Fred Rogers once said, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” I would add that not only is play an opportunity to learn, it is one of the most enjoyable, effective, and sticky.
Child-friendly nativity sets are a traditional, hands-on way for children to engage with the story of Jesus’s birth. There are commercially available sets as well as inexpensive ways to make your own out of paper or wood blocks, like my colleague planned for us to create at church tomorrow (see the photo). Here are three, interactive and playful ways to use your nativity set to engage deeply with the story of Jesus, God with Us, this year:
Journey to the Manger:
Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. Luke 2: 3-7 (CEB)
Line the nativity set pieces up at the other side of the room or table from the manger. Each day or week, move them closer to Bethlehem as they journey to see the newborn king. Add baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. If you have an Advent spiral, you might lay it out in a long path.
Wander with the Wise Ones:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” Matthew 2:1-2 (CEB)
Use the wise persons from your nativity set to create a surprise scene each day of Advent. Inspired by the popularity of Elf on the Shelf, the Wandering Wisemen create opportunities to reflect upon the significance of the magi’s journey. Visit the Wandering Wisemen on Facebook or Instagram for more details.
Advent Add Along:
Add new pieces to your nativity set each week, accompanied by reading the corresponding portion of the Bible. One way to do this would be to follow the Godly Play sequence for each week of Advent:
Week 1: The Prophets, Luke 1:5-25 – The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
Prepare the way by setting out a cloth, an empty manger, or the stable.
Week 2: The Holy Family, Luke 2:1-7
Add Mary and Joseph to your nativity scene.
Week 3: The Shepherds, Luke 2:8-20
Add the shepherds, sheep, and angels.
Week 4: The Magi, Matthew 2:1-12
Add the wise men and camels.
Christmas Eve: Emmanuel, Luke 1:30-33 or Isaiah 9: 2,6
Add the baby Jesus to the manger scene.
Why Play Matters:
As children interact with the nativity set, trust their innate spirituality and ability to learn what they need as they play. This is hard for adults! Children’s play often looks like messing around. We wonder if they are “getting anything out of it” and might assume that free play time takes away from time that could be spent on school work or extra curricular activities.
I have found that when I begin conversations with Sunday school children who seem to be “just playing,” that they are almost always engaging deeply with a story or concept. A few weeks ago I approached a child who appeared to be aimlessly moving figures around in the sand. “Tell me about your story,” I said. The child replied with a recounting of the Exodus, told in four year old language: “The people are moving to a new place because the old place is bad. It is very hard to move.” A child who can repeat a story in their own words has likely committed that story to memory. This memory becomes formational, part of a child’s bank of knowledge, a story that helps to shape their worldview as their hearts and minds assimilate new concepts and experiences throughout life.
Hands on play becomes experiential learning when there is an opportunity for reflection upon the activity. Adults who ask children open ended questions about their play are facilitating experiential learning. Experiential learning is learning that forms, shapes, and lasts.
“How much richer will our faith experiences be when we have opportunity to play? Faith, like play, can be more experiential than academic. Growing and stretching the imagination through play is an essential part of human development, one that nurtures soul, mind and body. Part of a church’s unique ministry is to be a place that fosters play while nurturing faith.” – Christine V. Hides in “Where Have all the Sandboxes Gone?”
May this Advent be a time of encountering anew the story, meaning, and mystery of God with Us.