Each new Sunday school year means new faces, new personalities,
and new opportunities to create a classroom environment that keeps
kids coming back. Great activities, relevant lessons, tasty snacks,
and cool decorations are all part of that package — but you’ll see
kids light up like never before when you create experiences that
engage their emotions.
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You already have all the tools you need to make your class
irresistible to kids. What’s necessary is learning how to
incorporate engaging experiences into the fiber of your class. Read
on to discover important elements of emotional development that’ll
draw kids in and keep them coming back.
“He must enjoy having guests in his home and must love all that
is good. He must live wisely and be fair. He must live a devout and
disciplined life.” — Titus 1:8
Min loved kids and couldn’t wait to teach second-graders on
Sunday. But by the end of the third class she was exasperated —
all the kids wanted to do was talk to each other. Her first three
classes had been spent “shushing” jabbering 7-year-olds. The
problem? Min’s class lacked structure. The kids sensed the
disorganization and took the opportunity to misbehave.
You love it; kids secretly crave it — even though they’ll
protest long and loud about it. Structure is critical to a thriving
classroom. And by structure, we mean the presence of an
identifiable system or routine and a discipline policy that’s
familiar to kids. Structure is vital.
Why it works: Structure works because it removes the unknown.
Kids feel at ease when they can predict the routine or
consequences. When routine is absent misbehavior, inattention, and
distraction often result. An unstructured classroom is typically a
disorganized classroom — physically and emotionally.
Structure provides kids with a sense of ownership, confidence,
belonging, and well-being because they can predict consequences and
understand the overall function of the class.
What it looks like: Kids recognize the beginning, middle, and
end of your class. For instance, they know that music worship time
is always at the end of class and that snacks come at the halfway
point. They understand classroom processes and have ownership in
What it’s not: Structure doesn’t mean kids are tied to their
chairs or take a mandatory three-minute bathroom break halfway
through class. Structure is about discipline and consistency — not
legalism and rules.
“This man Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar, has a sharp
mind and is filled with divine knowledge and understanding. He can
interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve difficult problems.
Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.” —
“The process of solving a problem is just as important as the
actual solution to the problem,” writes Jody Pawel, a licensed
social worker and author, in her article “Effective
Problem-Solving” in Parent’s Toolshop.
Adults tend to think of problems as troublesome issues in need
of remedy. For kids, though, developing problem-solving skills is
really finding the solution to a puzzle, such as learning how to
operate a toy for the first time. When kids get the opportunity to
use their problem-solving skills, they’re acquiring self-esteem and
Why it works: Kids need opportunities to solve problems for
several reasons. Critical thinking skills flourish when kids are
allowed to work through problems. Kids also learn that they have
the intrinsic ability to overcome obstacles successfully, which in
turn helps them establish positive self-esteem. Additionally, kids
who have good problem-solving skills are often empathetic, willing
to help others, and able to lead.
What it looks like: In a class where kids are encouraged to view
situations critically and think through solutions, they get to
explore problems in a learner-appropriate way. Teachers may ask
children to think through Jonah’s predicament from his perspective
or imagine what they might’ve done in Jesus’ position.
What it’s not: Problem-solving is not word searches or puzzles.
It’s not rote memorization. It’s not learning through lecture.
“For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ
Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” —
“Creativity is fostered by taking the pressure off children to
acquire skills and by encouraging them to do what children are
inclined to do naturally — to play in imaginative ways,” writes
Lisa Samalonis in “Inspiring Creativity in Children,” her article
Kids are innately creative, but sadly our teaching methods often
crush this God-given talent. Allowing kids to explore their
creative inclinations is vital developmentally, and it’s a
foundational part of helping kids learn their interests and
talents, especially beginning around age 8. The great news is that
the Bible is the centerpiece of creativity, starting with
Why it works: Kids who experience creative opportunities in your
class get to come up with new ideas and look at situations from a
new perspective. They’re challenged to think about situations in
new ways, and they’re less likely to be bound by unoriginal
thinking. Children who are encouraged to be creative are less
likely to be fearful of new situations and more likely to express
What it looks like: Art, pretend play, open-ended activities and
experiences, music, and manipulatives are all great ways to guide
kids toward creativity.
What it’s not: Fostering creativity isn’t giving kids a free
pass for anything-goes behavior. Creative experiences are guided
and related to your lesson. Creativity can be messy, so teach kids
to clean up after their creative endeavors.
“But the Lord said to her, ‘My dear Martha, you are so upset
over all these details! There is really only one thing worth being
concerned about. Mary has discovered it — and I won’t take it away
from her.’ ” — Luke 10:41-43
Perhaps the most vital of all classroom experiences is
relationship. Humans have a fundamental need for positive
relationships with others, including peers and adults. And
relationships really are the underlying theme of our efforts in
children’s ministry because it’s that all-important relationship
with Jesus that we’re trying to instill in our kids.
By intentionally fostering relationships with our kids, we’re
not only giving them a sense of self-worth, we’re also modeling
positive relationships. A child can never experience too many
Why it works: Kids need to feel they belong. When positive
relationships are a primary focus in the classroom, all children
feel included, important, and connected to the group. Feeling liked
and valued is priceless to a child.
What it looks like: Kids work together to achieve goals —
interactive learning. Games and activities are geared around
relationships. Teachers and volunteers genuinely care for their
children. All children are actively engaged in the classroom
What it’s not: While building relationships is about making
personal connections, it’s not about attending each child’s
extracurricular activities or spending every evening on the phone
with kids or parents. Don’t become a stalker — just make a
consistent effort to personally connect with each of your
“Do you see any truly competent workers? They will serve kings
rather than ordinary people.” — Proverbs 22:29
“Autonomy refers to a sense of choice, of individuality, of
independence, of being able to make a difference,” says David
Corsini in “Developing Positive Relationships With Children,” his
article for The National Network for Child Care.
“The type of adult relationship that helps children develop a
sense of autonomy encourages children to consider alternatives,
make choices, and explore possible consequences,” continues
Corsini. “Activity options such as sports, crafts, academics,
drama, nature studies, and hobbies also will allow children to
develop aspects of their individuality.”
Why it works: Autonomy is critical to helping kids learn to
believe in themselves because they get to make decisions and guide
their own experiences. Autonomy results when kids feel capable and
secure in their abilities through practice; its cousin is
A side effect of autonomy is that kids long to learn. You can
create an atmosphere that’s primed for life-changing learning and
loads of fun by offering kids the chance to be autonomous.
What it looks like: Kids make choices and accept consequences.
Adults convey to children that they’re capable, and children get
opportunities to demonstrate this. Kids are allowed to run with
their interests. They’re also held accountable.
What it isn’t: Autonomy isn’t a free-for-all. It’s not a child
dictatorship. It’s guided independence coupled with positive
All these elements have something in common: They lead to
positive self-esteem-building experiences. If your goal is to make
your class irresistible, focus on incorporating all of these
concepts. You’ll be delighted — and kids will be excited — as
each experience lights up their eyes and hearts. cm
Jennifer Hooks is managing editor for Children’s Ministry