Bad News About Bible Puzzles

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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.”

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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!

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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 humilty. 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.

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