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The Shulkhan Arukh (Orach Chaiim 343) provides a general guideline for raising children in an obervant home: As soon as a child is educable, the parents should teach the child about observance. Thus, even a three-year old (who, as a halakhic minor is not obligated to observe Shabbat) should be taught the relevant rudiments of Shabbat observance. This does not mean that the parent must take away a rattle or battery-powered toy, but it does mean that, on Shabbat, the child should be encouraged to play Shabbat-appropriate games. The R'ma and the Mishna Brurah (loc. cit.) point out that, by the time a child understands what Shabbat is (e.g., certainly by age 8), the child should be avoiding blatant Shabbat violation. The Shulkan Arukh's standard thus does not see the age of majority (13 for boys, 12 for girls) as a threshold for observance, and does not permit Shabbat violation by "educable" children (i.e., children above the age of 8 or so).
In addition to the standard 39 classes of activities ("m'lakhot") forbidden on Shabbat, there is a prohibition against activities that are inconsistent with the spirit of Shabbat. The Ramban, for example, suggests that the obligation to "rest" ("shvita") on Shabbat is, in fact, biblical; it is in any event certainly a major rabbinic obligation.
Thus, there are two general principles: Begin with Shabbat-appropriate games and play as early as is practical, and encourage Shabbat- appropriate activity, rather than Shabbat-inappropriate activity (even if such activity does not inherently violate Shabbat).
What kinds of games and play are Shabbat-appropriate? Certainly activities with substantial Jewish content (e.g., board games with Jewish themes, available from many Jewish bookstores). Family activities should also be encouraged; reading stories, reviewing relevant parts of the weekly Torah portion, etc. Friday night bed-time can become a special occasion for hearing stories of "when Grandpa was young," or Chelm stories, or stories about SuperJew. When done appropriately, children see Shabbat as a special treat, not as a day when "we don't do these things."
Some children's games [e.g., those involving explicit violations of halakha, such as games involving writing] are clearly inappropriate for Shabbat in an observant Orthodox or Conservative family. There is nothing wrong with saying "No, we do not paint on Shabbat." But it is educationally a much sounder practice to say "We don't ride bikes on Shabbat, but we do hear stories about Curious George going to shul."
In some cases, the question of whether a particular activity is permissible on Shabbat requires halakhic expertise, and a rabbi should be consulted. For example, Conservative authorities permit swimming on Shabbat; most Orthodox authorities do not.
Note that some Orthodox authorities rule that ball-playing is technically allowed within an eruv, based on the OH 306:45 and the Rama's gloss and the Mishneh Berurah's note on this. However, this is widely discouraged by rabbis as not being in the spirit of Shabbat.
Rabbi Neuwirth's Shmirat Shabbat k'Hilkhata states that playing ball on Shabbat is okay for children, provided that it is within the eruv and on artificial surfaces. The reason for this is that Orthodox authorities feel that compacting dirt is a violation of a melakha (forbidden Shabbat activity); thus the restriction to hard surfaces. However, this should be checked with a local rabbi to determine whether it is appropriate for your particular community; don't assume beforehand that it is.
For those that follow Conservative practice, in "A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice", Rabbi Issac Klein rules that some ball playing is allowed on Shabbat, based on the Rama on OH 308:45, as long as we distinguish between commercialized sports and activities one indulges in for personal enjoyment. Commercialized sports and amusements are obviously not reccomended because of the many violations of the Sabbath that are involved. Individual sports and amusements in themselves, where no other violation of the Sabbath is involved, are permissible. Again, a key aspect is that one should avoid participating in such activities to the point of overexertion and fatigue, which would make the act not in the spirit of the Sabbath."
Hence, as a general principle, the best policy would be to give children lots of experience with Shabbat as a day for enjoyable Shabbat-appropriate activities, either synagogue- or family-centered. The emphasis should be on "shabbat-appropriate" activities.
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Daniel P. Faigin <email@example.com>