We tracked down four noted experts to demystify kids’ spiritual development by the ages. Read on to learn how to reach—and teach—the wonderful little people in your ministry!
Every age and every stage presents its challenges and joys—just ask the parents of kids in your ministry! No matter what age group you work with—babies, preschoolers, elementary, or preteens—you have your hands full with the big task of imparting God’s truth into kids’ minds and hearts.
BABIES AND TODDLERS: Faith-Filled Environments
Not long ago a children’s ministry volunteer said to me that little ones just can’t learn and understand spiritual concepts like older children. Perhaps others in your church agree with her impression of babies’ learning abilities. The truth is, though, that this stage of infancy may seem simplistic to adults; however, it’s a vital first step in spiritual growth.
Relationships are central to healthy spiritual growth in the lives of the very youngest. Infants and toddlers bond with the parents, grandparents, teachers, and other caregivers who look after their physical and emotional needs. Because adults care for their needs, infants develop a sense of trust. According to the psychologist Erik Erikson, infants who successfully learn to trust develop hope. And Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In the first two years of life, the foundational concepts of spiritual formation–trust and hope–grow.
Additionally, while caring for the physical and emotional needs of infants and toddlers, adults teach them the language of faith. When soothing a crying infant, for instance, a teacher sings a song about Jesus. In the toddler room, children hear about Noah and the Ark. Parents talk about God and Jesus in their daily conversations with babies and toddlers. That’s where growth comes from.
Ministry to Babies and Toddlers You can support infants and toddlers’ spiritual growth using these tips.
- Read to little ones about God and Jesus. Simple Bibles for toddlers such as board books about God’s creation, animals, and family are great choices.
- Talk often about God and Jesus.
- Tell children constantly that Jesus loves them.
- Use teachable moments to highlight spiritual truths.
- As children learn to talk, help instill words of our faith such as God, Jesus, Bible, and pray in their vocabulary.
- Include infants and toddlers in spiritual activities such as worship and prayer.
- Know that infants and toddlers really do learn at church.
- Invite little ones to special worship occasions.
- Encourage parents to have their youngest children present during prayer times at home.
- Pray with infants and toddlers. Explain that prayer is talking to God.
- Make prayer a part of the routine in your classroom.
- Remember that children discover God from infancy. Paul wrote to Timothy “from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures” (2 Timothy 3:15).
Joyce Meyers holds a Ph.D. in early childhood education. She teaches classes on early childhood education at Dallas Baptist University.
PRESCHOOLERS: At Their Level
When one of my children was 4 years old, I found her searching her bedroom–in the closet, under the bed.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
She drew her hand to her hip and replied, “You said God was everywhere and I can’t find him anywhere.”
Unlike their younger counterparts, preschool children are able to understand something exists, even if they can’t see it. That’s a huge developmental step in spiritual growth and understanding God’s existence. At the same time, preschoolers are also literal in their thinking. If you tell a preschooler “Jesus is in your heart,” he’s likely to ask, “How does he fit in there?”
With all the work and effort that goes into teaching preschoolers about Jesus, ever wonder, “Do they really get it?” You bet they do. Preschoolers have many spiritual capabilities and emerging skills. Consider that they can:
• Express love for Jesus and others
• Exhibit an intense wonder about God’s world and everything in it
• Understand and often retell Bible events
• Memorize and understand simple Bible verses
• Pray to God
• Differentiate between right and wrong
• Understand the consequences of behavior
• Try to please adults
• Have compassion for others
• Ask many questions
You might be thinking, “If preschoolers can do all that, then couldn’t they just be quiet and sit still for a few minutes so I can teach them more?” Well, preschoolers learn on the go. With the best intentions, teachers have a tendency to focus on teaching–which is what we do–rather than on learning–which is what children do. Knowing how preschoolers learn will let you share God’s love and biblical truths in a way they can understand.
Keep preschoolers moving through active, hands-on learning. Play games, sing songs, create hand motions for Bible time, use choral responses, and allow lots of time for child-choice to explore their environment.
Show God’s love through your actions. Preschoolers learn by imitating us. I once heard a preschooler say, “If Jesus loves us so much, why are some of his teachers so mean?” For a child, an adult without a smile or one too busy to answer questions can signal mean.
Make every child feel special. Greet children with excitement. Spend time having conversations with each child. Praise preschoolers for successes and efforts.
Love what you do! What could be more important than telling and showing children about Jesus in a way they can understand? Many preschoolers may be too young to become followers of Jesus, but they can learn about his unfailing love for them. Kids come to church with trust, open hearts, and the kind of attitude needed to approach God. Are you willing to let the children come as they are, often noisy and active? Just bring a big heart, lots of patience, and a smile that doesn’t quit!
Gigi Schweikert has published seven books on parenting, child development, and children’s ministry. She directed the United Nations Early Childhood Program in New York City and developed and managed the Johnson & Johnson System of Family Centers. Gigi has also hosted a cable television show, “Today’s Family.”
ELEMENTARY-AGE KIDS: Real-Life Faith Connections
It’s easy to underestimate what elementary-age kids hear, remember, and internalize. But one thing is certain: You can’t overestimate the importance of this age. The elementary years represent a special window of opportunity. This life stage is one of the most fertile times for planting seeds of faith that can be nurtured to bear fruit through an entire lifetime.
