SmartParenting (?)

As a parent, I’ve found my smart phone to be a god-send.  If it’s in the middle of the night, and my child is up for a feeding, I can check email or play a game so that I’m not “engaging” her when she should be eating and then falling back asleep.  Or the light is great for when I can’t find her pacifier.  Or the web app is ideal for 3:00 am searches if I can’t get back to sleep after she’s asleep because I’m wondering (worried?) about some development question.  Or my children love the sound of Atlanta Nana’s voice, and I’ve been known to call her or play her voicemails over the Bluetooth in the car to soothe them while I drive.

You can always tell when I’m on maternity leave by my Facebook activity, not just the endless pics of my cute kids but also how often I can be on.  I tend to have a lot of “free time” at odd hours.

But then, what about the other times?  When it’s in the middle of the day, and I’m thinking, “Please just go back to sleep so I can play Freecell?”  Or saying, “Mommy just needs to send this text of your cute face to your grandparents and aunts, I’ll be with you in a sec”?  It seems natural in this “connected age,” but then I think, am I a bad parent? (For the former scenario, probably.  For the latter scenario, can you blame me?)

There was a blog post not too long ago about “Texting While Parenting,” which noted the psychological and socio-emotional effects of using a smart phone while your child is awake instead of engaging them. This was followed up by numerous articles in October about the physical danger of smartphone use.  Great—now parents need to add another reason to feel guilty or fear about their parenting skills?

Then I remembered a Yom Kippur service years ago, before I was a parent to a 2-year old and 3-month old.  The rabbi said something about “10% is showing up, 90% is being there.” (I didn’t write it all down, something about not writing on a High Holy Day…)  And that makes sense to me.  You can’t always be the perfect parent.  And sometimes you need to put your screaming child in a safe place and walk away.  But you can be present when you’re with them.  Drop7, email, SongPop and Facebook can wait.  Your children and mine should not.

Instead of just saying children should honor their mother and father, let’s add Commandment 5 ½:  honor your children.  Think of it as a lasting Chanukah present.

And don’t worry—I’ve never texted while driving or when my child is in the pool or bathtub. (Though I keep it on the bathroom counter because I always worry that something might happen, and I’ll need to call 911—I’m Jewish, I worry, it’s part of the deal).

It’s all about the build

By Phil Liebson, Director, Camp and School-Age Programs

Do you remember when Legos were bricks and only bricks? For almost a year now the DCJCC and Play Well-Teknologies have been running both a Lego camp and an after-school engineering enrichment class. Working with these classes has taught me two things:

  1. You are never too old to play with Legos.
  2. The Legos of 2012 are much more than simple bricks for building.

As I watch the children working with Legos, I am always amazed at what they come up with during their free building time. I have seen elaborate scenes where the children use the classic “mini figures” to reenact movie scenes, complete with motorized escapes or a small pile of gears that is easily turned into a self-propelled walking android.

As remarkable as their free build can be, the most interesting part of all is the ongoing conversation between the students while they are building. The classes are appropriately named “Lego Engineering” because that is exactly what they are doing! Through the use of Legos, these students have been taught about structure, torque, speed, lift, and other complex physics principals that I only wish I had learned at such a young age.

I once made the mistake of asking a six year old student how the “rubber band” helped the car to move. With a straight face and a look well beyond his years, the student looked up at me and said, “It is not a rubber band. That is a belt, and it is linking the pulleys in my car. The front pulley is attached to the motor which drives the back pulley attached to the axel. A rubber band is an office supply!” I knew then and there that my houses and castle designs were no longer the extent of what children could do with Legos.

I have heard second graders debate over the way that a car should be geared: “Mesh the smaller gear first so it can be geared for torque.” “No,” another student replied, “we are racing. You need to use the large gear first so you can be geared for speed!”

Just yesterday I walked into class and the kids were in the midst of a team build. They split into different teams and were all responsible for creating a different component of what was to become a boomed crane like we see around the city lifting heavy loads to create buildings. As groups, the students discussed overlapping for structure and gearing to reduce the weight load being lifted.

Over the last year I have come to understand the brilliance of what these small plastic bricks have become. It has spawned birthday parties, cult like followings for the rarest of sets, and theme parks, but above all, it is a creative catalyst and one of the greatest educational tools ever made. Children are able to learn basic physics principles and have a wonderful time while doing so.

On Sunday May 20th the DCJCC will be hosting Camp-A-Palooza. At this event campers will get a chance to meet counselors and experience “a day of camp.” Play Well-Teknologies will be on hand that day and, with the aid of the kids, they will attempt to make a structure that is 30 feet tall!

You might see a plastic brick. They see unlimited potential!

