A few years ago, JewishFamily.com published an article of mine called “Beyond the Afikomen.” It included tips for parents of young kids to help them get through the seder with their sanity intact. That website is now defunct, unfortunately, so I’m reprinting that article here.
As Passover approaches, our thoughts turn to matzoh balls, the story of Moses leading the Jews to freedom and, if you have young children, how to get through the seder without any meltdowns.
It can be done! With a little flexibility, you can plan a seder that will both emphasize the story of the Jews’ path out of bondage and keep temper-tantrums at a minimum. Here are some tips for a child-friendly seder.
- Read the Passover story and sing the songs before the holiday begins. That way, the kids can be more active participants at the seder.
- Guide the kids in various Passover-related crafts. They can decorate their own plates for the seder by coloring or cutting out pictures of parsley, the shank bone, etc. and then gluing them onto plastic or paper plates. (Covering the decorated plates with clear plastic plates will allow the kids to use their creations as their own plates at the seder without ruining them.) They can also make placemats or use fabric paint or markers to decorate cushions on which to “recline” at the seder.
- Find other ways to get the kids excited about the holiday. For example, there is a wonderful video from the Sesame Street gang called Shalom Sesame: Passover. I bring this video out only in the few weeks leading up to Passover each year, and consequently, my son adores it. Another popular video is Passover at Bubbe’s.
- The plagues can be fun! Make or buy “plague bags” to use at the seder. A plague bag has a little toy to represent each plague. I’ve seen frogs that hop, ping-pong balls for hail, little plastic bugs for locusts and flies, small stuffed cows for disease of the livestock, etc. For darkness, I buy cheap, goofy sunglasses at the dollar store and pass them out to all the kids to put on when we reach that plague. A friend of mine gives the kids sheets of small, round stickers to serve as boils, and the kids have a blast sticking them on each other’s faces.
- Try to find other areas where props can help explain the story. For instance, I bought several yards of cheap blue fabric. I cut the fabric in two and then reattached it with Velcro. When we got to the part of the story about the parting of the Red Sea, an adult held each end as the kids took turns walking through the fabric “sea” while the “water” parted at the Velcro seam.
- A few well-chosen toys can add to the excitement of the approaching holiday. Every year, there are more Passover toys available than the year before. I’ve seen juggling “matzoh balls,” a plagues bowling set, puzzles, masks, finger puppets, games, etc. At least one internet store even carries a “matzoh-ball cat toy” if you want to get your pet involved! Websites offering a wide variety of Passover toys, crafts and other items include www.traditionsjewishgifts.com, www.judaism.com, www.alljudaica.com and many more. Some synagogues also hold their own Passover sales prior to the holiday.
- Try to involve your kids as much as possible in planning the seder, including what to serve at the meal and preparing the table. If you have older kids, challenge them to invent new types of charoset. I’ve made numerous different kinds of charoset using a wide variety of ingredients ranging from mangoes and pears to maple syrup. This year, I thought I might try a Hawaiian-style charoset using chopped pineapple and macadamia nuts. (I always make a traditional charoset, too, for use on the seder plate.) Update: Charoset can be your friend, at the seder and throughout Passover. (You didn’t know that, did you?) A favorite charoset I now prepare each year is an Iranian version made from apricots, dates, bananas, cardamom, hazelnuts and more. Here’s a link to a Jewish Journal article with “Six Charoset Recipes from Around the World” to get you started. (Note: those with a nut allergy need to avoid traditional charoset recipes. Here’s a recipe I found for a nutless charoset. I haven’t made it so I can’t vouch for it, but it looks interesting. Let me know how it comes out if you try it.)
At the seder
- Have some food at the table. I think one of the biggest causes of kids melting down at seders is the basic fact that kids get hungry. Have some hors d’oeuvres at the table such as vegetables and dip, hummus and matzoh crackers, etc.
- Consider a “storytime” seder. If the idea of eating before the meal does not appeal to you, try having an abbreviated seder gathered on the floor around a coffee table or a seder plate set out in the middle of a large, picnic-style blanket. Kids who may squirm at the table might be more accustomed to sitting on the floor in a circle for storytime. Use props and a Haggadah written for children to make the story come alive. (I like A Children’s Haggadahby Howard Bogot.) Then move to the dining-room table for the meal.
- Don’t just read from the Haggadah. If your kids are old enough, combine narration of the story with questions and answers. Let your kids be proactive in guiding the discussion.
- Relate the story to the world kids live in today. Depending on the age of the children, you can reinforce the impact of the distant events depicted in the Haggadah by introducing a reading or discussion about current examples of slavery and freedom. Several years ago, we read aloud a contemporary essay written by a young adult who, as a child, had been a slave in Sudan. The reading sparked a lively discussion amongst the adults present, too. You can encourage older kids to research examples for themselves.
- Leave some of the big discussions for after the meal. This way, the little kids can leave the table and play (and be relieved of having to sit still at the table) while the adults talk. (If you want to keep the Passover theme going for the kids, throw that Shalom Sesame video into the DVD player!)
It may seem that all of this fun and improvisation is irreverent and disrespectful for such a serious holiday. But the point of Passover is to tell the story to our children in a way that will make them understand what was sacrificed and gained so long ago for all Jews. To me, the best way to ensure that my children appreciate the story is to keep them engaged so that one day, they will pass the story on to their children, too.