Malka Haas’ Lesson Plan Was Junk

Published: 
June 16, 2021

Source: The Atlantic 

 

When you pass the kindergarten at Sde Eliyahu, a kibbutz near the Jordan River in northern Israel, you might not recognize it. Instead, you’ll see a yard for castaway objects: rusty tractor parts, old computers, and orphaned bike wheels. It takes a few moments to realize that some person, or many people, has devoted thought to arranging the parts into strange structures and machines.

What seems at first like a haphazard jumble in the yard at this kibbutz, and in hundreds of similar yards across Israel, is in fact the expression of a theory about how children should learn and a sharp critique of the way they’re usually taught. The kindergarten junkyard is countercultural at a moment preoccupied with safety and litigation—but may have something to teach parents who’ve just been through a yearlong education on the limits of education itself. The junkyard is one answer to a pressing question: When we teach kids, should we prepare them to climb an orderly ladder of tests that lead to other tests, grades, and degrees—or should we prepare them for chaos?

The junkyard playground was born on this kibbutz 80 years ago, along with the founders’ first kids. The people who built Sde Eliyahu, many of them German Jews who’d escaped the Nazis, were kids themselves: On the day in 1939 when the first tents went up on these steamy flatlands by the Jordan, Haas was 19. There were no adults around to give advice on how to raise a family. Their own parents were in Europe, where many were later murdered. They were on their own.

The children were part of a community of workers, Haas thought. They should play with discarded objects from the fields, workshops, and kitchens, putting them to whatever use they desired. They’d build together with no instruction, and what they built didn’t have to make sense to adults. As she explained much later, after her ideas became celebrated and were taught to aspiring teachers, pieces of junk “do not represent the broken, rusty, dirty remnants of human activity, but rather all the multifaceted richness that life has to offer.”

Some people asked Haas, for example, if it was a good idea to let children work barefoot in the yard. The answer, she wrote, was obvious: “A barefoot child learns faster to take care of himself, because the feelings he gets through his feet sharpen his understanding.” Her articles are among the rare works on education that stress the importance of tetanus shots. Her attitude is still very much alive on the kibbutz, as I learned when my twin sons were about 4 and their grandfather, the kibbutz electrician, who himself grew up in Haas’s junkyard, went to an old box of toys and pulled out the kids’ saw. The kids’ saw turned out not to be plastic, as I’d expected, but sharp (if rusty) steel—a completely real saw made for kids.

“The children have to know,” Haas told an interviewer in 2010, “that when they work in the yard unexpected things are going to happen. The question is how you learn to deal with it. The entire lives of these children will be dealing with the unexpected, but without meaning to we wrap them in cotton balls.”

The kindergarten junkyard was developed in a unique set of circumstances: a poor kibbutz in the 1940s, young parents who’d seen the worst of what the world can deliver and wanted kids who could cope. Perhaps our world is fundamentally different. Today’s parents might have assumed as much when we were growing up. But after the past year, when chaos arrived in Western homes after a few generations of predictability, with formal education in tatters and signs that children are struggling to manage, that argument is harder to make. We might be learning what the young Malka Haas knew: Life won’t go according to plan. It’s going to give us junk, and we’ll have to make it work.

The kindergarten junkyard was developed in a unique set of circumstances: a poor kibbutz in the 1940s, young parents who’d seen the worst of what the world can deliver and wanted kids who could cope. Perhaps our world is fundamentally different. Today’s parents might have assumed as much when we were growing up. But after the past year, when chaos arrived in Western homes after a few generations of predictability, with formal education in tatters and signs that children are struggling to manage, that argument is harder to make. We might be learning what the young Malka Haas knew: Life won’t go according to plan. It’s going to give us junk, and we’ll have to make it work.

Read the entire story at The Atlantic
  

Updated: Jun. 22, 2021
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