It's How You Play the Game

Ein Hayam primary school in Haifa was a candidate for closure. It’s in a poor neighborhood and was lacking pupils. But a unique teaching method based on games was developed by a daring principal, and everything changed.

Esti Ahronovitz
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Esti Ahronovitz

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.

A lesson in the hallway at the Ein Hayam School. A metaphor for life. Credit: Nir Kafri

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.”

The children are not in the least bothered by being observed in the game-playing arenas. They are deeply immersed in the games and in dialogue. The teachers sometimes intervene, sometimes only watch from outside. “The children are in a twilight zone,” Yaakobi says, using the term of the English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who developed psychological treatment for children by means of play therapy. His doctrine naturally plays an important role in the school. Winnicott located the “twilight zone” between the external realm of reality and the child’s internal world of imagination. “That is the emotional playground,” Yaakobi says. “We are taking the wonderful emergence from the internal to the external reality, that twilight zone, the place that exists between the hierarchies, and bringing it into education.

It’s become a joke here: ‘When do we twilight?’ While playing, the children are drawn inward, into an unthreatened region, and as you saw, they take no notice of you, you don’t interfere with them, they go on learning. They go on with their game. They are inside.”

Would it be right to say that at Ein Hayam, games are no longer a matter of rules and techniques, but have become a state of consciousness?

Yaakobi: “We are all structured for our role in the society. The teacher has his role, the manager has to manage and the children also know their role. You can’t imagine how many times we have gone to the seashore and the children asked, ‘What, without books?’ I want to breach the paradigm, think outside the box. I believe that children learn and develop in a game-playing atmosphere, because play is a language and play is communication.”

“I have an appointment with the principal,” I said to one of the teachers at five minutes to eight in the morning. “He’s outside,” she replied and pointed out Yaakobi, who was standing at the entrance to the school. Wearing jeans and a black shirt, the 45-year-old principal welcomed the children to a new school day. He knows every child by name; they call him Baruch. Ten years ago, shortly after joining the school, he used to position himself at the gate to say goodbye to the children at the end of the day. The little ones gave him a hug. He recalls that one of the fathers was upset. “What are you doing?” he hurled at Yaakobi, as though he were threatening the conservative character of the institution. “My principal,” the father told him, “used to hit me on the hand with a ruler.”

The child within

Yaakobi came to the world of education in order to repair and correct it. It’s also a redemptive experience for him. He grew up in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Ata, the eldest of four children.

Both parents were Holocaust survivors. His father was employed by the Electric Corporation, his mother was a housewife. “I was a kid who never said anything in class,” he relates. “I didn’t say a word. I was a shy child, who liked to sit in the back, unbothered and left to his own devices. No one asked. One of those kids about whom the teacher says, ‘Everything is fine.’ I got good marks and the years passed. But they were years of hurting, and if you ask me why I am here now: I have returned to the scene of the crime.”

Was it really that bad?

“Yes. What drives me is that I want these children to get something completely different from what I got. A child who comes out of this school knows how to stand up to authority, knows what learning is, knows what interaction between children means. I didn’t even know what bothered me as a child. I was the silent voice.”

While majoring in Hebrew literature at university, Yaakobi worked as a copyeditor for the Haifa weekly Kol Ha’ir. He immersed himself in words and books, but burned with a zeal for practical action. One day, at the age of 25, he called the Education Ministry and asked for a job. He was invited for an interview at a primary school in Nesher, near Haifa. “At the interview I told the principal: ‘I don’t know anything, but I come out of love, and I will learn.’ She took me to the most unruly class. I became their homeroom teacher. It was an intoxicating experience.”

A few years later he filled in for the principal when she went on sabbatical, and after her return, he decided to continue in the administrative realm, though at a different institution. So it was that, 10 years ago, he came to Ein Hayam.

