My 3-year-old doesn’t have any memory of last year’s Pesach, and she won’t be awake for the seder itself, but I’d like to create some kind of seder experience for her. She doesn’t attend a Jewish preschool, so her preparation for the holiday will be limited to family conversations and reading some Pesach-themed children’s books at home. What are some good ways to engage a toddler in the symbols and activities of the holiday — before bedtime?
On a related note about 3-year-olds, how do I handle Pesach with my child who eats maybe five foods, three of which are chametz?
Three-year-olds are masterful question-askers, boundary-pushers and freedom-seekers. Passover is made for them. And while one part of that response is tongue-in-cheek, another is literal: Many parts of this holiday’s rituals are designed specifically with children in mind.
Even if those children have no prior knowledge, no built-in memories and no ability to stay awake for seder, you still have the opportunity to create meaningful experiences that will shape how your child positively relates to Judaism for years to come.
There are certainly plenty of picture books to choose from. Hopefully you receive PJ Library books and have at least one Pesach book in your personal library. There are basically two types of children’s Jewish holiday books: books that teach the history of the holiday, and books that show contemporary children celebrating with their families. Both are worthwhile, but the second type is probably more applicable to you, especially at this age. I recommend “Company’s Coming” by Joan Holub, and “Dayenu” by Miriam Latimer.
Speaking of “Dayenu,” teaching your child this song is likely to be cute, compelling and also gratifying. It’s super-catchy, easy to learn and also has real-life applications for whenever she is old enough to stay at seder. Beyond singing, to engage with the symbols in other multisensory ways, encourage your toddler to taste saltwater and charoset, smell horseradish and touch the grape juice a la removing drops for the 10 plagues. You can also do a crayon rubbing of matzah to capture the textures.
There are mass-marketed finger puppets representing each of the four questions, which are a fun way to teach that child-centered part of the seder. Finding the afikomen is also a toddler’s dream come true: a hide-and-seek game plus a prize! You could probably spend the entire day playing “find the afikomen,” and it would be a great day for everyone. At dinner time, you can combine these elements into an entirely 3-year-old-focused seder experience that won’t get in the way of bedtime or of your post-bedtime seder.
As for food, lower your expectations as far down as they can go. No one is giving out well-rounded meal awards this week, especially not to parents of three-year-olds, so do what you need to do.
Some toddlers really take to matzah, especially if it’s covered in cream cheese, butter, jelly or cheese. Other foods that are both kid-friendly and Passover-friendly are cheese sticks, kosher-for-Passover chicken nuggets, eggs, applesauce, raisins and all the fruits and vegetables you can dream up to arrange into smiley faces and rainbows. If your kid eats cheese and apples every day for a week, she’ll both be fine and be in very good company.
Wishing you a happy holiday full of delightfully age-appropriate toddler experiences.