In spring 2021, kids in the Mayerson JCC after school program wanted to do a Pokemon tournament, where they would battle with the stylized “pocket monsters.”
But rather than battle through the video games, the kids wanted to challenge each other with physical Pokemon cards. The JCC staff obliged, putting together a one-off event for the after school program.
“There were like 40 kids that showed up,” said Devra Sadler, the then-manager of youth, family, and Jewish life for the JCC (now the assistant director at Miami Hillel). “So we realized that it was wildly popular.”
After the event, Sadler received an email from one of the participants pitching a monthly Pokemon club for regular card battles. “I was like, ‘What a great idea, let’s try it,’” Sadler said.
The JCC’s Pokemon club started in Jan. 2022, and has been a success ever since. Each month during the school year, 20-30 kids, mostly in second and third grade, get together to eat pizza, play cards, and see who is the true Pokemon Master. At the same time, they learn leadership skills and healthy competition, and the card game even helps with math and reading comprehension.
Some kids bring their own cards, while others borrow from the J’s supply and the cards belonging to the club’s facilitator, Fred Schnell. Schnell has learned to put his initials on practically everything he owns.
“I have a super big love for Pokemon…and we have this camaraderie about it,” said Schnell, the JCC’s youth and family programming coordinator. “It’s fun for [the kids] to have the opportunity to share this interest with one another, and with the adults at the event.”
Pokemon is a global franchise that grew out of a late 1990s Japanese video game series, where the player travels a world full of mysterious creatures that can be caught, shrunk down, and carried in a pocket – hence, pocket monsters, or Pokemon.
The mascot, a yellow electric mouse called Pikachu, is a pop-culture icon. The series, and the tie-in card game, have kept a strong audience over the years even as other franchises and their card games, like Yu-Gi-Oh and Digimon, have faded out of popularity.
That makes Pokemon an easy and recognizable interest for kids. But playing the card game at the JCC has proven to be more than just entertainment.
“One of the challenges with introducing kids to Pokemon is, it’s important to know how to read what your cards say and what they do,” Schnell said.
“So frequently, we’ll have older kids pair themselves with younger kids to help them read and understand the cards,” he said. “It’s really cool when you see them take that leadership role.”
Parents have been particularly impressed with the Pokemon club (once they understand how the game works) because of the skills being developed. Alongside literacy, the Pokemon card game also requires basic algebra to calculate damage points.
For example, one card, Lucario VSTAR (based on a blue and black-striped dog Pokemon) does 70 damage for each specific kind of card the opposite player might have. So the kids have to use multiplication to figure out the total damage Lucario does.
“They don’t even know that they’re learning while doing it,” Schnell said.
As the kids learn more Pokemon in the club, they also bring the game home to play with parents and other family members – prompting some parents to want to learn the game, too. Meanwhile, other parents who grew up with Pokemon get to share that interest with their kids.
“Some of the parents have even commented that there should be a learning session for the parents…so they can help their kids at home,” Sadler said. “Then we have some parents who love to play, and they have passed on their love and their cards to their children.”
There’s also a kind of old-school magic to the JCC hosting a Pokemon club, Sadler said. Jewish kids, spanning denominations from Reform to Orthodox, and non-Jewish kids all come to play Pokemon at the J and build an extended Jewish community hangout.
“I think that’s something really important because when I was younger, I would hang out at the J after school, and I don’t think we see it as much here unless they’re coming for a class or after school program,” Sadler said. “So the fact that kids want to come here…to play Pokemon is what makes it Jewish.”
At the same time, in a world overloaded with digital technology, the kids aren’t getting together to look at more screens.
The appeal of Pokemon cards is that they “like looking at them, touching them…and having that physical experience with them,” Schnell said.
“They’re having social interaction when they’re in such a world where everything is on a screen,” he said. “So the fact that they get to do that in person makes it that much better.”