“From the road I saw a gray building without an iota of color or vegetation. Everything was closed and sealed, both concretely and metaphorically. I met a marvelous teaching staff, but there was a feeling of dissatisfaction. It was a school with the traits of a distressed neighborhood: children with a poor self-image and a lot of violence. How can you teach when you have to deal with so many social and personal problems? Gradually we started to understand that we had to do something.”

At one point, one of the teachers suggested to Yaakobi that he launch a project based on games, in order to work with the children using terms from the world of game-playing: lines, patience, loss, victory. Yaakobi grasped the potential. “We understood that you connect with yourself through the game. Formality dissolves. It’s creative. That became my goal: it was the start.”

Some of the frontal lessons were converted into game-playing activities. The school set up “game labs” places in the school where the children could play. The games were of course overlaid with learning content. Yaakobi and his staff started to read studies and books by philosophers and psychologists who dealt with play. A game therapist was hired to assist the teachers.

“In the first years, the teachers tapped into their inner playing child,” Yaakobi explains, “and I tapped into my playing child. We played. After school the teachers played hide-and-seek, tag, treasure hunt and other games. Games are a metaphor for life. First came the sheer enjoyment. People cavorted, laughed, hierarchies were shattered. After that we started to understand that we were learning about ourselves.”

And you?

“I encountered the child who did not play. We know that the proper development of children involves play. A child who has a hard time with play also has social, emotional or cognitive difficulties everything comes out. If you don’t play, you also find it hard to cope with reality.

I came out and said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t understand, I need help.’ It’s all about what the human psyche can do, where it stops, where the barriers and inhibitions reside.”

How did the teachers react?

“On the one hand, there were difficulties. There was a lot of fear and frustration and ‘What does the principal want from us?’ On the other hand, when we started to look one another in the eye and truly understand who we were facing, a feeling of intimacy developed. We learned how to create closeness and caring among the staff. We already had good relations, but we opened them more.” After a time, the school tried to interest the Education Ministry’s unit for experimentation and initiative in the idea of making Ein Hayam an experimental school in which learning happened by means of play.

“They asked, ‘Are you going to give us Disneyland?’ We ourselves didn’t yet know what to say. The idea was still jelling; we wanted very much to do it, but we were also very much afraid.”

No violence

Yaakobi will never forget the day on which he arrived at school and found that someone had painted “Baruch the bastard” in large letters on the school playground. The paint was still fresh. It was the neighborhood’s reaction to the change. “The street smelled crisis, danger,” he relates. “Parents said, ‘What’s with the games? Aren’t they learning? Why do you want change?’ The school had been vandalized: bottles of paint were spilled, pins were stuck in the locks of the doors so we couldn’t get into the classrooms; and there was other destruction. The staff asked me if it was right to continue. I was distraught. The teachers here are amazing. People who are busy making a living. I didn’t realize that I was scaring them, and it took time until they saw the change themselves; they saw that the children were happy, were learning and enjoyed coming to school.”

You probably wouldn’t have been accepted in an affluent neighborhood, either. Today’s society is enslaved to achievement. Can your school survive our society?

“Life is a playground, and the children who know how to play best are those who will succeed. We too have achievements, but I am interested in the journey. We too have tests, and the children know what the growth and efficiency tests are, but they are not the main thing. I want the pupils to know that they are insightful and curious and can carry out any mission together with their teacher. That generates achievement. The task is to forge intimacy and love: to make children love themselves, love the place they come to every morning, love their teachers. When the enjoyment comes, so will the achievements. You can’t force a child to learn.”

Do you feel subordinated to the ministry’s growth and efficiency tests?

“The crazy pursuit of the index, the statistics, the efficiency tests is emasculating us all and leaving us soulless. These tests make teaching technical and sterile. There’s no joy. No sense of group. No intimacy. There is pressure and coercion. I too have experienced the terror of these tests. The teachers are frightened; the pupils learn only for tests. The tests examine certain skills, but where is the exposure to other things? Can a test like that examine memory, associations, pleasures, mental abilities, thinking? No. We will be lost if we become enslaved to such tests.”