The Bread of Affection

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By Alex Grossberg, Preschool Assistant Director and Pedagogista

As the students and teachers of our Preschool began preparing for Passover, there was a lot of discussion about the symbols of the holiday. The one symbol that the students kept mentioning was matzah! Unlike most adults, children usually seem to enjoy matzah. As one three year old said, “It’s like a super giant Passover cracker!”

Each year teachers all over the country explain to their preschool students that we eat matzah to remind us of the exodus from Egypt. As an adult, I have a hard time understanding the correlation, so how do we expect a group of two–five year olds to grasp such an abstract concept? During the days before Passover, the students were invited to participate in a matzah factory at the DCJCC.

After talking about the history of the Jews leaving Egypt, the students went through the entire 18-minute process (we were not too strict on time, especially for the younger ones) of making matzah.  We then served it at our Seder in Song the week before Passover.  Here is what the process looked like in the words of our preschoolers:

  1. “We used flour and water. And we mixed it up (motioning mixing the ingredients together).” – Gamalim (2.5 yr old) student
  2. “And we rolled it. We rolled it really flat.” – Gamalim (2.5 yr old) student
  3. “We need some flour on the rollers so it doesn’t stick.” – Peelim (4.5 yr old) student
  4. “I made a pancake!” – Etzim (2 yr old) student
  5. “Squish it! Look how flat I made it. It looks like a state. Or a chicken. And this is the head. It looks like a triangle. It looks like a pyramid. Hey! It looks like a pyramid of Egypt.” – Bogrim (5 yr old) student
  6. “We poke holes so it doesn’t rise.” – Gamalim (2.5 yr old) student
  7. “Don’t let it rise! But, yesterday, my mom made bread. And she put it near the heater on my little chair. We had to wait for it to rise. It took a long time. I got to try a little piece, but it was past my bedtime.” – Bogrim (5 yr old) student
  8. “That doesn’t look like real matzah. It looks to be like real bread. It doesn’t look matzah-shaped. Matzah is square shaped, and ours is a circle.”  – Peelim (4.5 yr old) student
  9. “And now we are baking it in the oven” – Teacher; “We don’t put bacon in the oven!” – Gamalim (2.5 yr old) student
  10. “I made a gorgeous matzah!” – Yanshoofim (3 yr old) student
  11. “It’s the best matzah I ever ate!” – Kochavim (3.5 yr old) student

Restaurant Review: Peelim Café


Taking orders from customers in the Gamalim class

The Peelim (“elephants”) class recently opened a café in the Preschool Lobby.  Their menu was initially to serve cupcakes, cakes, brownies, chocolate milk, fruit, and possibly sandwiches (the owners could not come to a consensus).  Imagine this reviewer’s pleasant surprise when the menu showed a wider range of culinary options.

Entering the Peelim Café, one is immediately struck by the ambience they’ve created.  It’s cozy, with intimate tables set for three, covered in fabric tablecloths—no rolls of butcher paper for this restaurant!  The eager staff was all too willing to serve the dishes they’d baked, prepared or sliced:





Serving Brownies

Serving brownies that the Gamalim customers ordered

In addition to the menu board, they had charmingly hand-decorated menus.  The servers are quick to offer suggestions as well as seconds on all items.  The chips and salsa are quality, the grapes nicely sliced for neat bites and the brownies were moist and richly chocolatey.

If you’re in the mood for an eclectic afternoon snack in a warm atmosphere, we highly recommend the Peelim Café.  Now open some weekdays after nap in the Preschool Lobby while the Peelim class of four-year olds continues their Restaurant Project.

Adam Sandler at the DCJCC! (sort of)

So ever since we wrote this description for our Chanukah Carnival, I’ve had Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” in my head.

See, this is what I wrote:

Grab your socks and your yarmulke, it’s time to bounce for Chanukah. 

This year’s rockin’ Chanukah party will feature a moon bounce, games, crafts, treats and plenty of fun for the whole family.

Clever, but now it’s stuck.  So in the interest of fairness, I thought it was only right to share his song with you:

Why does this happen?  Apparently, it’s an earworm (I thought I just made that up, but it’s real, from the translation of the German Ohrwurm), and apparently women, musicians and people who are neurotic, tired or stressed are most susceptible.  It hardly seems fair.  I can’t help being female, And if you’re tired or stressed, it just seems cruel to add this.  (I can’t play an instrument, and I like to think I’m no more neurotic than the next person…)

So I suppose I’m stuck with this on my own until Chanukah actually starts on Tuesday, December 20.  For eight nights after that, the rest of the Jewish population can join me.  It’s a good song, no?

And if you want to know what started it all, join us this Sunday morning—yarmulkes not required.

The Gamalim Explore the White House

By Shayna Tivona, teacher, Gamalim class (2 ½ year olds)

Our White House exploration began with an interest in the American flag. The Gamalim noticed that the DCJCC has a very large flag in front of it, and they excitedly pointed out the American flag whenever we walked to and from Stead Park. Soon they began to notice other flags as well. The Gamalim teachers found books on flags and on DC, since many books on DC have American flags in them.

