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(photo credit: Mel Bezalel)
Helena Kling is in her element when we talk in her vibrant, multicolored haven. The director of the Educational Center for Games in Israel (ECGI) exudes unrelenting enthusiasm and warmth as she natters about the 28-year-old institution, which is unique to Tel Aviv, she says. "Natter" because British-born Kling discusses games, education and the center like they're her pet subject, a beloved pastime as well as her job for the past 10 years.
Kling's mantra is that "play is important for families" and increasingly, this goes well and beyond childhood. Although the center caters to children while acting as a nostalgic flashback for parents (it boasts an impressive collection of vintage toys such as topsy-turvy dolls in the form of Little Red Riding Hood, her grandmother and the wicked wolf), the elderly, grandparents in particular, have become central to the center's work, coupled with familial relationships generally.
This current work with the elderly and the more abstract family relationships has evolved from years of changing trends, which the center has managed to keep abreast of, originating, at its inception, with play for children and its notable absence in schools.
The center's founder, Margalit Akavya, who died four years ago, originally intended it to be a toy and games library before it opened in Bikurei Ha'itim. However, after some political disagreements, the center was established as a pioneering effort to teach the importance of play to children.
Akavya worked as a gymnastics teacher at the well-known Gavrieli school in central Tel Aviv, and taught Kling's husband as well as her son. Noting the lack of play in the classroom, she began to introduce games as a vehicle for education in her lessons, which, says Kling, inspired a new trend here.
When Akavya opened the center, most regular visitors were nursery classes, then soon first grades in addition, and the center gained support from the Education Ministry for its cutting-edge work. Akavya also delivered biannual seminars attended by hundreds of education professionals, specializing in workshops on games that could be applied in the classroom.
"She opened their eyes to all the possibilities of play," explains Kling, in awe of her friend's persistence and achievement. Although the idea of play in the classroom had taken off in countries like England and France in the 1960s, Israel was only starting to catch up a decade later and it was Akavya's work, argues Kling, that subsequently secured the idea of play in the classroom in teacher training courses today.
ONCE PLAY became a more mainstream staple in the classroom, the center adapted to cater to other needs that were not being sufficiently met. When based in the Montefiore neighborhood in the 1990s, it trained and provided volunteers to support children with learning and behavioral problems, while simultaneously advising parents on how best to interact and encourage their children.
Based on Rehov Hatavor near the Carmel Market for the past four years, the center is now devoting more time and support to "mainstream" families, who are invited to the center to play together. "We don't take the children away from the family," says Kling. Play can and should act as a bonding experience for parents and their children, and events hosted by the center, such as the "100 Years of Play in Tel Aviv" exhibition which opens at the end of August, are specifically designed to attract the entire family.
For the past decade, nursery classes have only visited at the end of the year, due to the increasing expense of school trips, but on school holidays, families who are looking for something a bit different come to the center. "Not everyone wants to go to the mall," says Kling. "They want something quiet or an old-fashioned, nostalgic sort of play. They don't want what you call 'consumer play' - play that is sold as a commodity."
THIS IS definitely impassioned territory for Kling, who specifically refers to makeshift play centers that are sometimes opened during the summer vacation, often in shopping malls. Kling and Akavya visited one such activity center many years ago, and Kling especially remembers a cage packed with balls that children were invited to enter. "If you stand and watch," says Kling, "the kids aren't happy... It was disgusting... boxes of balls that you jumped into, very loud pop music, students dressed up as clowns with no experience who didn't know what to do. It was terribly amateurish. Absolutely worthless... it was a sort of consumerism, the material side of selling play to parents... It gets some children to be very active without thinking, and leads to a lot of violence."
As a result of this unpleasant encounter, the center became more active during school holidays and soon families were coming from all over the country. Subsequently, says Kling, some activity centers changed. Last Hanukka, for example, she says many malls altered their approach and "spent money on activities that are worthwhile like drawing and activities that don't cost a lot of money."
Although admittedly The Jerusalem Post visited Kling on a quiet summer holiday day, when most children were participating in camps, she reports that even during peak time at the center (Sunday to Wednesday), it's is not a place for "running around and screaming."
"We have plenty of games about strategy for thought; we've had plenty of children who come to learn games like chess."
There is something very comforting and traditional about Kling's center, a feeling that's crystallized when she remarks, "There is nothing wrong with a child being taught to be polite and having a few social graces."
Perhaps this is why it takes you a considerable while to realize there are no electronic or computer technology-based games in any of the play rooms. Do children notice the absence of cherished technology such as the Nintendo Wii and Xbox? "It's different playâ€¦ they're so busy building, they don't realize," says Kling. Although she notes that companies like Lego produce praiseworthy technological games, some technology can "stultify" children, but then, she adds, so can some board games.
"If it's got 'educational' on the box, don't buy it," says Kling. "There is so much other stuff you can buy and have fun with, why have a piece of cardboard where a child throws dice and goes round a board and doesn't get anywhere?" Besides, she says, crudely overt "educational" games are the first to be ejected from game collections.
As a case in point, she refers to the children's market that opens for business once a week in Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Center. Here children sell the toys and games they no longer want. "You can see children selling things they got for their birthdays that they never opened, that look dead boring," says Kling. "They sell the board games and educational ones - and they're the ones people think children should have."
KLING SAYS she's often contacted for advice on what parents and grandparents should buy for their children. "Buy something you like that you'd like to play with" is her recommendation, as parents and grandparents should be a part of the child's play. This idea of a shared experience motivated Kling's introduction of English storytelling at the center five years ago for grandparents and their grandchildren.
This, again, was in response to a new trend: "Grandparenting has changed an enormous amount," says Kling. "One of the biggest changes is where there are second marriages, where children are 'mine, yours and theirs.'"
She was approached by several English-speaking grandparents from cities such as Netanya, Herzliya and Ra'anana, who were experiencing communication problems with their sabra grandchildren. English storytelling proved a huge success for them, and it eventually led to cities like Ra'anana running their own initiatives in local libraries.
The center's work with the elderly, financially supported by the Elran Family Fund, began with grandparents (the "grandparenting institute") and grew. The center housed courses for professionals who ran day centers for the elderly in Tel Aviv, but more recently has been teaching the elderly more directly "to get them to understand that play is important, giving them permission to play," explains Kling. These groups reside in the "gymnasium for the brain" room, which she says "activates people's minds."
The aim for them is to learn something new and develop a strategy, and Kling notes Sudoku puzzles as an example of this. "It's new and it's challenging, I have a course I teach on Sudoku and I develop their thinking on how to attack the puzzle."
"There is no other center like this," Kling says proudly. "Play is important for all ages and we can't stop saying that."
To contact ECGI about activities, phone (03) 629-4151 or 054-471-7314, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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