Helping Children Make Meaning: Tips for Holy Week

When my children were in preschool, I searched high and low for Holy Week stories that I felt would be appropriate. Finding none, we focused on the joy of Palm Sunday and Easter but skipped the events in between. Back then, I had fewer skills for teaching children the Bible.  I have grown a lot as a parent, as a Christian, and as a teacher in the time my children grew into teenagers. This Holy Week will include college visits! And, it will include the retelling of the last week of Jesus life at home and at church. It will include space for each of us to reflect on the meaning of Easter in our own lives. For me, that includes hard won understanding gained in seminary courses and in real life.

The most important thing I’ve learned about teaching Easter since then is to be intentional about sharing the greatest mystery of our faith with children. We need to find the meaning-filled place between a cute (but spiritually meaningless) Easter bunny and retellings of the cross that have potential for spiritual harm.

When shared well, the Easter story equips us to make meaning over our lifetimes. What God does through Jesus Christ becomes the lens through which we see hope in the most challenging, gut wrenching experiences of our lives. Thoughtfully told, the Easter story becomes our good news and the ground of our faith.

During Lent, I wrote about approaching Holy Week with children. Below I offer a few more helpful tips as we begin Holy Week:

  1. Preview your materials: Now is the time for parents and Sunday school teachers to read through what you plan to present. Ask yourself these important questions about violence, accuracy, and meaning. If you are looking for a daily reading for home, Northbrook UMC’s version of Holy Week in a Box is available for download.
  2. Treat the violence carefully: “Jesus died on the cross” is both biblically accurate and sufficient description for children. Traci Smith offers a detailed and developmentally sound tips for addressing the violence of the cross.
  3. Share the stories in context: Holy Week is rich and complex. When told together, we see the narrative unfold. We may not make meaningful connections between the Last Supper and Holy Communion until we are older, but we will never be able to connect stories we do not hear. Speaking of context – when talking about Jesus death, always remind children this is NOT the end of the story.
  4. Let the children make meaning: This one is hard. Children will ask questions about why Jesus was killed and how he came back to life. Don’t we all? When a child asks a tough question, we often resort to oversimplified phrases like, “Jesus died for our sins.”  Young children aren’t developmentally able to unpack what that statement means. They might infer that something they have done is directly responsible for Jesus death.  I suggest that you answer a tough question by repeating the question back to the child. Get comfortable in the silence that follows.  They might offer their own explanation. Or, move on to another question. They might insist you answer (to which you can say, “I wonder that, too.”).  The only time I suggest otherwise is when a child’s question or statement portrays God as mean or unloving. Even this can be responded to with a question, “Is that something God, who is always loving, would do?”

Finally, as adults, we are still making meaning, too. I pray that this Holy Week you are able to find new hope in these ancient testimonies. You might enjoy this simple but beautiful poetry exercise on “The First Time Resurrection Mattered to Me.”  As a gift, I have compiled playlists of songs that are meaningful to me during Holy Week and Easter. Do you have a song you would add? Please share below.

Blessed, meaningful, Holy Week,


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