Gamalim at the White House

The Gamalim walked to the White House

One of the DC sights featuring a flag is the White House, and when the Gamalim discovered that the J is on the same street as the White House, they decided we should visit! We walked a mile to the White House on the walking rope.  The Gamalim were disappointed we could not go through the gate, but they decided that they wanted to know more about what was on the grounds.

To continue our ongoing exploration, we have added more books on the White House and other DC icons. We have sketched the White House and learned all about the different rooms and who works in them. On Tuesday, we had a fancy White House lunch in the classroom, using a tablecloth and our very best table manners. One friend brought in photos of her experience at the White House Easter Egg Roll, and another friend brought in her book about the Obama’s dog, Bo.  One parent is going to help us get a tour.

The Gamalim also worked hard to craft a letter to President Obama, asking him if we could go inside the White House to see more. We wrote several drafts and spent a lot of time thinking of good questions to ask. All of the Gamalim signed their names at the bottom of the letter. We are anxiously awaiting the President’s reply!

Here is the finished letter:

November 3, 2011

The President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC  20500

Dear President Obama,

We are the Gamalim class of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Washington, DC. We are two years old. We walked to the White House last week, but we couldn’t go in. We’d really like to go inside. We want to visit the Blue Room, the Gold Room, the Yellow Room, and the Red Room. We want to see the Oval Office, and all the other rooms. Please can we go in the White House?

Here are some questions we have:

  • President Obama, why do you work?
  • What do you do all day?
  • Do you have trucks?

 We have been reading lots of books about the White House, your family, and Bo, too! We made pictures of what we saw at the White House, and now we’d like to go inside. Please? We will say “thank you!”

The Gamalim

Pay to Play? What is “free” play?

In our Preschool, we’ve been using “Free Play” freely (if you’ll pardon the pun) to describe what our students do in the classrooms first thing in the morning.  It implies that the play is child-directed, free of adult interference.  That it’s loosey-goosey, aimless or perhaps a little anarchic.  But the more I think about it, is this really what we want to convey when we talk about the children’s play?

Yes, play should be child-directed, but that doesn’t happen without teachers creating an environment that encourages exploration, independence and curiosity.  For example, teachers in the PreK-4 class added gourds (uncut) and leaves to the sensory table in anticipation of autumn and Sukkot.  The teachers didn’t then ignore the provocation or alternately tell the children what to do with the gourds—they watched and saw where the children went and followed their lead.  And they stepped in to help only by asking questions or talking to a child who was maybe considering throwing one.  Later in the morning, they satisfied the children’s curiosity by cutting them open (no easy task the teachers and students discovered!) during Small Group Work.

Watering plants during intentional play

The teachers set up an opportunity to take care of the class plants during Intentional Play

Don’t get me wrong—it’s not the word “play” I have an issue with.  Play is important, vital, necessary to children’s learning.  It’s the word “free.”  (I heard Lilian Katz once asked, “Free play?  Please tell me what’s “expensive play.”)

So we could replace the word “free” with any of these:  choice, independent, spontaneous, open, exploratory, guided.  Or my preference:  intentional.

“Intentional Play” gets the best of both worlds:  it implies planning on the teachers’ part, thought on the children’s part and the message that children learn through play.

So starting today, let’s start a revolution:  let’s call it Intentional Play.  You can even use Microsoft Word’s “find and replace” function to find the phrase “free play” and replace it with “intentional play” wherever it’s found.  It may not seem revolutionary, but it’s a shift in thinking which will lead to a shift in action.

If you want to add an intention to play to your own life—perhaps as a goal for the Jewish new year—all the better.

Additional Reading:  What Should a 4-Year Old Know?

THIS WEEK WE started a new school year

Keeping an ear out around the school, this is what we’ve heard:

“I want it to be morning, so I can go back to school.”  (D, 3 years old, Yanshoofim class)

The teachers have been working with their students to create a set of classroom rules.  Some of the class rules written by the Bogrim (PreK):

  1. No drawing on girls (E)
  2. Only ice skate on ice (I)
  3. No drawing on boys (J)
Kochavim class playing in the sensory table

Trying out new learning centers in a new class

In the Kochavim (older 3s), the teachers wanted to have a discussion with their class about clean up times. They used Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat to provoke a discussion about how a messy house made them and their families feel. When asked how their parents would react if they came home to such a messy house, here’s what the Kochavim children said their parents would say:


  • M:  “Ay, yi, yi”
  • S:  “NO, NO, NO!”
  • E:  “Oh no!”

