Adults are terrified of Pokemon. Well, to be more specific, educators of young people are intimidated by Pokemon. As children begin their return to the classroom, teachers are forced to compete with telephones in a way that they can identify more clearly than ever: an augmented reality game that has captured the attention of youth better than most educators can.
Earlier this month, I spent time with two different communities of youth educators and advisors, and both times, Pokemon Go was a source of anxiety and intimidation. What chance does education have when the competition is a cell phone scavenger hunt with digital characters hidden all over the neighborhood? Even worse, what do you do when those Pokemon actually invade the walls of the classroom?
What became clear to me is that all too many teachers and educators are viewing these distractions and outside influences of children as competition, as some kind of external source that must be vanquished with even more engaging activities and educational models. If that is the case, I have a sad reality to share: school, most especially religious school, will never be able to compete with Pokemon Go.
You see, Religious School has a longstanding battle waging against the fun of the outside world. Whether it’s leaving Sunday school early to get to a soccer game or skipping Wednesday night Hebrew school in favor of marching band practice, the abundance of outside influences have been forcing young Jews to make a choice about their time. As of yet, almost no religious school model has been able to engage on a level that can compete with sports or other extracurricular activities. It requires a deep commitment and desire for learning to remain engaged in a religious school system, and, while many teens have that willingness to engage, many do not.
That is, of course, not to say that there aren’t excellent programs going on in religious institutions. Every year, Sunday schools get more and more innovative, trying to bring the information they hope to teach to life for their students.
What Pokemon Go has to teach us is that we can’t beat a game that encompasses real-life adventure with digital engagement. What we need to learn is that Pokemon Go is a language that we are positive our children will understand. We must use that as a tool to try to relay information in a way that is relatable, understandable, and meaningful in the eyes of a young person.
The same can be said for any of the multitude of distractors from religious education. We have to stop seeing soccer practice as a distraction from the work we are trying to do and we have to start seeing it as an opportunity to engage youth in a new way. Jewish communities should be building sports curricula into their religious school programs, to ensure that those students who find sports as their connection to something greater don’t have to leave the walls of the congregation to find what they are looking for. If music is their key to access, we should be providing creative outlets for expression. If our children are telling us that they are interested in something, it is our job to be creative enough to find a space for it within our community, rather than forcing them to make a choice.
If religious institutions can combine all of the facets of daily life into their communities, it will allow members and students the chance to feel as though the congregation is their headquarters for everything that they need in life. When we view Pokemon Go as an opportunity to relate to our students, rather than as a distraction from the information we are trying to impart, than we run the risk of ostracizing our young people and forcing them to choose between being learning and fun. In a perfect world, it is our job to ensure that we are able to do both.