Developing strong friendships — or what the Bible calls phileo love — between kids can be done on a whim, on or off the schedule, and without prep or new supplies.
First Samuel 18:3 illustrates the power of phileo love: “And Jonathan made a solemn pact with David, because he loved him as he loved himself.” This strength of friendship is what we want to see growing between the kids in our ministries. That’s why every time is the right time to find ways to deepen kids’ relationships: when they arrive early, as they wait for pickup, or while they interact during your meeting time. Best of all? The toys they already play with can transform into powerful tools for building cooperation and friendship. Check out these nine ideas based on kids’ social behavior at each developmental stage.
Early Childhood (Ages 3-5)
Watch young kids at play, and you’ll notice they’re often in a world of imagination. They may be playing alone or side by side with friends who are also in their own worlds of pretend fun. As kids develop socially, they’re more likely to try cooperative play—where they aren’t just playing beside a friend, but with that friend. Use these common toys to help preschoolers practice playing together as they build their first friendships.
Whether they’re cardboard, wooden, or foam, blocks let kids build and create. When young children play with blocks, they’re learning constructive play—where building possibilities are endless. Rather than independent towers, though, help build cooperative friendships between kids by distributing blocks and encouraging little builders to work together to create something cool.
As you play, say: God brings people who love him together at church. Let’s work together to build a church. What do you like about coming to church? God’s love for us is so big. Let’s see how big we can build a tower. What’s the biggest building you’ve seen?
While puzzles can be a fun individual challenge, you can show children that solving a puzzle is even more fun when they work together and share the excitement of a job well done. Use simple wooden puzzles or giant floor puzzles to build friendships by giving each child a piece or two. As you take turns discovering where the pieces go, children see how working together gets a job done.
As you play, say: Just like our pieces are different and special, God made each of us special. What’s something special you notice about someone in your family? God gives us friends to help us when we don’t know what to do next. Who helps you when you don’t know what to do?
Little People Play Sets
Toy houses or barns provide perfect opportunities to spark imagination in a land of make-believe. As you play, invite kids to take on different roles in an imaginative story. For example, one child is the horse, one is the sheep, and one is the farmer, and together they make sure everyone in the barn gets taken care of. Narrate a story that involves each child’s role, and soon they’ll take over the storyline themselves and involve their friends.
As you play, say: The farmer takes care of the animals just like God takes care of us. How does God take care of you? God gives us families. This family has a mom, a dad, a brother, a grandma, and a dog. Who’s in your family
Early Elementary (Ages 6-8)
As kids get older, cooperation happens more naturally and they welcome partners in play. And as their self-esteem rises, 6- to 8-year-olds bring their unique personalities and preferences with them as they make meaningful friendships. It’s a great season to remind kids that God created them in a special way. Peer groups are important to kids at this age, and they take notice of kids on the fringes. This is a ripe age for adults to help instill a sense of—and responsibility for—inclusiveness in kids. Deepen their friendships with you, each other, and God as you play these all-in games.
Picassos welcome! Have kids turn a piece of bulletin board paper into a collaborative masterpiece. Set out a variety of markers and crayons, and your kids will learn more about each other through art. Either hang the mural directly on a wall (double up the paper to prevent marks on a wall) or lay the paper on a table while kids work and hang it up later. Write getting-to-know-you questions directly onto the paper to guide kids’ creativity and conversations.
As you play, read aloud James 1:17. Then say: Draw something good God gave you this week, and tell us what made it so awesome. There’s no one like you; you’re God’s masterpiece! Draw your own masterpiece; then share what you drew with a friend.
Legos building toys let kids create, construct, and problem-solve. You might know a 7-year-old who’s happy to spend solitary hours constructing Lego creations. That’s great! But in your ministry, use Legos to build friendships, too. Set a Lego construction goal for the whole group. Perhaps you’ll work together to build a town, a shopping mall, or even the setting for your Bible passage—like Bethlehem, Jericho, or (if you’re really ambitious) the Tabernacle! Give specific directions and delegate responsibilities; then let kids play and create together.
As you play, say: Don’t you just love finding the perfect Lego for your creation? When has God given you or your family something right when you needed it? Just like these pieces are different, God makes people different, too. How are you different than your friends? Why is that a good thing?
