Teaching Jesus’ parables to three and four year olds is challenging. Pre-schoolers struggle understanding abstract concepts. The figurative nature of the parables will largely pass them by because they usually think in more literal terms.
This morning the class I was teaching tackled the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Jesus told a story about a farmer planting a tiny little seed. The seed sprouted and grew into the tallest of trees.
We began the class by sorting seeds. The children pulled the tiny mustard seeds from the pile and we marveled that such a tiny seed could grow into a large tree.
The three little boys I was teaching are also very small. They dream of the day when they can be big and strong like their dads. Great men begin as little boys.
Sometimes hands-on activities are helpful in helping pre-schoolers understand concepts. I chose a couple of these to stress the point about growth.
First, I placed a tiny little paper circle on the table. Then, one at a time, I revealed a set of circles of ever increasing size. The children loved stretching their vocabulary to describe the sizes. Tiny, little, small, medium, bigger, enormous, giant and finally, super super huge.
Secondly, I was able to make use of some Matryoshka (nesting) dolls that I had on hand. Seeing the sizes displayed in doll form helped the children relate to how they themselves are in the process of growing.
All in all it was a great class.
Sometimes my efforts in teaching seem extremely small. What difference will my teaching make in the bigger picture? This parable reminds me that God does great things from small beginnings.
What does “holiness” mean to a child who is five years old? God’s holiness is an extremely important theme running throughout the entire Bible and I believe even very young children can experience how special God is.
I’ve recently had an opportunity to teach in a large room so I decided to dedicate one area of the room as a special place where, each week, we sit for a few minutes and talk about how special God really is. I’ve loved how this has brought a new depth to what we are learning and I would encourage you to give this a try sometimes.
A Holy Space
I didn’t buy anything to set this space up and, with a little imagination, you will be able to find “special” items of your own. I drug in a coffee table from another room. I covered it with some shiny wrapping paper and placed chairs around it. Draping some old sheets and fabric over a room divider formed a small “wall” to make the space cozy. Someone had left some “gold” Christmas tree garland in our supply room so I thought that would add to the feeling of grandeur. A paper crown on a purple pillow emphasized the Kingship of God since we were studying the Divided Kingdom and the End of the Kingdom.
Even though these were not expensive items I can tell you that the children were in awe of the space. On a side note it occurred to me that the Temple that Solomon built was dripping with gold and precious cloths in a way that left everyone awestruck. But, in reality, gold and expensive items are actually worthless in comparison to God’s true worth. Perhaps we adults aren’t all that sophisticated after all.
A Holy Attitude
When we sit at the table in this space it is a “set apart” time from the rest of the class period. At other times we might play games and sing action songs and act out the story. There are many ways to glorify God. But, when we go and sit in our holy space we speak more quietly and we all reflect in awe and reverence about God.
A Holy Conversation
This is a 5 minute devotional time that is not limited to the lesson we are studying for the day. Everything we talk about in this space relates to how special God is. He is approachable but He is different than us. In a child’s eyes this space is very special and it is a great launching place to talk about how God is even more special than our idea of precious things.
Each week I try to cover a different aspect of God’s holiness and how this has been shown in Scripture. This is not the time to tell another Bible story or try to explain complex topics. I want the children’s minds to be fully on God so I talk about concepts they can easily grasp. I try my best to use illustrations to depict these things. For instance, the illustrations below are from www.freebibleimages.org
The Word of God- We open our Bibles and read a verse about God (or they follow along as I read).
This experience has brought a new depth to the lessons I’ve been teaching. The children have really picked up on the fact that sin is not just “bad behaviour” it is a real offence against who God is. I’ve been amazed at how often the children have referenced God’s holiness as we study other lessons.
When we learned about the prophet Jeremiah visiting the potter’s house and hearing God warn about turning away from him the children understood why God was angry. The kings were not treating him in the way he deserved.
We learned about how Jeremiah dictated God’s Message onto a scroll. As King Jehoiakim listened to the words he cut off pieces of the scroll and threw them into a fire piece by piece. When I mentioned that King Jehoiakim was making a huge mistake one of the children corrected me, “No! the king knew God’s words were special. He did not make a mistake, he did it on purpose!”
