How do you explain the importance of informal education to someone who has no experience or point of reference, someone who has never participated in a professionally run camp or after school program.And how do you explain why informal education is so crucial for kids with special needs.

The importance of structured after school activity is not recognized in Israel – the loneliness that kids and especially teens with special needs experience is not appreciated. Their need for well planned, quality informal education programs not understood.

In Israel, the powers that be and indeed, the public, think that education happens during school hours and consists of imparting information. Older generations will tell tales of their youth growing up in the Scouts or other youth groups. But I sometimes think youth groups in Israel today are quickly on their way to becoming obsolete. They serve a small percentage of youth and while they may claim an educational approach, I question whether the implementation bears any resemblance to the plans. As for inclusion – while they might be waking up to the need to include or serve kids with special needs, youth groups do not have the resources or know-how to do this professionally or successfully.

Informal education for kids with special needs requires money and professional planning as well as ongoing guidance. Yes, the way we do it at Shutaf. It’s not rocket science and yet sometimes I feel that people in Israel from all walks of life view us as if we’re from another planet.

Taking a walk through Shutaf’s Hannukah camp this week, I was profoundly impressed with the energy and order that reigns, despite the obvious behavioral challenges of some of the children. Staff are well trained, engaged and leading by example. I didn’t hear the standard Israeli camp theme of “Yalla! Yalla!”, prodding the kids along. Rather, I saw groups engaged in morning activities – looking at PECS boards to see what activities were in store for the group that day, discussing the previous day, giving out stickers for good behavior. I saw kids – with and without special needs – getting the attention they needed in the moment, in a low-key and appropriate manner.

This is simply not a given here in Israel. I’m not saying that Shutaf is the only one that understands informal education. I’m saying I wish others did informal education in Israel as well as we do.

By Beth Steinberg, Shutaf Co-Founder
December 2012