Honoring Hanukkah Reminds Us To Shine Bright

“As the light of our menorah shines brighter with each additional candle, may our commitment to standing with displaced people around the world grow even stronger and shine even brighter.” – Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, Director of Education at HIAS

I plan Blue Week to coincide with Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. Although Hanukkah isn’t a major Jewish holiday, for some it’s an opportunity to claim Jewish heritage and be visible as Jews. For me, it is an act of reclamation and resistance honoring my own Jewish grandparents who emigrated from Russia to the United States when they were children to escape pogroms (anti-semitic violence and massacres). I introduce Hanukkah and menorah-lighting to preschoolers as “a reminder to be loving and to work for justice –what is fair and kind.”


Including Hanukkah in our classroom supports the Jewish heritage of those in our community by honoring the traditions of our people. At the same time, we broaden non-Jewish children’s knowledge of a holiday, play and rituals, making it harder for the seedlings of anti-Semitic prejudice to take root in our children’s minds. We provide a bit of connection to a culture and religion of a people that are sometimes marginalized and targeted.

We play dreidel and build a menorah puzzle. At circle, we sing, “Hanukkah, Oh, Hanukkah” while children take turns lighting our toy menorah. We also sing “This Little Light of Mine,” naming the value of shining our lights to be friendly and loving. 

Amidst pictures of blue whales, skies and oceans, we build with blue blocks and sculpt with blue play dough. We wear shades of blue and use the Family Share to consider blue things we like: water, ocean, eyes, blue jays, blueberries, robin’s eggs, the sky and more! We indulge in blueberries, blueberry smoothies and blueberry muffins and we gobble up delicious homemade latkes (potato pancakes). 



During Friday’s pre-K class, we invite children to make “peace puzzles.” We revisit what it means to be a friend, to be inclusive and to make peace. Each child gets to choose a word and a picture to map out what it is to be friendly and/or a peacemaker. We assemble our puzzles and bring them to the play yard to create a puzzle scavengar hunt.

 (The laminator machine is thrilling to use and coats our puzzles for safe keeping).

“The Hanukkah story is the story of an oppressed people triumphing over tryrants who sought to take away their freedom. It is the story of light triumphing over darkness, of a people overcoming seemingly impossible odds.

This is the Jewish story of people fleeing persecution, seeking asylum in our nation.Thousands of years later, Jews continue celebrating this holiday as we commit ourselves to rooting out hatred with love. We stand with those who are still oppressed today, those who still search for safety and welcome.

This Hanukkah, as the light of our menorah shines brighter with each additional candle, may our commitment to standing with displaced people around the world grow even stronger and shine even brighter.” – Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, Director of Education at HIAS


Cusp of Winter

Last Friday I took a small group on a walk around the block. Our past walks have been focused on collecting fallen leaves, but we note that most of the deciduous trees are pretty bare, so this walk needs a new focus. I suggest I-spy, and the group is eager to jump in. Each child takes a turn noticing the color of something while the rest of guess what they see. At one point, we’re stumped and give up. The child laughs, “We passed it!” This becomes a joke for the group. We walk, look, and guess– only to find we passed the object in mind. We make a u-turn, retrace our steps and guess again. As we round the corner, it’s my turn. “I spy red, orange and golden maple leaves!” The group runs to the last leaves in our neighborhood and joyfully collects them in our “Hip, hip, hooray” leaf celebration.

As tree branches turn bare, temperatures dip, and dusk comes earlier, we’ll celebrate the cusp of winter with Blue week. I plan Blue week to coincide with Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. Throughout the week we’ll include a bit of Hanukkah in our classroom, supporting the Jewish heritage of those in our school community and broadening non-Jewish children’s knowledge of the holiday. At a time when white nationalism threatens the safety of numerous targeted groups, I double-down on teaching the importance of inclusion, empathy and belonging within our small preschool community. I’m pleased to partner with families and children to help create a safer place for all humans to fully be who we are.




Celebrating Holidays With Intention

In our multicultural society, Christmas, although important to many people, is still not everyone’s holiday. For children and families from other groups—be they Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, pagan, atheist, or anything else—Christmas can be a difficult time. For almost all families, the commercialization of the holiday, with its pressures to buy, decorate, and entertain, adds tremendous complication to already overloaded and busy lives.” -NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children)

We relay our values to our impressionable children. This time of year poses an additional challenge as retailers, commercials, and in some cases extended family and friends, bombard us with messages about how to prepare for Christmas. Inherent in this commercial construction of Christmas underlies the misleading assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas and does so in the same way: feasts, decorations, visits with Santa and numerous gifts under the Christmas tree.

We can guide our children’s thoughts and expectations this holiday season as we choose experiences, rituals and gift-giving that are consistent with our values and let go of those commercial values that are not. As we hold true to our wishes for our families and tease those out from what’s being sold to us, we can gift ourselves a nourishing, balanced and joyful holiday season.

Emphasize Connection and Balance

Whether we are aware of it or not, there is a persuasive Christmas script that can run the show. In an effort to attain this elusive picture-perfect Christmas, we might over-commit to activities, spend beyond our means, consume more sugar and/or alcohol than we truly want, focus children’s attention on material desires and regret subsequent meltdowns, host in pristinely decorated and spotless homes, and forget the experiences of those who don’t celebrate Christmas.