Reality and Real Questions Elementary-age children can sense their personal need for a relationship with Jesus, and that can lead to a lot of questions about faith, God, and the world we live in. These are significant questions for anyone confronted with the joys and disappointments of life, but at this age finding concrete ways to connect belief to behaviors and situations can be transformational. In hearing and recalling the truth about God, elementary children flesh out the details of their faith. We need to continue to share truths about God and let the children tell them as well.
Language and Symbols An important part of our job as pastors and teachers is to give children the language to express their faith in ways that accurately reflect what they’re experiencing. If a child hasn’t yet learned the basic elements of Christian worship, life, and fellowship, the time to begin is now. What children need to know begins with Scripture, but it reaches out to our creeds, the testimony of the faithful, our community rituals and traditions. And even at this age, children can participate fully in the worshiping community: praying, singing, reading Scripture, teaching, inviting and welcoming others, sharing their faith. While elementary-age kids may not immediately understand all the words and images we offer, embedding them now in a child’s mind allows concepts and understanding to emerge throughout the child’s life. It’s important to let them become familiar with the language and symbols of our faith; it’s as equally important to define those things, use language all kids can understand, and answer their questions without impatience.
Morality and Empathy These children don’t have to have an “Aha!” moment for God’s power to impact them fully. Sometimes faith comes in very unexpected ways; it’s not up to us to dictate how a child comes to follow Jesus. Even an elementary child’s normal moral and social development can nurture his or her spiritual senses. Children at this age begin to develop a sense of empathy. This means they begin to identify with others, their needs, and their situations. Children respond very positively when they have the opportunity to care for others. Whether it’s looking after a younger child or helping a peer with special needs participate in activities, giving responsibility and trust to a child to do those things nurtures identity, leadership, and service.
In fact, elementary children can be very passionate about the things they care for, and when that’s coupled with empathy the possibilities are limitless. Obedience, kindness, and respect are character traits everyone needs, but when we connect these attitudes and behaviors to a child’s faith, they take on a deeper meaning. Children are generous, thoughtful, and creative when they catch a vision for serving others. Child sponsorship and simple, local projects are all very effective tools for reinforcing empathy and service to elementary-age kids.
Interests and Expectations The greatest challenge of working with elementary children is merging creativity with consistency. They learn in such varied ways that literature, science, nature, art, sports, music, history, cooking, and so many other interests may all be avenues to faith. Elementary children also need to know what to expect when it comes to boundaries, consequences, and order. Your expectations of them and consistent follow through are subtle but invaluable for creating a sense of truth, faithfulness and grace in which together you can begin to explore the deep things of God.
Julia Roat-Abla holds a masters in theology. She’s the co-author of Growing Like Jesus: Essential Christian Concepts for Elementary Students, and serves her church in Dayton, Ohio.
PRETEENS: A Whole New World
Preteens. They’re silly, goofy, and obnoxious. They can’t sit still and seldom pay attention. They love screaming and doing anything that involves getting messy. And that’s just scratching the surface of their awesomeness. So what’s the best way to help teach these amazing kids about God? Let’s start by looking at what’s happening to them developmentally.
Preteen development can be summed up in one word: change. As preteens enter early adolescence, they experience incredible change. They change physically, emotionally, socially, and even–are you ready for this?–intellectually. That’s right! These crazy beings of highly explosive energy and terribly short attention spans are actually gaining the capacity to be more intelligent. In his book Developmentally Appropriate: Middle Level Schools, M. Lee Manning says, “During early adolescence, youth typically progress from concrete logical operations and problem solving to acquiring the ability to develop and test hypotheses, analyze and synthesize data, grapple with complex concepts, and think reflectively.”
This intellectual increase has a direct effect on something else that’s changing: their faith. As preteens gain the ability to analyze, hypothesize, and reflect, they ask deeper questions about God, the Bible, and Jesus. Rather than blindly accepting their parents’ and ministers’ answers, they yearn to understand faith for themselves. In other words, they take their first steps from faith dependence (relying on what others tell them to believe) to faith ownership.
As they take those first steps, we can expect preteens to learn and grow differently than they did as first, second, and third graders. No longer are they happy to take what we tell them at face value, simply swallowing what we feed them. Instead, they want to experience, test, and interact with that faith on their own. And it’s up to us to “let go” and allow them do so.
Preteens need our direction and influence. Rather than simply teaching preteens by providing the right information, we support them by allowing them to learn for themselves. Rather than telling preteens how their faith affects their life, we create environments and resources where they can discover it. Instead of giving them all the answers about God, Jesus, the Bible, and the rest of life, we invite them to grapple with their questions and even offer answers. Instead of telling them what they should do, we create opportunities to discover what God calls them to do.
Preteens truly are a special age, unlike any other. Yes, they can be crazy, overwhelming, and even exhausting at times. But to watch a preteen, for the first time on his or her own, truly comprehend who Jesus is and what he’s done for us is unlike any other ministry experience. So who cares if we get a little messy in the process?
Patrick Snow works as the director of SuperStart!, a national touring weekend event for preteens. Through SuperStart! Patrick teaches and speaks to over 9,000 preteens each year. Patrick is the author of Leading Preteens and co-founder of fourfivesix.org.