Choose simple card games that don’t limit the number of kids who can play. When playing games like Uno, Spot It, and Go Fish, be ready to welcome kids, even in the middle of a good game. In addition to being loads of fun, games help kids follow directions, deal with disappointments, and develop sportsmanship. As you play, you’ll show kids that friendship is more important than competition. Talking isn’t always possible during a card game, but shuffling cards can take forever; so strike up conversations between rounds.
As you play, say: God gives us rules to help and not hurt us. If you could make up a new rule for this game, what would it be? How would it help or hurt the game? Like our game, sometimes life doesn’t go the way we plan. But God is always with us. Tell about a time in your life when something unexpected happened.
Upper Elementary (Ages 9-12)
Friendships help form kids’ self-identity as they get older. Belonging to a team, club, or specific group of friends means a lot to preteens on the brink of adolescence. That’s why establishing a warm, welcoming group of friends at church is so incredibly important. Upper-elementary girls look for emotional closeness with their friends—they want to share feelings and tell stories. You may notice boys sharing, too, but they’re more likely to want to do things together rather than sit and talk. Facilitate both options as you use these activities to build friendships among upper-elementary kids, and remind them that God is their friend no matter what.
Put a beanbag or playground ball in kids’ hands and watch them get to know each other through active play. Start a game of Foursquare so no matter when they arrive, kids can jump right in and play. Or set up a simple beanbag toss or Velcro dartboard to get kids playing, talking, and realizing God is at work through their week. (Throw and Tell Balls, available at group.com, are great active games that serve as icebreakers, physical play options, and faith discussion starters—all in one.)
As you play, say: When have you almost accomplished something but came up a little short? How did God use that experience to help you grow or get better? Give God praise for one good thing that happened this week.
Party games like Apples to Apples Junior, HedBanz, and Would You Rather? have ways of drawing even the quietest preteens out of their shell. These games get kids thinking, laughing, and showing their unique personalities. As they get to know each other better, kids will discover common interests and feelings and grow closer as a group. Emphasize fun over points scored, and invite kids to jump right in and start playing as soon as they arrive. You’ll help kids know God and each other better by posing some follow-up questions as you play.
As you play, say: People liked to be around Jesus. What would you enjoy about having a good time with Jesus? God knows us better than anyone. What’s something we learned about each of our friends by playing this game?
Kids build friendships as they work together and strategize to figure out solutions to problems. Games like Kerplunk or Jenga invite tactile kids to practice hands-on problem-solving. Even as they play individually, notice how kids model God’s generous grace as they encourage and build each other up—even when the game goes tumbling down.
As you play, say: It’s hard to figure out what to do next. When have you had trouble making a decision in your life? How did God help you? One wrong move, and we’ll have to start again. When have you had to start something all over again? What did you learn about God through that experience?
Phileo Don’t Cost a Thing
Like many budgets, yours may be tight and the toys in your ministry limited. That’s okay! Stay on the lookout for friendship-building toys from the following places.
Yard Sales: Others’ leftovers may be your treasures.
Church Members: Ask, and you shall receive. (Do not receive broken or unsafe toys, however.)
Online Resellers: You can find just about anything you need, often for a very low cost.
Your Smartphone: Find and download free kids’ party games such as Heads Up!
Recycling Bin: Get uber-creative, roll up your sleeves, and turn shoeboxes into blocks or cereal boxes into puzzles.
Adult Supervision Required
Facilitating phileo love with your kids doesn’t require the trendiest toys or perfect answers. But it does need you! As the leader, you go first. Jump in and play so you can show kids your love for God and each one of them. When you make God a normal part of the conversation, kids of all ages will naturally follow your lead. You never know…what you say when you play might be the words that stick with kids long after they leave your ministry. Not sure you’ve got the right words? No problem! You’ll help kids build friendships with God and each other simply by being there and show- ing you care. So start playing! You’ll find that friendships form easily when you’re willing to meet kids where they are with fun and friendship with God.
Charity Kauffman is a managing editor in Group’s children’s ministry department and a former children’s ministry director.
Looking for more teaching tips? Check out these ideas!