Yaakobi invited the parents to observe lessons, take part, to play. They came and saw that the children were having a good time, and also writing and acquiring knowledge. After a period in which the pupils played in lessons defined from the outset as “games,” the school decided to extend the concept to all the lessons.

“I knew that the physical structure of the classroom had to be changed,” Yaakobi says. “We had to stop putting desks in rows. Little by little, it started to happen. Teachers understood that they were placing responsibility in the children’s hands. We were afraid that the result would be chaos on the part of the children, but it flowed. The desks were moved and the breakout of the children to the hallways, the grove and the schoolyard happened naturally. Suddenly we saw that the children who had been interrupting in the classroom were the first to do the assignments.” Success came gradually. Violence decreased. The teachers suddenly had enough time during the lessons and at recess to help the children who were having trouble.

How do you account for the decline in violence?

“The inner boundaries changed significantly. Self-discipline followed. The children began to act within their inner boundaries, without the teacher constantly telling them what is permitted and what is forbidden. You saw on the seashore that not one child ran to the water. A child who acts on the basis of his inner boundaries is on the right track. That criterion will set the standard for Bible study and all the rest.”

The children had to split up into groups in order to play, Yaakobi notes, adding, “In any other learning framework, splitting up into groups would be considered a waste of time. But the way children divide into groups is an illuminating life lesson! It’s not a waste of time. It took five lessons, 10 lessons, until they learned how to split up into groups. And it kept improving. By now it happens by itself. The games have entered every lesson. And after we breached the boundaries of the classroom, we breached the boundaries of the school. We go down to the beach, we visit the Maritime Museum, which has become our house museum, we go to Eli Cohen Park next to the school, to Tel Shikmona, where the children act like detectives and investigate the history of the ancient city. Both the children from the neighborhood and those from other areas see the beauty of the Ein Hayam neighborhood. There is a sense of pride and a feeling of belonging. We are getting better at this all the time. I arrive at the lesson ready but creative, and flow with the children and also direct and guide them. You know, it’s always easier to tell them, ‘Children, open your books to chapter three, page 56.’”

New life

On the way to the seashore, where the fourth grade pupils are “in class,” Yaakobi points out three new buildings empty and neglected close to the school. “No one wants to live here,” he says regretfully. “Look at the view, the hill, the sea, absolutely gorgeous. But the buildings are empty.” To understand why, he says, one has to understand Haifa. “It’s hard to crack the Haifa DNA,” he says, his voice tinged with bitterness. “The educated, the elites, live up there, but here it’s down below. These are the ghettos, the places with the harsh stigmas. No one wants to come here. I suppose that the child within me meets the Ein Hayam child here.”

Three years ago, the school, already in the first stage of its transformation, was nevertheless a candidate for closure. “The neighborhood aged,” Yaakobi explains. “There are no kindergartens here to nourish the school. The staff was at the height of its activity, but there were no children. Only 15 children were expected to enter first grade, and the authorities wanted to shut down the school.”

Yaakobi and his staff launched a war of survival. He asked for permission to make the school a regional institution and thereby open its gates to anyone who wanted to attend. “They told me, ‘Let’s see you sell your idea.’ We started to hold parlor meetings, we sent letters to parents, we had open days for visitors. We called parents with children who were about to start first grade and urged them to come and see the school. Most of them hung up on us.

We spent nights here, telemarketing. We printed up a flyer. There were open days on which I waited at the entrance, but not one parent showed up. Do you know what it’s like to sit and wait and no one comes?”

But the effort paid off. Two years ago, 30 children from outside the neighborhood entered Ein Hayam, some of them from wealthy neighborhoods on the hill. It was an incomprehensible achievement. Who would want his child to attend a small school in a distressed neighborhood? Yet they came, despite the stigma. “They are idealistic parents who are looking for an alternative,” Yaakobi says, “looking for a change. A year later, those parents went around to kindergartens and handed out flyers in praise of Ein Hayam. This year we have another 30 children from outside the neighborhood.”

