Providing Engaged Learning Acvtivities for Growing Minds
In her book Mind in the Making, respected author Ellen Galinsky writes about what she has discovered concerning children’s foundational needs. Galinsky lists seven skills children need not only for developing their minds but for all aspects of life, from relationships to growing as a person:
- Focus and Self Control
- Perspective Taking
- Making Connections
- Critical Thinking
- Taking on Challenges
- Engaged and Self-directed Learning
I believe these seven skills also apply to the spiritual life…and therefore to the Sunday school teacher.
Let’s look at these seven skills in light of church curriculum for children.
First of all, children do not need to be constantly entertained. They do not need ‘bells and whistles’ or the incorporation of tactics utilized by the entertainment industry. As you probably know, they already get plenty of that in our world.
Perhaps you have witnessed – or participated in – the following scene at Christmas: all the presents are unwrapped and the children are busy playing with…the wrapping paper and empty boxes!
As parents, we wonder what those children are thinking…don’t they know how much those presents cost?
No, they don’t and in reality, may not care. Yes, they probably begged for those toys for months and do love them…for a short while. But children can turn almost anything into a game, into something fun. Their imaginations and creativity are off the charts.
When we offer television, movies, and lessons at school and church that only seek to entertain them, we completely undervalue the power of their creative abilities.
What does this have to do with Galinsky’s book and teaching Sunday school?
This: children need to be given room to be kids, to develop their natural capacity for imaginative and creative play, and to be challenged every day with new ideas and perspectives that run contrary to their typical assumptions about the world.
Sometimes a church may have budget concerns and not be able to provide state-of-the-art curriculum for its teachers. No problem! After all, they have children – the most energetic, enthusiastic, curious group of people on earth – and they have the Bible – the most important, incredible, and interesting book ever written!
So what’s the problem? Why do teachers often feel overwhelmed with this daunting task of coming up with creative lessons?
It takes time to develop a lesson rather than rely on a prepackaged one. It takes time to consider your age group and their abilities and using that information to develop an age-appropriate lesson for them.
But guess what children need from us the most? You got it. Time.
Take faith, though, in this: you do not have to entertain them. I am not saying that children should be bored to death or that no creative planning should take place on the part of the parent or teacher. What I am saying is that children already posses an amazing capacity for wonder and creation, and this can be incorporated into our lessons.
You don’t need to do the thinking for them or become a stand-up comedian. You can do something as simple as read them the story and ask them to tell you what they remember or liked. Or let them ask the questions. You will be amazed at the connections they make and the things they can come up with to ask you. (Maybe that’s what can frighten some teachers! We all can relate to this!).
Children also value honesty. You can say to them, Great question, what do you think? Or, You know, I’ve often wondered that myself. Or, I don’t know, but I will look up the answer and tell you next week. They will respect you for this.
Children also love to do things, like sing, tell stories, draw, and act out the parts in the Bible lesson. Those elements can easily be woven into a meaningful lesson that will actually engage them as learners and participants. Your role is as a guide, a facilitator for the natural learning that takes place when a child’s curiosity is tapped.
As so many studies have shown, children remember best when they are engaged and interested. So rather than tell them what to be interested in, observe them and use their natural curiosity. Your lesson will be stronger and they will be better for it.
What you will accomplish in the end is a complete coverage of Galinsky’s list.
- Children will display focus and self-control as they listen to the story, follow along, or look at accompanying pictures.
- They will practice perspective-taking when you ask them how a character felt when something good/bad happened to them.
- Communication will take place between the teacher and class as they discuss the parts of the story that interested them and ask questions.
- When you have them draw a picture of a time when they experienced a similar situation as the main character from the lesson did, they will be making connections between separate events and deepening their understanding of and appreciation for the story.
- As you ask them questions or they ask their own questions, children will move into a world of new unknowns, where they must apply critical thinking in order to assess what happened and why. In this area, for all ages it is a good thing to present them with new ideas and questions to ponder. Ideas that may run contrary to their simpler ways of viewing things can help develop a healthy mind that loves new ideas and challenges. Of course, remember your age group. First graders don’t need to debate Calvinism!
- As they act out parts, ask questions, express their thoughts and opinions, and show their understanding through a creative piece such as an illustration, children will begin to enjoy taking on challenges. A note: In her wonderful book For the Children’s Sake author Susan Schaeffer Macaulay advocates that children be given blank pieces of paper when drawing rather than simply filling in a coloring book. I think that’s a good idea, too, and one that applies to teaching in general, as well.
- Finally, as the children grow and mature in your class and move on to other engaging classrooms with motivated teachers, they will develop into self-directed, engaged learners who enjoy a task for its own sake.
These skills provide the basic tools necessary for any task, any lesson, and any future job. Without them, it becomes impossible to learn to read, solve an algebra problem, give a presentation at work, or – most importantly – grow as a believer in Jesus Christ.
It is a joy to train these young, creative minds. Challenge them, give them your time, and by all means, please don’t have them stare at you silently for half an hour as you try and ‘entertain’ them. Engage them in the lesson, for that is how their minds develop and true learning takes place. This is how our children connect what they are learning in the Bible to real-life experiences they deal with every day.
In Deuteronomy 6: 6-9 we read, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” This is engaged, interactive learning and not entertainment. This is our teaching goal in children’s ministries to touch hearts and change minds for Jesus Christ.