On January 3rd, 2023, nearly 200 early childhood educators from The Efshar Network gathered at the Boulder JCC for our Annual Jewish ECE Conference: Play! A Joyful Path to Learning. This day has come to mean so much more than just a professional development conference. This day represents a shift in how ECE is seen as a legitimate and important career – one deserving of high-quality learning opportunities for the professionals in the field.
The day began with an inspiring keynote delivered by revered ECE academic, Ben Mardell, from Harvard’s Project Zero. Ben is the author of multiple books, and is the project director of Project Zero’s The Pedagogy of Play. Ben’s keynote was titled “Play for Tikkun Olam: How Play Can Repair The World,” in which he spoke about the ways a playful mindset is necessary for problem-solving even in the most challenging and difficult situations. He spoke about Nelson Mandela and others faced with insurmountable problems who were able to channel the foundational aspects of a playful brain to think creatively to solve problems. What an empowering idea to realize how powerful a playful mindset can be for repairing broken systems in our world. We are grateful to Ben for launching our day with inspiration and his framing of play as an important and necessary skill that translates far beyond the walls of a preschool classroom.
Participants chose from nine available sessions, all focused on one aspect of the foundational topic of play in early childhood. Sessions touched on a variety of topics such as “The Value of Risky Play” with Mattie Schuler and Jennny Natapow, both educators at The Boulder JCC, in which teachers took a deep dive into exploring the benefits of allowing and encouraging children to take risks in the classroom and outside. Ben Mardell’s session “Playing for Literacy Development (and more): Storytelling/Story Acting” explored the work of Vivian Paley’s “storytelling/story acting” as a practice for deep listening that engages and promotes social development as well as literacy skills. One participant stated, “Love this for literacy as it takes flight this second semester. We have some really theatrical students too, so I’m excited to see how they perform.”
We were lucky to have Megan Spacciapoli from Tools of the Mind presenting on how executive functioning skills are sharpened through dramatic play in her session, “Why Make-Believe Play Matters: The Developmental Potential in Mature Make-Believe Play and How to Propel Play Forward.” Participants were excited to learn more about the connection between executive functioning skills and mature play, one educator stated, “I loved the info about mature make-belief play and how it helps with children’s self-regulation.”
We were proud to offer three different infant and toddler sessions. One created by Laurene Phillips and led by Debbie Young, titled “Watch, Wonder, Wow!” in which participants learned how to deepen their practice in being responsive caregivers by slowing down to observe and engage responsively and collaboratively with infants and toddlers. Victoria Bisharat, Network Director, Pedagogy and Leadership at Efshar, led a session called “Play Schemas in Infants and Toddlers” which explored play schema theory. By understanding the developmental reasons children engage in some challenging behaviors we are able to feel less frustrated and offer more exciting opportunities for children. Efshar Coach Natalie Boscoe offered a track titled “Loose Parts Play with Infants and Toddlers” which gave teachers of this age group a chance to discover an open-ended approach to materials specific to their classroom requirements. Natalie also offered a session titled “Loose Parts Play for Preschool-Age Children” which was a big hit with our educators. One teacher stated, “There was nothing to improve, it was fabulous!” and that they “Loved having time to explore and play.” Teachers expressed they wanted more time to play and explore their own creativity!
One of our most playful sessions was led by teacher Caroline Saliman and Cantorial Soloist Holli Berman, titled “Playful Teachers: Exploring New Ways to Act Out the Jewish Holidays.” Participants got to play with the holiday Purim in this session – trying out creative ways to identify with important figures, while weaving in their own playful nature through improv and acting out the story. One participant said, “I loved talking about someone’s bravery in the story and then talking about something we did brave…story in reverse.” Educators learned to identify with the themes of the Jewish holidays in order to bring a deeper meaning to their teaching practice in a playful way.
One of the most popular sessions at the conference was facilitated by Judi Morosohk titled “Superheroes, Bad Guys and War Play, Oh My!” This session addressed the type of play that tends to elicit strong and sometimes conflicting feelings among educators and parents alike: imaginary aggressive play. Participants in this session took a deep dive into understanding the child’s view of this play in order to have a more informed response as an adult.
In partnership with the school leaders, we are committed to ensuring the inspiration and momentum do not stop after the conference ends. We are offering sessions for all educators in the network to continue to deepen their understanding around the most popular topic from the conference: that of challenging behaviors in play, specifically imaginary aggressive and risky play. Due to the popular demand for Judi’s session, we offered a virtual presentation on February 7th and recorded this for all the educators in the network to attend. We had a great turnout for the virtual presentation. We will be offering a session in April with Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Sam Pugh, who will discuss how trauma affects children and is processed through their play. This session will be a huge value to our community, as we know that trauma affects individuals across race, gender and socioeconomic status, and all children deserve a well-informed caregiver to support them.
We are proud to take the feedback from the 2023 conference and continue to funnel positive energy into future professional development opportunities. Each educator carries the potential to positively impact children across our network. These professional development opportunities speak loudly about the drive we have to not only be seen as professionals – but to live the value of offering the highest quality of care and education across our community-based network.
Here are a few takeaways from the participants, that we hope continue to fuel the passion to create meaningful and playful experiences for children and teachers alike:
“I would like to collaborate more with parents in my school community, and educate others on the developmental needs and milestones of early childhood students.”
“My eyes were opened to so many opportunities about how to teach the precious little ones.”
“I loved being a part of hosting the conference, it made me feel so proud of our school and all the people I work with!”
Thank you to all presenters and participants – together we co-constructed a beautiful and playful day filled with inspiration that we hope will continue until next year’s conference.