In the Peelim (the PreK-4 class), hurricanes were a big topic of discussion during Morning Meeting:

  • B:  Lightning flashed and thunder boomed. And the electricity wasn’t working.
  • J:  Daddy and me we go to a hurricane zone and there was a big tree, and it hit a big house.
  • O:  I heard the rain when I was sleeping. All the people were in the supermarket.

In the Bogrim (PreK), some of the friends talked about a child who is going to a different school this year. They missed him and so the teachers encouraged them to channel their emotions into their art:

  •  J:  “This is a little moon and this is a big moon. This is a flower pot on dirt. This is the grass. This is Ben. He’s in the yard taking pictures of the flowers.”
  • E:  “This is hand Ben, flower Ben, necklace Ben, dirt Ben, Capitol Building Ben, dot Ben, and eyebrow Ben.”
  • E:  “Ben is walking to Whole Foods with his momma so Ben doesn’t get lost. This is the grass. You need to cut the grass.”
  • A:  “I made Cheerio Ben. Then I made hands. He’s with his mom. They’re going to the grocery store. I drew a B for Ben.”
Playing at the park during the first week of school

Playing at the park during the first week of school

Documenting the children’s learning and ideas is an important part of our Reggio-inspired curriculum.  Doing so builds confidence, pre-literacy and communication skills.  The children’s conversations are also a data source for the teachers. The teachers dissect these conversations to discover themes for potential class or small group investigations. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to hear what they’re thinking!

What’s Jewish about butterflies? Or spiders or potato bugs?

By Leslie Hurd, Kofim teacher, and Amanda Laden, Kofim teacher

The Kofim class of three-year olds has always been a curious bunch, full of questions and ready to search out the answers.  Since our school uses a Reggio-inspired, emergent curriculum, following the students’ interests and using those to construct learning opportunities, Amanda and I were hopeful that a class exploration of animals might lead us toward the National Zoo. The kids’ interests, however, were steering us in a much different direction:  down.

As we walked around our neighborhood, the creatures that most captured the kids’ fancies were at ground level: bugs! As adults, it is much easier to see what is at our own eye level and above; for these kids, a shrub with a spider web tucked inside IS at eye-level and is an absolutely amazing thing! The Kofim were into bugs.

Kofim sketching on their Bug Hunt

Kofim sketching on their Bug Hunt

Kofim on a bug hunt

Using magnifying glasses on a Bug Hunt

We amassed a collection of clear containers (with lids) that were good for creature collecting. Working together, the Kofim collected dirt, leaves, and the occasional potato bug. Having no fear of these creepy-crawly critters, many of the Kofim helped each other ease into the “new territory” of picking up bugs with gentle hands, watching them crawl up and down arms, and then either placing them in a container or back into its hole. Ants and potato bugs were the ones we brought back to class most frequently, to inspect before putting them back outside “to play,” as the kids put it.

Kofim looking at a bug book

Using the Big Bug Book to identify the bugs

One day, a classmate brought in a jar of caterpillars for the kids to observe. Five caterpillars in a jar crawled around as the kids watched and asked questions: “Why don’t they have legs?” “How can they see?” “How can they eat?” “When will it be a butterfly?” Using The Big Bug Book, we looked up caterpillars and read about many different kinds. We also began to focus our creature searches toward areas with lots of flowers, where we would be sure to spot butterflies or moths. The kids were familiar with the idea of making a chrysalis from the ubiquitous and beloved The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but they had never seen it in action.

Drawing and painting bugs

Drawing and painting bugs

Over the course of the next seven days, the caterpillars grew to be enormous “baby monster caterpillars,” before crawling up to the top of the jar, hanging upside down, and making their chrysalises. We ordered more caterpillars (, so the kids could watch the process a second time.

Releasing the butterflies

Releasing the butterflies in Arna's Garden

As each set of caterpillars metamorphosed into butterflies, the children were transfixed. They told kids in other classes about their pet butterflies, so we soon began entertaining visitors from all over the school. After keeping each generation of butterflies for roughly a week, we went out as a class to release them in Arna’s Garden in front of the J. As each one flew away, we said “Goodbye, Butterfly,” adding many of the languages we had represented in our class:  shalom, parpar (Hebrew), au revoir, papillon (French), adios, mariposa (Spanish).

Kofim at the MNH Butterfly Pavilion

The Kofim visit the Butterfly Pavilion

Not done with butterflies yet, the Kofim Class and their parents jumped on the S4 to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Butterfly Pavilion. We spent the morning watching a tarantula being fed, holding GIANT grasshoppers, and walking through a flower-filled greenhouse with butterflies fluttering above and on our heads.

As teachers, it is our job to impart knowledge to the students, to shrink it down in a way that makes it accessible to the kids. The kids are teaching us in reverse, by magnifying their own wonder in these so-called “little things” and sharing it with us.

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