Take time out to play over the Jewish holidays - opinion

life. Play is important, not only for children’s psychological, physical and educational development, but also for bonding with parents, siblings and friends, and for building important life traits.

 AT PLAY in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park. (photo credit: Zoe Vayer/Flash90)
AT PLAY in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park.
(photo credit: Zoe Vayer/Flash90)

A few weeks ago, an old university friend was visiting Israel from the US and posted on social media that after a 40-day holiday, “the breakout stars were the children’s playgrounds.” Despite coming from the UK and living in Miami, he said, “I have never seen anything like the climbing frames and jungle gyms. It made me realize that we have lost our sense of play. When my daughter asked me to help her navigate one of these super structures, I reluctantly clambered about with her for an hour. One of the best workouts I have ever had!”

This reminded me of some work I did a few years ago for Lego, writing about the importance of play. The Lego Foundation did some research that showed that play is for everyone, everywhere and doesn’t have to cost a thing. It revealed just how important play is to unlock children’s skills and boost well-being for life. Play is important, not only for children’s psychological, physical and educational development, but also for bonding with parents, siblings and friends, and for building important life traits like teamwork, risk taking and creativity.

Play is critical

As individual and family psychotherapist Liza Kramer, says, “Play is critical for kids because we live in a world that is teaching them to take many things far too seriously. When we create a space for kids to see that there is actually a lot of room for laughing at oneself, a lot of room for winning and losing, and seeing that we can get back up, I think play is the basis that gives kids the ability to learn about failure and humility and all those great human concepts that we want them to have as adults. So it’s a huge component of how kids learn to navigate the world.”

“Play is critical for kids because we live in a world that is teaching them to take many things far too seriously. When we create a space for kids to see that there is actually a lot of room for laughing at oneself, a lot of room for winning and losing, and seeing that we can get back up, I think play is the basis that gives kids the ability to learn about failure and humility and all those great human concepts that we want them to have as adults. So it’s a huge component of how kids learn to navigate the world.”

Liz Kramer
 PEOPLE IN downtown Jerusalem walk past flags on sale for Independence Day this week. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) PEOPLE IN downtown Jerusalem walk past flags on sale for Independence Day this week. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Play is also credited with Israelis’ being repeatedly ranked as some of the happiest people on Earth. This is despite the frequent rounds of fighting with Gaza and the fact that the country hasn’t been able to find a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority yet. One reason for Israelis’ happiness is thought to be that the majority of Israeli families, both religious and secular, get together on Sabbaths to spend time with family and friends. Play is an important aspect of this.

And with the New Year and Sukkot holidays approaching, alongside the prayer services, large meals, entertaining guests and afternoon naps, Kramer advises setting aside time for play. “Play over Shabbat and the chagim (festivals) gives us unstructured ways of being together. And the way that kids learn to speak with us is through play. It is so important with younger kids because when we have adolescents, we want to be that voice in their ear as they’re making choices and decisions. If we only learn to start speaking with our kids when they’re already teenagers, it’s actually too late. Playing with kids when they’re younger really creates space for us to be people of influence when they get a little bit older and hit adolescence.”

Apart from playing at home, there are many options for places people can go to play in Israel, which are really quite innovative. For those in the Jerusalem area, for example, Gan Sacher has been described as the Central Park of Israel’s capital. It’s the largest public park, complete with green, open spaces, gigantic climbing structures with enormous slides and rope ladders for the more adventurous, as well as walking trails, exercise areas, basketball and roller blade courts, barbecue facilities, picnic tables, and stunning landscaping to top it all off.

The national park in Ramat Gan also has so much to offer: huge playgrounds, a little forest complete with music-themed educational games, chess tables, volleyball courts, a huge gym area, a pond, stables, a museum about man and nature, a botanical garden and even a man-made beach. Children and adults can also enjoy the many play spaces in Israel’s national parks, where they can experience nature, explore archaeological ruins (while the parks ensure they are maintained and preserved for future generations), and learn about the history of the country in the process.

Playgrounds are getting increasingly innovative

From the playgrounds at Tel Aviv Port with incredible views and the many parks with splash pads, interactive fountains and spray parks, to playgrounds like the extreme activity pirate park on the beach in Ashdod, the Japanese playground at Planetanya in Netanya, the new Ninja course at Park Ra’anana, the largest Aqua Kef inflatable water park in the world on the Sea of Galilee and the science garden at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, playgrounds are getting more and more creative. (I recommend you look up all these options on LoveLoveIsrael for more info.)

And, of course, behind these playgrounds are the start-up nation’s innovators, creating the equipment for kids to enjoy. Israeli company ABA Science Play, for instance, plans, designs and manufactures innovative playground equipment that helps kids learn about science while playing. The products teach about physics, topography and climate, and concepts like centrifugal force, aerodynamics, light and heat reflection and absorption, and energy production. And the company has distributed its innovative, experiential learning playground equipment not only across Israel but also across Europe and North America.

Beit Issie Shapiro has also created one of the world’s first inclusive playgrounds. These are playgrounds that enable children and adults, with and without disabilities, to play together. The accessible swings, climbing frames and slides mean that siblings in wheelchairs and with varying levels of physical and cognitive abilities can play alongside able-bodied siblings and friends. Beit Issie’s inclusive (Friendship Park) model has won several awards, such as the International Play Association’s Right to Play Award. The nonprofit has partnered with the Israeli government, and over the past decade has provided consultation to over 30 municipalities throughout the country on both the physical and social accessibility aspects of the playground. It has also shared its knowledge and experiences with numerous other countries, in bilateral partnerships and through its advisory role at the UN’s ECOSOC.

But there are times when play isn’t so accessible...

I’m thinking particularly of the recent round of fighting between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Gaza. Israel’s play innovations have extended to creating playgrounds that include bomb shelters for communities living near the Gaza border. Children and others who live in Sderot, for example, have a maximum of 15 seconds to find shelter when a siren goes off. To combat this, Sderot has developed indoor, reinforced playgrounds for children to play in, even in times of war, providing children with opportunities to play and have a sense of calm and normality during these difficult periods. The reinforced playgrounds look much like other indoor play areas and gymborees but have been designed in such a way as to enable children to be able to get to the bomb shelter within 15 seconds from any part of the playground.

Children in Israel are also fortunate that, according to the SDG Index, child labor is not an issue in the Jewish state. Child labor is defined by UNICEF as children between the ages of 5-11 years old who do at least one hour of economic activity or 28 hours of household chores each week, or children 12-14 years old who do at least 14 hours of economic activity or 28 hours of household chores. On the contrary, the Index suggests that 99.76% of children aged 4 to 6 are involved in pre-primary school organized learning that is based around play, and 99.5% of children of the official school age population are enrolled in primary education, which also aims to be interactive and involves time for play.

Kids need fun

“Whether it’s picking up a board game at home or heading out to the beach or the many parks across Israel, play doesn’t have to cost much or even anything,” Kramer contends. “But play is really critical for family happiness and it just gives us great, unstructured ways of being together... and it’s fun. And kids need fun.” ■

The writer is Middle East Correspondent for India’s WION (World Is One News) TV news channel. The author of Tikkun Olam: Israel vs COVID-19, she has helped numerous multinationals report on their contributions to tackling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Follow her on Twitter: @JodieCohen613. The views expressed are those of the author.