A research study asked 1,500 kindergarten children to come up with many different uses for paper clips, and 98% of children scored in the genius range on this task. When these same children were given the same task at intervals through elementary, middle and high school, their creativity ranking fell remarkably. As we age and become familiar with how things are supposed to be, our ability to be imaginative and to think outside of the box significantly decreases. As organizational psychologist Adam Grant has described in his books, articles and TED Talks, children and adults who regularly engage in divergent thinking are better able to think of new approaches to solve problems. Advanced levels of creative and flexible thinking can actually be cultivated in children and adults and are among the most valuable and sought-after life skills. In this article we will discuss how the use of props at the Shabbat table can promote divergent thinking and at the same time will engage your children during Shabbat meals.
Our Pesach Seder has countless rabbinically established props that are specifically designed to enhance the story-telling of the Exodus and to more fully involve our children. Using the Pesach Seder as a model, an easy way to encourage your children’s creativity and bring some fun conversation to the Shabbat meal, especially during the weeks of the story-themed Torah parshiyot, is by using props. At some point during the meal, place random assorted items on the table and ask each person to select one item and describe how it somehow relates to the weekly parsha. Props can include any household items—from a toy or game to a magazine or an item from the kitchen. (Some readers might recognize this as the popular sheva brachot game “Share a Blessing…”) You might offer to first list the topics found in the week’s parsha, or have the meal participants generate the list, and then ask how the items selected can in any way be connected to an aspect of the Torah reading. You will be amazed by your children’s inventiveness and you will probably have the chance to elaborate on why each response is so clever. The connections generated between the props and the parsha can also produce additional conversation topics.
Creativity and having fun with the items are key. For example, someone can choose a deck of cards and say that the Jewish children played cards when they camped in the desert. That can be followed up with a discussion on what games they likely played. Was it War, because of the expected battles? Or perhaps it was the game of Hearts because they felt loved by Hashem? Someone else might chime in with the symbolism of the four suits in a deck of cards—the clubs and spades were used to fight off the Egyptians and any other enemies, and the diamonds and hearts represent the jewelry that the Jews took from the Egyptians before leaving. Someone else might offer that they did card tricks, to mimic the magic and “great wonders” of the makkot in Egypt. After people around the table share their ideas and everyone has a good laugh, you can start a discussion by asking, “But seriously, what did the children do while they traveled and camped?” There were no screens, no WiFi, and no license plate spotting game, so how did they keep busy?
A scarf prop could inspire responses including “to protect themselves from sandstorms,” “to cover their eyes while the children played hide and seek,” or because “Savta said ‘never leave home without a scarf in case it gets cold.’” A response from an older child or adult that is more directly linked to the parsha might be “to shield their faces from Moshe’s blinding and shining countenance.” The idea is to be playful with the associations and everyone will be entertained by the innovative ideas around the table.
You can also prepare food that somehow relates to the parsha and ask participants to figure out how the food is parsha themed. Depending on the amount of time and energy you have, you can prepare a single dish or you can plan every course served at the meal to relate to the Torah theme of the week. For example, you can prepare a sandwich cookie dessert because the Jews ate sandwiches “on the go” as travel food or because of the “sand” in the desert.
A challenge for older kids could be to create a connection between the props or the food with that week’s haftarah. While most yeshiva and day school children are familiar with the parsha, very few will know the haftarah without specifically reviewing it. If they know a haftarah-themed dessert will be served, they might be motivated to listen to the haftarah if they are in shul, or to preview the haftarah at some point before the meal.
I heard about a candy store that prepares a parsha-themed candy bag each week with items that relate to the parsha. If your local candy store doesn’t offer this (they might start now), you can prepare your own package of treats and put it on the table with dessert. Let your children deliberate about how the items relate to the weekly parsha or perhaps to an upcoming holiday.
An alternate way to help inspire our children’s involvement at the meal is to include them in the fun before Shabbat. Ask your children for parsha food ideas earlier in the week and then allow them to help prepare that dish. You might even ask them to lead the discussion at the table about the proposed connections to their special food. Sometimes the spontaneous associations at the meal are funnier or more closely tied to the parsha than the originally intended relationship.
The ideas mentioned here are but a few examples to help get your family’s creative juices flowing. The beauty of these discussions is that there are no right or wrong answers, which frees up participants to think more creatively and to share whatever connections or corny puns they might come up with. The props and the originality they inspire benefit your family interactions, help bring about positive feelings about Shabbat, and also help foster imaginative and divergent thinking.
Dr. Chaim Nissel is Yeshiva University’s dean of students and a clinical psychologist, residing in New Hempstead, NY. He can be reached at [email protected]