Next year, he hopes to fill two first grade classes, which this year have only 18 children each. People aren’t yet standing in line, he says. “You can see the hesitation about going down below from above. Here in Haifa that’s a psychological barrier: there are codes, you know. I hope we have been able to topple the cultural and demographic barriers. You have to understand: girls from Ein Hayam sleep over at their friends’ homes in [plush] Denya, and vice versa.” Yaakobi feels that in his small corner he has cracked Haifa’s genetic code.

Success brought budgeting, recognition and revitalization. Last year, the school was chosen by the Haifa municipality to have its library renovated; today there is a pleasant new library with a parquet floor and colorful decor. When the city’s leaders want to show guests a special place, a successful place, they take them to Ein Hayam. Yaakobi has brought in students from teachers colleges who help with lessons, master’s degree students in sociology who intern in the school, youth movement activists and others. The school is a beehive of activity, and those who assist the teachers also learn from them.

The budding management students who were on a visit were troubled by the question of how the children would fare in the transition to junior high school. They know what awaits the children when they have to face a different kind of reality.

“I look at the children and wonder whether, when they leave here, they will think that everything we did was a game and not the real thing, and now they are entering the real world.” Yaakobi continues, “After six years when they were so dynamic and responsible for their learning, and go to a place that closes them in, will they be sufficiently creative and sure of themselves to be able to adapt? We are not burying our heads in the sand. I know what it’s like out there. I don’t want the children to be in a state of shock when they leave here.

“The children here know what exams and marks are. The question is how one treats that, whether it’s the center of things. The industry of efficiency tests will not set the agenda in this school.”

Do you have an explanation for why Israel is in 40th place or so every year in the OECD tests?

“Because we want too much to be like others. We want to be in a place we don’t deserve to be in. It’s not our place. We are poor mimics. If you want to be in the OECD, you need the right conditions: size of class, teaching conditions, qualifications for teachers. Here, they concentrate on the marks, instead of asking what education means, what teaching means. It’s all topsy-turvy.

“Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar has attacked private education, which exists at the expense of public education,” Yaakobi continues. “I have no problem with private schools, as long as the public schools get the same conditions. I am in favor of a large number of educational institutions, educational approaches and educational agendas it’s an excellent thing to have a discourse on education. But it’s untenable for the state school system to be neglected. If we want equal opportunities, then they have to give to everyone. It’s unthinkable that above me on the ridge is a private school, Leo Baeck, that receives state funding and is in competition with me, and Ein Hayam is in danger of being closed down.”

The children play here at school, but at home they probably sit in front of the computer or PlayStation or whatever. Are you really changing anything?

“It’s true that a generation that’s incapable of engaging in play has grown up as we watched; a generation of TV, computers, violence and alienation. That’s one of our surprising insights: children today don’t really know how to play. In our school, we have taken on ourselves the task of restoring to the children what should be theirs by nature: a play experience, the ability to play. Children and teenagers are alienated and have difficulty maintaining social interaction. It’s amazing how the policy of measuring and grading perpetuates the play disability. A policy in which values are implanted by coercion and the culture of an assembly line of marks is the be-all and end-all. We are producing generations of instrumental learning, in which the pupils are incapable of reading a line of poetry, are unmoved by works of art and don’t care about the other’s distress. Who has time for all that? They have to memorize everything, spew it out on the exam and talk to their buddies in a chat room.”

* * *
The bell rings. “The blues won!” a girl with a ponytail shouts and runs across the schoolyard.

At recess, the children run, skip and play ball. But it’s perfectly orderly, without shouting, without pushing, without fighting. Yaakobi calls it transference: they transfer the rules of the game they learned in the lessons to the playground, to the home, to life. He wants to see them return to the neighborhood as adults and foment change. “I hope they will grow up happy, as children with high self-esteem, who know that there are various methods of learning and expressing an opinion, and above all, know that their future is in their hands.”