There is much to treasure this season:

  • Time with loved ones
  • Family rituals
  • Annual decorations
  • Favorite recipes
  • Festive music
  • Gift sharing
  • Outdoor excursions
  • Joyful connections

Let’s pause to consider the activities that most nourish us and leave behind those that don’t bring us fulfillment. Sometimes, less is more. We can plan based on the knowledge that what our children most want is our loving attention. Let’s act in accordance to our values, rather than get swept up in what author Jean Staeheli refers to as the “Christmas machine.” *

Challenge Assumptions

Instead of narrowly defining winter celebrations, we can teach our children that there are many ways to honor winter holidays. Assuming every family celebrates Christmas is hurtful. It reinforces a false narrative that there is single experience and it keeps others’ experiences invisible.  A couple of simple shifts in language during December can help to reflect a broader range of family experiences:

  • Wish people “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
  • Call the two-week school closure at the end of December “Winter Break,” rather than “Christmas Break.”

Shifting from dominant culture assumptions takes time and practice. The more we do it, the closer we’ll come to achieving the true meaning of the holidays– goodwill to all.

Consider Families With Less Financial Means 

We can support our children’s understanding that families’ access to material wealth varies. While the holiday season offers some families luxurious social events, feasts and the exchange of multiple gifts, other families are struggling to meet their basic needs.

We can let our children know what we are thankful for (each other, our homes, heating, warm clothes, good food, etc) and we can help them understand that many people don’t have access to these things.

Consider donating to or volunteering at a food bank, donating warm clothing and/or donating some new or gently used toys. These actions will help support our children’s awareness of others and will help remind us that we can all make a difference.

Gift Ideas that Emphasize Connection Over Consumption

These gifts nourish our relationships, produce less waste and are better for the environment:

  1. Trade gently used books or toys that your child is ready to pass on. Wrap them up and swap with another family.
  2. Make a batch of homemade play dough.
  3. Purchase books that feature perspectives and experiences that may be different from your child’s to help boost empathy and awareness. Some of my favorite picture books are here.
  4. Subscribe to a children’s magazine. Here are some recommendations.
  5. Activities: Rollerskating, bowling, family soccer game or card night.
  6. Coupon book: Include a night time family walk, a trip to OMSI, picking what’s for dinner, or an extra bedtime story.
  7. Crafting date: Time to get together to make something.
  8. Baking date: Offer recipes and ingredients and bake.
  9. Gift Certificate for Shared Nature Adventure: Let’s take a hike! Ride bikes together! Sled! Shift the emphasis from stuff to shared appreciation of the great outdoors.
  10. Gift Certificate for Parent Play Time: A coupon for child to pick a half hour of uninterrupted play in which they dictate what you do together.  Set the timer and let the good times roll!

Here’s to a joyous holiday season!

Further Reading:

From Hand-in-Hand Parenting: “Holidays and Meltdowns Go Together like Peanut Butter and Jelly” 

*  “Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season” by Jean Staeheli


Loving Leaves: More Nature-Based Curriculum

“What’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it and feel comfortable in it, before being asked to heal its wounds.”- David Sobel

Our enjoyment of Fall foliage continues. We bring a variety of colored leaves indoors to notice, manipulate and interact with. In the play yard, the giant canopy of trees continue dropping their leaves to the ground. We collect, rake, run and jump through them. 


Leaves are taped to paper and we set out a paint palette mirroring the colored leaves. Children approach easel painting a little differently when they encounter a page with a provocation, instead of a blank page.









Parents brought in a wax-dipping activity. We invite each child to pick five of their favorite leaves to hand dip in wax. Adults tie line onto each dipped leaf and attach them to a branch to complete the mobile.

We offer paper cut-outs in the shape of maple leaves along with pipette droppers and water colors. Children use fine motor skills to pinch each color into the pipette and release it onto the page. Planned and unexpected color combinations delight us.

This small group makes wishes into their felted leaves before adding them to their pot of stew. Imaginative, cooperative play at its best!

When I notice that a child is dis-regulated, I suggest they take the challenge of rolling a tree stump up a slope. This  example of “heavy work” meets their need for vestibular input. The child enthusiastically rolls the stump up the slope and back down. The second time they try it,  they invite  friends to join in the fun.

We enjoy weeks of raking and jumping in piles of leaves.

This trio collects golden leaves to adorn the picnic table before lunch. 


Fall Foliage: Examples of Nature-Based Curriculum

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” -Albert Camus


Fall is a rewarding time for a nature-based curriculum. It’s easy to bring the outdoors inside and to mirror the season of festive colors. Provocations that center around what is happening in the natural spaces around us foster children’s connections to the natural world. We provide a number of invitations to write, draw, and collage with leaves! We taped leaves to the easel paper, along with a paint palette mirroring the Fall foliage.



We even taped fabric leaves to the tops of ballpoint pens.                                                                                                                                            L & F invent a simple game that involves movement, surprise and joy. It’s a quintessential reminder of the value of “loose parts“– open-ended materials that can be used for a myriad of purposes– inviting children’s ingenuity. This game is of their own making and they navigate it seamlessly. They graciously take turns. One child places all the heavy felt leaves on the outside of the sheet canopy. The other child goes inside the canopy and shakes it until each leaf drops to the ground. Lots of laughter ensues. They switch roles. The leaf placer becomes the shaker and vice versa. The leaves fall to the ground. More laughter. What a joyful way to deepen their connection and meet their need for movement! J collects golden leaf treasures from the play yard, runs over to the fairy shelf, then carefully places each one.


We collect leaves to adorn our snack and activity tables. Left: Banana ghost pops for snack. Right: Flubber and pumpkin-shaped cookie cutters.


This peek-a-boo name-game started weeks ago at circle. It continues to be a joyful way to connect. In this case L & W, were thrilled to find enormous leaves around the corner from the play yard and immediately hid behind them. 

This stunning leaf art installation was found at Lower Macleay Trailhead, Portland, OR, a couple of days after the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre. What a lovely way to affirm a targeted community. It feels especially powerful to encounter, given that this is a hike our preschoolers do each year.  Photo courtesy of Sheila Hamilton.