What’s not to love about Chanukah, with its flickering candles, beautiful songs, tasty latkes and gift exchanges? These eight nights also provide great opportunities for children with special needs to build social skills, enjoy sensory experiences and connect meaningfully with Jewish tradition. Try the tips below to make your Chanukah celebration meaningful and accessible for all members of your family.
1. Include Visual Blessings. Many Jewish parents and educators place importance on having children learn how to say the Chanukah blessings. But the act of reciting a blessing isn't as resonant if children are simply repeating words in Hebrew that have no meaning to them. Since students with special needs are often strong visual learners, adding symbols to the blessings can help them understand the meaning of the Hebrew words and phrases. As an added bonus, you may find that the visuals help everyone around the menorah feel a deeper connection to the blessings and to the traditions you’re sharing.
2. Practice Gross and Fine Motor Skills. Did you know that the body learns 10 times faster than the brain and forgets 10 times slower? Here are some fun ways to incorporate movement and build fine and gross motor skills into your Chanukah traditions. Build a menorah out of Legos or Play Doh, cut strips of paper to make a paper chain menorah or create a 2D menorah out of shaving cream or finger paint: All help with visual, motor and spatial planning. Vary the materials you use to make the experience multi-sensory. And keep spinning those dreidels (or use one of the dreidel apps listed below to e-spin one)! Dreidel play is great practice for improving pencil grip.
3. Give Everyone a Set of Lights. One menorah for each family is good, but one for each person in the family is even better! When you have multiple children and only one menorah, siblings may feel left out or have a difficult time waiting for their turn to light the candles. Having a menorah for each member of the family helps children feel more engaged and invested in our traditions. Plus, the experience will allow you to spend quality time with each child, setting up the candles and teaching them how to light them. For very young children, you can buy or create a fabric or paper menorah with Velcro candles and flames.
4. Feed Children’s Bodies and Minds. Making—and eating—latkes is an integral part of Chanukah, and children with a wide range of needs can participate in preparing them. The key is breaking the process into easy, single-action steps that match your child’s abilities. You can do this by creating step-by-step instructions that employ simple language and pictures. (Here's a visual latke recipe from our New Normal Editor that you can download and print). Or set up stations—one step per station—with all the supplies needed for that step gathered in one place. This gives children independence and a sense of ownership and makes cooking with your kids more fun for you!
5. Separate Menorah Lighting from Gift Giving. Many children have difficulties with transitions and with waiting. Sometimes, kids want to rush through lighting the menorah to get to the gifts; but in the process, they lose out on some wonderful parts of the candle lighting ritual. By separating the two, you can give children time to enjoy the process of setting up and lighting the menorah and playing dreidel, and you can give them gifts at a time when they will be able to fully enjoy them. Giving kids toys at night (especially on school nights, when they won’t have time to play with them) can be challenging. Instead, experiment with giving gifts at different times of the day, depending on what they may be used for: pajamas and books at bedtime, new shoes or winter coats and scarves before school and toys after school, so children can take ample time to explore them.
6. Play Together. Take a break from spinning the dreidel, and try some of the fun games below. Game playing is a great way to encourage social interactions, help children practice taking turns and work on building social and executive functioning skills. Here are some that the whole family will love:
· Guesstures: Guesstures is a game of one word charades, and it helps children practice reading and use body language to convey messages.
· Getta Letter: Getta Letter is a categorization game that is played in one minute rounds.
· Rush Hour: Rush Hour helps children with motor and visual planning.
7. Share your Knowledge and Appreciation. In advance of Chanukah, some teachers talk with students about Jewish heroes, and this is an activity you can also do at home. Invite your child to identify eight heroes (from the well-known, to the unsung) who have made an impression on them. Then create a packet with information about each one, and read about a different hero each night as you light the candles.
8. There’s an App for That. For children who love and learn best through engaging with technology, there are an array of great, free Hanukkah apps available for iPads and smartphones. Five excellent ones include:
For more resources, including Chanukah blessings, visuals, social stories and more, visit the Gateways: Access to Education website.
Many thanks to Ilene Beckman, Beth Crastnopol, Sharon Goldstein, Ilene Greenwald, Sherry Grossman, Nancy Mager, Rebecca Redner and Arlene Remz for contributing to this piece.