“What children’s curriculum should my church use?” I see this asked over and over in online forms by thoughtful parents, pastors, and church leaders yet I wonder if we are asking the right question. While the question of content, or what to teach, is an important one, I believe that the question of method, or how to teach, is even more important. This is especially so in contexts where wary parents are seeking more progressive, child-centered environments rather than those that emphasize obedience or indoctrination.
A New Product:
As we begin a new program year, it is important to equip faith formation teachers with effective and theologically sound methods for delivering content. After child safety, method is what I focus on in teacher training. Community, Curiosity, and Choice are what I call the “3 C’s” of how to nurture faith. I’ve formatted these into handouts with a curated list of resources that can be shared with parents as well as volunteer leaders and teachers, available on Etsy.
Jesus’ ministry is rooted in community. In scripture we see people being brought together as he gathered the disciples, in the intentional ways he brought those who were shunned from society into relationship, and by the formation of the early church. Jesus himself informs the practice of children’s ministry rooted in community.
Adult leaders need a toolbox of gathering rituals, team building games, and classroom management strategies that nurture authentic, caring relationships within the group. Progressive methods are those that lead to shared power, rooted in the belief that each member of the group has a valuable contribution, regardless of age, while maintaining clear, gentle expectations about behavior. In other words, adults should create an environment that fosters guided learning through shared exploration, inquiry, and discussion.
Healthy environments foster community, nurture caring relationships, and honor the gifts of each person in the group, just as God created them to be.
Nurturing Curiosity & Critical Thinking:
Children possess an innate sense of wonder about creation and the Creator, which is why many progressive curricula seek to inspire curiosity and questions. Environments which honor imagination and creativity also offer children opportunities to think critically. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a visual reminder of the importance of higher-order thinking skills like comparing, contrasting, applying, and creating.
Through critical engagement with Bible stories and the traditions of the church, children make connections with their lived experiences. The ability to think critically about the vast amounts of information we receive is essential in a technology-rich culture. Reading scripture seriously but not literally requires the ability to think critically and contextually.
Curiosity is the foundation of imagination and critical thinking. This is part of what Jesus was referring to when he said, in Mark 10, “ whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Envisioning the world as God intends it to be takes the curiosity and imagination of a child.
I’ll be honest here, church environments may be some of the hardest places to offer children appropriate choices. You never know how many children or which children will show up each week. You may not have enough kids to do that really fun activity you spent a lot of time planning. If this happens often enough, churches will implement curricula that require no prep – usually a story and a worksheet. While some children love worksheets, many others find them boring or may be different learners for whom they are frustrating.
Part of my definition of progressive church learning environments is that they honor children’s agency, or voice and choice, about how they learn and what they experience. There is still a lesson or topic for the day, but a choice-oriented environment will have opportunities for children to engage with the subject in a variety of ways. Simple options might include selecting a book to read, creating a drawing, using objects to retell the story, or using a finger labyrinth for quiet prayer. Depending on group size, dynamic, and the number of adults, you could offer a sensory table, a messier art option, or a movement activity. Inquiry and Project Based Learning, which offer choices about learning topics and projects, are methods which engage the curiosity of older children.
Offering choice acknowledges that God’s grace reaches us wherever we are, in whatever we do. Respecting agency honors the creative image of God in the child, leading to greater enthusiasm and authentic engagement. As a side benefit, enthusiasm and engagement are potential drivers of attendance. By offering choice, you may find that kids look forward to Sunday mornings in new ways.
As you prepare for the coming program year…
I believe the 3 C’s above are the hallmarks of progressive faith formation. While content is absolutely important healthy spiritual development depends upon both content and method, both how and what we teach.
Some additional resources on the topic of pedagogy (available through my Bookshop affiliate link):
A Pedagogy for Liberation with Ira Shor and Paulo Friere
Teach Freedom: Education for Liberation in the African-American Tradition edited by Charles Payne and Carol Sills Strickland
From Lament to Advocacy: Black Religious Education and Public Ministry edited by Streaty Wimberly and Lockhart-Gilroy
Teaching and Learning on the Verge: Democratic Education by Shanti Eliott