I’m a college graduate with a minor in Bible. Therefore I was quite confident when I sat down to tackle “learning activities” from a variety of Sunday school curricula. I changed the faces of six clocks into “church.” I unscrambled “mraatanSi” to “Samaritan” and “rhseiePa” to “Pharisee.” I turned a “glove” into “love” and added and subtracted vowels and consonants to make “conflict” into “confidence.”
Then it happened. A simple rebus stumped me. All I could come up with was: “Greend iss our shellter and yarnth, allweigh stampe two hellp in clocks ove trubble.”
I decided to take the easy way out and look up the reference. I came up empty-handed after going through the eight Bibles on my shelf. So I called a few friends. Finally one had the correct translation. She read me the verse: “God is our shelter and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble.”
How was I supposed to know that a spot of green meant “go” instead of “green”? Or that a bit of yarn was actually string?
Now my worksheet was complete, and I’d learned my lesson: Figuring out the Bible is tough work!
WHAT PUZZLES TEACH
Some parents and educators think there’s no harm in assigning children puzzles, word scrambles, and other similar Bible activities. These well-meaning educators assume that puzzles teach children the verse or main point of the lesson. But do they?
What children learn may be far from what’s intended. Consider the following: Christina is quick to decipher encoded messages, scrambled words, and puzzles. She whips through her worksheet in minutes, barely stopping to read what she’s written. The teacher smiles and rewards Christina with a sticker. Christina has learned that she’s smart, the teacher likes her, and she must be a good Christian.
Anoush is bored by the symbols he must interpret. He plods through the mazes and rebuses only to discover that he can’t figure them out. He decides to complete the worksheet by copying the answer from the Bible, only he doesn’t have the correct translation. He turns his paper over and doodles. Anoush has learned that the Bible is in a secret language he can’t figure out, and he doesn’t have the “right” Bible to get the answer. Anoush figures that the Bible is a difficult book.
Why should he bother trying?
Annette has a learning disability. She doesn’t even know where to begin to unscramble the message. Embarrassed, she decides to skip Sunday school next week and volunteer in the nursery instead. Annette has learned that God is for smart people and that she’s not worthy of knowing the message.
None of these children has learned anything about the meaning of the message. In fact, they’ve learned exactly the things that their teachers would never want them to learn. Educators call this the “hidden curriculum”-what children actually learn instead of what teachers intend for them to learn. Too often, Bible rebuses and puzzles teach children that the Bible is a difficult code to decipher and has absolutely nothing to do with real life. And we all know that’s furthest from the truth. How can we make God’s straightforward Word to us so appealing and understandable that children take away lifelong lessons?
A BETTER WAY
No one teaches a child to ride a bicycle through encoded messages. You help the child onto the bike, put her feet on the pedals, and try to keep up as she wobbles down the sidewalk. The same is true about what we teach children in church. Children don’t learn about God’s love through deciphering a paper filled with clock faces. They learn love through the actions of Jesus and through the interactions they have with his followers today.
So what can you do?
Skip the worksheets. Figure out the intended message yourself, and get busy helping kids learn its truth through active, multisensory participation. Look for the nugget of learning that the puzzle maker had in mind. Then brainstorm other nonpaper-oriented ways that children could better learn that lesson.
For example, imagine that a curriculum includes a worksheet where children use signal flags to figure out why they should be signals of Jesus Christ. Summarize the point of this lesson as “Our actions send signals to other people about what Jesus Christ is like.” Help kids learn what this means through a mimicking game instead. Have children each mimic a person they know so others can guess who he or she is imitating; for example, a child might mimic a person’s walk, voice, and gestures. Let each person have a turn. Everyone can participate by guessing. Afterward, discuss what actions tell us about people and what our actions tell others about ourselves. What do others learn about Jesus from our actions? Children will discover areas where they can grow in Christlikeness.
In another curriculum, you may find the scrambled words of Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” What can kids do instead of unscrambling the puzzle?
Have kids form three groups, assigning one group justice, another kindness, and the last humility. Ask each group to create and present a skit demonstrating the quality assigned. Then have kids discuss why these are all that God requires of us. Follow up by having groups each design and carry out a project that demonstrates their quality.
And the rebus I couldn’t decipher? That’s Psalm 46:1. Instead of stumping your kids, consider having them build a fort in the classroom. Bring along sheets or blankets and encourage kids to use these and any items they find in the room, such as tables, chairs, and bookshelves, for their construction. When the fort is completed, cram everyone inside and name things this shelter will protect children from. Then discuss how this fort is like or unlike God’s shelter. Read aloud Psalm 46:1 and have children compare the verse to their own experience.
Now that’s real learning.