I thought I’d seen everything in the world of educational Jewish kitsch, and was far too jaded to fall for any of it, but then I noticed this intriguing box at Israel’s on Sunday.
Huh??? A product that combines my love of wooden rod-like educational manipulatives with my fascination with learning alef-bais and limudei kodesh??
The only downside is that letter “X". Why, oh, why, do people feel that the letters “x” and “z” are so much more fascinating than, say, “cks” and “s” (as in “sticks” and “kids”)?
In any event, once I got past that initial revulsion, I picked up the box, which had a nice, weighty feel to it. I will tell you, though – I was worried. I have seen too many cheesy Jewish educational products that are plastic and flimsy; poorly-made equivalences of secular-world games and toys. (the hideously unoriginal Kosherland game, for instance, but also any number of low-quality beading and craft-project type products, not to mention stuffed toys…)
There was no opened box in the store – they were all shrink-wrapped. But the box said the “stix” were wood, and I was feeling flush, so I took the not-so-cheap plunge. It cost $19 locally, though Internet pricing and buying within the U.S. might get you a better deal. At $19 for 9 rods, boy was I worried now. I ripped it open right away when I got out to the car… and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the rods (ack, I can’t bring myself to say “stix”) are indeed not only a decent quality, but a really nice size for little hands.
There’s even a little cotton bag to store them in when they’re not in use! In fact, all the packaging and informational materials in this kit are very lovely and well-designed, with colourful consistency provided by repeating the logo on every part of the product. There has definitely been some thought put into this product.
The concept is very similar to the wooden pieces you can buy for Handwriting Without Tears, and to this foam set which we still have and use, though not so regularly anymore. Basically, you can use these 9 simple shapes to build every letter in the block print alef-bais (Hebrew alphabet).
There’s a chart included to show you how it’s done, which is useful, but although it’s mounted on a very high-quality folding-gameboard type of backing, I have to admit that the chart was a bit of a disappointment.
On the outside of the box (see above), it looks HUGE, almost as big as the rods themselves. I thought perhaps you could lay out the chart and then build the letters right on top of the chart – now that would be cool. As it is, the chart is pretty small, and kids have to look back and forth from the chart to the rods they’re working with. Gavriel Zev is okay with that, but cognitively, it’s a whole ‘nother process, which introduces an extra step of complexity to the task.
(Since this product is perhaps otherwise appropriate might be helpful for kids who are having trouble learning letter formation with conventional modalities, that might be something the manufacturer would consider for a future “edition.”)
Other than the littleness of the chart, we are so far (2 days in) completely thrilled with the “letter rods”! The rods are big enough to feel chunky and the shapes provided are exactly right – the curved pieces are perfect to let the letters look natural in a way that they wouldn’t with straight rods stuck together at weird angles (as would happen if we were using regular Cuisenaire rods). You may THINK of block-print Hebrew as being very angular, but believe me, the curves really help.
The simplest letter is the ו/vav, which is made with just the single “hooked” yellow rod. (Gavriel Zev loves this one because it looks like a breathing tube for snorkelling – I had to take it away from him yesterday because he got too noisy with it at his mouth.) The hardest are the ש/shin and sin, which use SIX rods (including the dot). To keep interest high, there are even little suggested games included in the enclosed leaflet, and a high-quality chunky wooden die to play them with.
Here, he is using the rods properly, building a ב/bais (sort of properly; you’re supposed to leave a bit of the long purple rod sticking out on the other side so it doesn’t look like a כ/kaf, but at least he’s building two-dimensionally, which is always a challenge with our Cuisenaire rods, too).
Most importantly, he’s having fun, and seems to enjoy the process of building letters so far. We played a simple game where I built a letter and he had to tell me what it was, then he built one to surprise me.
I think a toy like this could be very helpful for Gavriel Zev, who is somewhat behind where Naomi Rivka was, handwriting-wise, at this age. Looking back at some of the work she did at 4 and a half, I’m astonished at the intricacy of it. Considering he had never picked up a pencil, marker, anything at all to draw with until 9 months ago, he’s making decent progress, and is justifiably proud of his writing (and spelling) in English. But it’s still quite crude, and anything we can do to make any subjects less dependent on his ability to write is a Very Good Thing.
Plus, he is perennially willing (nay, eager!) to play with anything wooden and block-like… so if there’s a “secret” educational connection and a Hebrew-letter chart to go with, that much the better!