by Tanya Tolchin
With Passover just a few days away, most of us still have a long list of things to accomplish. Between cleaning the house, removing chametz, shopping, gathering recipes and planning a seder, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. But if you are a parent, it is worth adding one more thing to the list: deciding about how to occupy young children during the seder and holiday. Since Passover is all about passing on tradition, ideas abound for engaging children.
One way to engage children during the week of Passover is by taking them out in nature. Since Passover is also a celebration of renewal and the spring season, it is a great time for walks with children to look for signs of spring. Trees are budding all over our area, spring peepers are out in the ponds and wetlands and the first garden flowers are blooming. If you know where to look, you can even find wild plants like chickweed to gather as another “karpas” or spring green for your seder. Time outside can help make the entire holiday more fun, and picnics with children have the added advantage of minimizing indoor matzah crumbs.
When it comes to the actual seder, many families opt for very short, child-friendly sedarim, which can be great for children but might leave the adults feeling like something is missing. In our child-centered times, it can be easy to meet the needs of the children and forget that adults are also expected to learn from the Passover story every year. Adults should have the opportunity to engage in the text and ask grown-up questions. But when adults are discussing the Haggadah or current events, children tend to get bored. So how can we keep everyone happy?
The good news is the Jewish people have been thinking about involving children in sedarim for a long time, and there are already creative, hands-on activities built right into the seder. In fact, the seder is in some ways one big parenting lesson which shows us how to teach our children using stories, taste, games and music. Children enjoy asking the four questions, dipping parsley in saltwater, searching for the afikomen, opening the door for Elijah and, of course, keeping a sharp eye on Elijah’s cup for disappearing wine. But despite these rich traditions, there is still time for young children to get restless at a seder.
One way to keep children engaged is with age-appropriate books. There are also some wonderful children’s Haggadot available including the popular Sammy Spider’s First Haggadah, by Sylvia Rouss, which will make an appearance at our family’s seder. Another wonderful book, The Mouse in the Matzah Factory by Francine Medoff, explains how matzah is made. These books and others can be integrated into the seder or read ahead of time to help build anticipation.
Another idea for keeping children happy at the table is to cover part of the table where children are sitting with butcher block paper. Parents can draw outlines for children to color in such as pyramids, a basket for Moses and seder plates. Children can use crayons to decorate the “table cloth” during the seder.
Also, many children enjoy preparing their own decorative seder plates with real or play food. Older children can participate in reading and prizes can be offered to children for asking questions.
Since many family sedarim will include children with a wide age span, think about ways for the older children to help the younger children enjoy the holiday. At a longer seder, many parents allow children to leave the table to play. Children can prepare a Passover play for the family, attempt to build a pyramid out of Legos or recline on pillows and look at Passover books. Costumes or simple puppets can be great additions to encourage dramatic play. Depending on the ages of the children, a little advance planning should help the seder be a learning experience for everyone.