Before being led off into Exile the Temple of God was destroyed. The students in my class were so sad to hear this. They understood how serious this was to God.
How About Making Your Own Temporary Tabernacle?
I was blessed with a room large enough to create a separate space but you could create a special space almost anywhere. Put your “special” items in a basket and lay out the items when it comes time to have your devotional. After all, this is exactly what was done with The Tabernacle. It was set up and taken down wherever the Israelites camped.
As I read about King Josiah and his zealous destruction of idols and places of false worship I wrestled with how I would relate the severe actions of destruction and even death to the lives of these 4 and 5 year olds without giving them nightmares or encouraging destructive behaviour in general.
How do we relate tough lessons in the Bible to children?
Here’s how I prepared for the lesson about Josiah. There were many actions and themes that children this age would find confusing and disturbing. So, as I read about Josiah, I tried to focus on God and then thought about how Josiah responded to him. Here’s what I came up with:
God is Holy and Josiah believed this passionately and wanted to honour him.
God desires and commands our sole worship. Josiah was indignant about the prevalent idol worship in the kingdom.
God expects to be taken seriously. Josiah took his kingship seriously and was determined to change his kingdom.
God displays emotions but he always does the right thing. Josiah’s anger, indignation and outrage did not lead him to sin. These emotions propelled him into actions that honoured God.
God’s Word is true. Josiah had respect for God’s Word and obeyed it.
God is concerned about everyone. As king, Josiah displayed leadership and shared God’s Word with his people.
Trying to teach all of these would have been too much for 4 and 5 year olds to comprehend so I focused on just two main points that I thought they could best relate to. I felt confident in the priority of these choices since they are also how God started when he issued the 10 Commandments.
God is Holy.
Do not worship idols or anything else besides God.
God is Holy
We spent time in a “special” area I had created in our classroom. I wasn’t trying to re-create the temple but I made the space special with some silver wrapping paper and some strings of gold beads that I found. As we sat in this space we read from God’s special book, talked about the special tabernacle and temple and then spent some time talking about how God is different and holy.
Do Not Worship Idols
After sharing the Bible story we spent some time destroying idols! The children took turns finding a scroll I hid underneath some carpet tiles. If they found the scroll they “read” it.
Yes! for God……….No! for idols
Once they found and read the scroll they then followed Josiah’s example in clearing out all of the idols. The biblical version is much more graphic. We expressed our outrage by kicking them and knocking them down.
To conclude the class we gathered in and focused on God’s holiness one more time.
For older children I would follow up by taping pictures of other “idols” on the boxes to show that anything we place as more important than God can be our idol. This might include possessions, beauty, sports…and the list goes on.
Those last few words can remain long in our memory. They draw everything together and mark the people and event as unique and special to this particular place and time. Imagine spending an evening with our friends in their home only to realise that they had gone to bed and left us on our own without saying goodbye. This would probably make us feel awkward and abandoned.
One of Paul’s Goodbyes
As Paul traveled and shared the Gospel he had to say goodbye many times. These were often emotional occasions with tears, encouragement and even words of warning or advice. Here is one example:
We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went on board and set sail.After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo.We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.When it was time to leave, we left and continued on our way. All of them, including wives and children, accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray.After saying goodbye to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home. Acts 21:2-6 NIV
How do children feel when they leave our Bible Classes?
When a child leaves Bible Class is he or she a ship full of fresh provisions being warmly fare-welled from a safe and friendly port? Or are the children drifting off toward open sea while the busy people back on shore seem to barely notice they have gone?
Take the time to draw everything together at the end of your teaching time. Solidify what you have taught, let the children know you are glad they came and give them courage to go out and put into practice the things God has moved them to do.
One of my favourite parts of teaching is conversation. There are times in a normal classroom setting for children to quietly listen while I share a story, read from the Bible or give instruction. But, as far as I am concerned, I have not done my job as a teacher if I have not interspersed that lecture style with plenty of opportunities for good conversation between the students and myself. I don’t want to always be the one talking. I also want to listen. I don’t accomplish this every time but it is my goal to engage with each child that I teach.
This is one of the reasons I love simple activities like the ones below.
In these activities the teacher and students draw simple pictures and participate together in discovering the important words and ideas in a Bible story.