it like for Moses’s sheep? What about the fish in the split sea? What’s it like to be a piece of matzo?
Learn the four questions and add your own questions for Passover
Be inspired by https://biblebeltbalabusta.com/ to make Lego scenes of the Pesach story
make walking sticks/staffs
What to do to keep kids engaged at a seder besides ‘play’ with a dead cow toy:
-Look at customs from places different from those of your heritage and do them such as having fun nosh out for kids during the seder
-Or, this has become a tradition for us, whipping each other with green onion while singing “Avadeem hayenu
-Let them recline all the way, like on the couch, while looking at a Passover picture book
-Have toys representations of Moses and the other main characters in the story
-or rather than purchasing new toys, before the seder have your child decide which of her toys will play the different roles for the seder (that stuffed bunny always did seem a little bossy so will be perfect for Pharaoh, right?)
-get up from the table and act out the story
-get sticker books for the child to do or Legos to play with (some will also be comfortable with a child coloring or drawing)
-Instead of individual Hagadot, consider having some parts of the seder on a large easel and let the child be in charge of turning the pages