By Esti Ahronovitz
Published December 10, 2010 in Haaretz
In the middle of the tour of Ein Hayam Experimental School in Haifa, I considered interrupting the explanations of principal Baruch Yaakobi to ask whether he had injected Ritalin into the children’s mid-morning snack. Everything was so calm, relaxed and focused − hardly the typical atmosphere of an Israeli school. Some budding managers from the University of Haifa who were touring the school showed similar surprise. I saw no children pushing, shouting or cursing. I heard no doors slamming, and I even managed to walk through the hallways without some child running wildly and crashing into me (a frequent occurrence when I pick up my own children at their school).
Ein Hayam Experimental School, named for the Haifa neighborhood in which it is located, overlooks the blue sea from its perch on the slopes of Mount Carmel. The neighborhood itself, aging and mixed − Jews and Arabs − is working-class. In recent years the young people have been leaving for other places that offer a better future. The school was established in 1962, and in 2005, with a dwindling enrollment, became an “experimental” institution − the education system’s name for an alternative school. The alternative the school offers creates something of an extreme impression at first, but apparently extreme situations demand extreme means.
At the Ein Hayam School, the children learn by playing games. They play literature, they play Bible, they play reading and arithmetic, and they play geography and history. Every day the children leave the classrooms and enter “game-playing arenas” both inside and outside the school building. This year, following the five-year experimental period − dubbed a success by both the school and the Ministry of Education − the school became an “observation center,” where educators and academics come to view the wondrous phenomenon, to learn and to play games.
The school effectively implements Plato’s dictum that children learn not by coercion but by play. There are almost no frontal lessons; the children play in order to learn, develop, enjoy themselves and become better people. In a small grove at the entrance to the school, first graders acquire the rudiments of addition and subtraction by collecting pine cones and stones and solving problems contained in notes attached to trees. Another group plays a memory game, using cards with arithmetic exercises whose solutions are found on a game board painted on the playground. The second grade is engaged in a treasure hunt, with arithmetic exercises that send children scurrying from one location to another. The third graders are at the seashore, researching the sand (and not one of them has run into the water). An arithmetic class for the fourth grade is underway in the gym: Small groups of children are scattered charmingly across the floor, playing games with boxes. Here the major attraction is the group standing in a line opposite the teacher, who holds up signs showing numbers that are the result of multiplication. The children’s task is to say which two numbers were multiplied to produce this result. Those who give the right answer also get to shoot a basketball.
Groups of children from the fifth grade are ensconced in the school’s bomb shelter, which has been converted into a kind of lab for the production of games. One class is preparing a trivia game about Israeli towns and cities, after downloading relevant information about each locale from the Internet. The other group is making cards for the classic game of “War,” using Arabic numerals. Everyone is busy and focused. Another fifth-grade class is occupied with the feast of the gods for a history lesson. The wine has been replaced by peach concentrate, but in the best tradition, the pupils are dressed in white sheets and crowned with floral wreaths. Upstairs, an English lesson is taking place − in the hallway, of course. The old, misshapen tiled floor has been revitalized with large-scale paintings of game boards. One such game consists of giant letters of the alphabet, with the children leaping between the letters according to the words they have to spell. A big Snakes and Ladders game has also been painted on the floor: those who land on a snake or a ladder have to compose a sentence containing a specific word, in English. As for the children of the sixth grade, they are in the Maritime Museum, learning about pirates. And that’s not all: there are many more games painted on the floors of the classrooms, the hallways, the walls and the schoolyard.
“Every place and every time is conducive to learning, hence the play arenas,” Yaakobi explains. “Who said the only place where children can learn is a classroom? As long as we are still breathing, we are learning.”
Of course, the learning-through-play concept was not invented at Ein Hayam. It draws on previous research and on the philosophy of play. “We all like to play games, children and adults,” Yaakobi says. “When we play, we connect the game in one way or another to our aspirations, our needs and our wishes. The phenomenon of ‘man the player’ has long fascinated human civilization” − Yaakobi mentions Plato, Huizinga, Locke, Einstein and Freud as supporting evidence. “All of them found that play is essential for the child’s development. A child needs a large variety of play activity in order to develop emotionally, socially and cognitively. Play creates opportunities in which children can solve problems and develop emotional tools to cope with conflicts. Nowadays, children no longer play at school. A child who does not play will not develop properly. Play shows whether a child is shy, introverted or a competitive individual who overturns the game board if he loses: games are a metaphor for life itself. Games are also the natural situation of learning, devoid of barriers and fences, and a situation in which the teacher learns along with the pupils.”