Are some Bible stories off-limits for preschoolers? How can we teach Bible stories to preschoolers so they truly understand them?
“Don’t teach preschoolers about sin. And don’t teach them that Jesus died for them until they’re much older,” the instructor told her roomful of children’s ministers and Christian education directors. “They just can’t handle those concepts yet.”
I couldn’t believe my ears!
Was this instructor right? Should we shield preschoolers from some Bible stories? Are we representing the truth accurately if we mince the facts and fail to tell children the “unsightly” aspects of Bible stories?
Bible stories are part of our faith journey. As Christian educators, we want children to know and love Bible stories so they know who they are and whose they are.
But how can we teach Bible stories to preschoolers so they truly understand them?
What Preschoolers Understand
Children understand stories in their own way. Preschoolers may not fully understand Bible stories until they’re much older. In Christian Child Development, Iris V. Cully writes that children shouldn’t be expected to understand as adults do. Neither should they have to wait to hear Bible stories until they’re mature enough to understand them on an adult level. Present Bible stories in their entirety, and don’t feel that you have to apologize for God.
Because some Bible stories rely heavily on symbols in their telling, they may have symbolic meaning for adults but not for children. Determine which symbols children understand before you tell stories. For stories with more abstract symbols, use the tips below.
How to Tell Bible Stories Preschoolers
1. Be aware.
Know how well your children can relate to the symbols in the stories. Then use that information to guide you over the cognitive bridges to understanding. Kids who have an experience base to understand the story well may need fewer bridges.
For example, most children have experienced the beauty of a rainbow. So it’s easy to tell the “rainbow story” from Genesis 9 and say, “When we see the rainbow, it reminds us of God’s promise to take care of all people.”
However, much-loved parables that rely on symbols may not be so easy to use with children. One hard-to-understand image is that of the sheep and shepherd. Most young children will not be able to see the parallel to Jesus and us, especially if the children live in a city.
Begin with the familiar — pets children have — and talk about how they love and care for their pets. Then proceed to other animals and their keepers, and finally to the sheep and shepherd image. By crossing these “cognitive bridges,” you’ll integrate a solid base of understanding into the child’s life.
2. Make Bible stories relate to preschoolers.
Build on children’s experiences. Identify themes that children have knowledge of-friendship, fear, or kindness. Then connect the Bible story to one of these well-known themes. Stories that show how God works in kids’ lives will stick with them.
3. Be faithful.
To the Bible text, that is. Evaluate stories from storybooks ahead of time. Does this version stretch the truth, perhaps with animals who speak? Does it conveniently exclude parts of the truth? Are there value judgments that don’t appear in the Bible version? Remember, stories told over and over form a basis for faith development.
4. Present God accurately.
It would be unfair to present a loving God as only kind and gentle because love can also be angry or unhappy. It’s important to tell the whole story. God’s anger or unhappiness with people isn’t permanent. Forgiveness, renewal, and salvation are a part of all Bible stories.
Debbie Trafton O’Neal
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