Ask a teacher to teach the same short story to children every day for eight or more years, and they will likely look at you like you are crazy! Yet, in a sense, that is the challenge of teaching tefillah. We have the same tefillot, more or less, that we use with our children day after day for their entire school career. Unless there is a conscious effort to create a rich tefillah experience, group prayer is at risk of becoming a mindless task, with children (and adults!) on autopilot.
In truth, “autopilot tefillah” can appear good in elementary services because of the natural love of young children to sing. Tefillah expert, Saul Wachs, calls this “the Trap” of elementary tefillah (Wachs, 2009). This is because autopilot elementary tefillah leaves nothing in place when children get older and singing does not have any appeal. It is critical that elementary children form a relationship to tefillah so that by the time they get to middle school, they understand it and value it.
How do I pray?
What do the words mean?
What do the words mean to me?
The first question we address when we teach children to pronounce the words of the tefillah properly, to utilize nusach appropriately, and to be knowledgeable of the choreography of the service (eg. when to stand). The other two questions are often neglected in the elementary tefillah service. When we address the second question, we are teaching children to identify key lines and important vocabulary in the tefillot. We are also teaching them to identify the big idea of each prayer.
- Sit/Stand: This is a good technique for doing a quick survey. You ask a yes/no question like: do you believe God has a role in our day to day lives. If yes, please stand. If not, stay seated.
- Corners: Set up four chairs in each corner of the makom tefillah. Put a sign (or have a child hold a sign) on each chair that is a possible response to a question. Daveners must then choose the response that most matches their answer. For example, if you had just been made king and God said he would give you any wish, what would you wish for: a long life, victory over your enemies, riches or wisdom? (I use this and the story of Solomon to introduce the blessing “Ata Chonen" in the amidah)
- Human Bar Graph: Similar to Corners, in the Human Bar Graph, you set the chairs up in a row at the front each with a response. You ask a question and the children have to sit in a straight row behind the chair that matches their response.
- Values Continuum: The idea here is for the leader to make a statement that children can strongly agree with, strongly disagree with or be somewhere in the middle. An example of a statement might be: God is the source of all bad things in the world (I use this to introduce the blessing yotzer or). Children who strongly agree move to one end of the room, and those who strongly disagree move to the other end. Most children place themselves somewhere in the middle.