9 Child Development Tips for Better Ministry

Group Size

Large groups easily overwhelm children and are difficult to manage. Small group sizes make it easier to facilitate hands-on learning, form friendships and practice social skills. The younger the children, the smaller the group size required.  

Behavior and Environment

The physical environment shapes children’s behavior. Large, noisy, over-stimulating rooms can produce undesirable behavior in children. Smaller spaces cut down on distractions and help children focus.

Active Learners

Children are active learners. Education sometimes emphasizes rote learning of skills rather than active, experiential learning in a meaningful context. Consequently, many children are being taught scripture and facts, but they are not learning to apply those skills to problems and real situations. Rote learning does not develop more complex thinking skills such as conceptualization and problem solving. 

Sense of Time and Place

Children under the age of six struggle with the concept of time. They only understand the present. Past and future have no meaning to them. Children ages six and older are beginning to comprehend the concept of time. Young children, also, have no comprehension of geography that is outside of the immediate world they’ve experienced. 

Value/Morals Formation

The basic truth about teaching values and morals to our children is that values and morals are learned not through works or lecture, but through living it. The kind of values we ourselves treasure as adults or those that form part of our life’s principles are manifested in our everyday life. Children should be taught values in concert with methods of analysis and judgment that yield answers about right and wrong, better and worse concerning personal behavior and the common good. The integration of cognitive development and character development can best be achieved through perspective-taking, moral reasoning, thoughtful decision-making and moral self-knowledge. Since young children learn through role playing, this is an excellent way to teach values and morals to them.

Preschoolers lack abstract reasoning, the concept of time and geography, and are not ready for instruction that is more direct. Mary Irene Flanagan, C.S.J. explains it this way in Children’s Ministries that Work:

“Preschoolers aren’t developmentally ready for formal instruction in faith.  They can’t interpret Scripture, understand deep theological concepts, or participate meaningfully in adult religious practices. Priority isn’t to communicate religious information. It’s to provide a healthy, loving, family environment. Doing so reinforces a preschooler’s sense of trust and independence …. If preschoolers feel valued and accepted, they’ll want to return to experience more of those feelings. By sharing in the discovery and wonder with a child, we begin to lay the foundation for faith.”

Preschoolers need lots of hands-on, interactive opportunities for self-directed play. Young children are concrete thinkers and learn mostly by exploring, observing, imagining, imitating (role-play) and creating, not simply talking or watching. Even into middle childhood, children actively construct their understanding and knowledge through interaction with the physical and social world. In order for learning to be effective, children need interactive, hands-on activities whenever possible. In some ways, teaching children about God has less to do with the content that is delivered as with the climate—the loving environment they encounter. A child comes to understand faith when s/he experiences an atmosphere that communicates God’s love and a gracious invitation. 

Stories

Jesus made consummate use of stories in His teachings. Although younger children do not have the cognitive development to philosophically reflect on the stories, becoming familiar with stories and the Bible still introduces them to religious words, concepts, God’s love, right and wrong and the idea of faith. This pre-religious literacy becomes a foundation they build on as they grow and are exposed to more formal learning of religious concepts and language.

Storytelling evangelism has many advantages when it comes to using stories to communicate spiritual faith to children:

  • Stories hold children’s attention.
  • Stories stir their emotions.
  • Stories help them remember.

Children should not only be told stories, but they should also have the opportunity to act them out. This is especially important for children six and younger who almost exclusively learn experientially. They need to be given opportunities to become storytellers and act out stories in playful ways. This can include role-play and pretend dress-up.

To provide children consistency and a sense of security, they need a homeroom they first go to and return to after going through performance and hands-on activity venues. They also need regular adult instructors. Children need a steady, stable environment to deal best with the challenges of learning. For 5-year-olds and younger, they should stay in the homeroom with the exception of maybe one visit to an appropriate venue or playground each Sunday. 

Volunteers who are well trained in the child development principles listed above and can meet the diverse needs of individual children will better insure that your church has a vibrant ministry to kids.  

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vstoecklin@churchleaders.com'
Vicki Stoecklin is the Education and Child Development Director and Randy White is the CEO of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City based firm that specializes in the design of children’s and family leisure and learning venues, including children’s religious ministry programs and facilities. Either can be reached at 816.931-1040 or info@whitehutchinson.com.