Your preschool ministry offers an opportunity to infuse little ones with faith at one of the most important points in their lives.
If you work with preschoolers, it’s likely you’re a big believer in the amazing way God wired these little ones to learn. While some on the “outside”—outside your class walls, outside the world of wonder that is preschooldom—find it hard to believe that much meaningful learning and faith discovery can really take place with kids this age, you know the truth.
Children in early childhood are living in moment-by-moment discovery of God’s amazing creation. Their work really is their play. And you get to be part of it as you champion preschool ministry! Best of all, there’s plenty of science to back up your passion. So read on for the points—and the wins—that’ll make your preschool ministry the most vibrant place in your church!
Experience and Repetition
Although the human brain continues to change over time, the first few years of life mark an important time of rapid growth. Babies and preschoolers’ brain synapses, which allow information to pass from neuron to neuron, are forming at an incredible rate that won’t be matched for the rest of their lives. Their young brains are prepared to receive input from their environment and to learn, and the experiences children have can actually modify the function of their brain as well as its structure.
A child’s early environment sets the stage for subsequent development and may have lasting effects on a child. In fact, the Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development concluded, “The question today is not whether early experience matters, but rather how early experiences shape individual development and contribute to children’s continued movement along positive pathways.”
Repetition strengthens the synapses carrying information from neuron to neuron, building pathways of learning. For preschoolers, repetition is not only very enjoyable, it’s also the key to cementing learning. That’s why your kids love to hear the same stories over and over, play the same games, and listen to the same songs. They’re instinctively drawn to repetition. In this way, you can infuse faith in your kids through repetition.
Use this knowledge to evaluate how you use your time with preschoolers. As adults, repetition may seem boring, even irritating. But when you approach your time with your little ones knowing that repetition is one of the most beneficial teaching tools available, it’s easier to understand and appreciate why kids love it so. Don’t shy from repetition and routine.
What To Do
1. Follow the same basic structure.
Create a routine your kids can count on. Set up your class time so the beginning, middle, and end are consistent. Kids always know that you start class with the “Good Morning” song, eat snack after Bible time, and finish class with the “See You Later” song. Consistency gives kids a sense of comfort and predictability that is soothing and will help you avoid discipline issues arising out of an uncontrolled environment.
2. Let kids explore their favorites.
You likely get requests from kids to play the same games, sing the same songs, and hear the same Bible events over and over. They may even want to play with the same toys each time they come. Don’t resist this; remember that every time you repeat something, you’re helping to ingrain it in the child’s memory and experiences.
Preschoolers understand vast amounts of information and learn at a rate that is nearly unparalled in later life. A perfect illustration of the speed and depth of learning shows up in language development. The average 3-year-old has a vocabulary of 900 to 1,000 words. By age 4, that child’s vocabulary will consist of 4,000 to 6,000 words. And by age 5, the number is between 5,000 and 8,000 words, according to early childhood researchers and authors Carol Seefeldt and Barbara Wasik. Learning literally explodes in the preschool years.
Take advantage of children’s amazing, God-given capabilities by maximizing your time with them. Reinforce their positive view and perception of God by fostering a faith-centered environment that supports your preschoolers’ natural development through your demonstration of grace, encouragement, and unconditional love. As a figure of authority in their lives, you reflect God to preschoolers and play a role in how these children will ultimately perceive the nature of God—the ultimate authority figure.
What To Do
1. Be sensitive.
Researchers have found sensitive caregiving to be related to numerous aspects of development ranging from attachment (connection with others) to children’s abilities to regulate emotion, behavior, and attention. Being responsive to a child’s cues is a key to being sensitive. This means being tuned-in and responding to a child’s emotions, interest level, and capabilities. If you see a boy crying, don’t ignore it. Acknowledge that he’s upset and comfort him. Consistently responding to a child’s needs builds trust in your relationship with him, which ultimately translates into trusting God.
2. Provide children with an appropriate level of stimulation—
not too much and not too little. Recognize when a child is overwhelmed or bored and adjust your interactions with the child. The best rule of thumb is to time a child’s attention span by his or her age. For each year of age, expect about one minute of attention. That means for your oldest preschoolers, you’ll need to change focus about every four to five minutes to keep kids engaged.
3. Avoid over-controlling interactions.
Take advantage of opportunities to allow children to master their behavior without your intervention. If a child is capable of doing something on her own without your help, let her do it to help build her confidence and sense of self-efficacy. Let children tie their own shoelaces, clean up after making crafts, or write their own names on projects. Ask first whether a child needs help rather than jumping in to do it.
4. Keep a healthy adult-to-child ratio.
Sensitive interactions with children are easier when the teacher-to-child ratio is low. For quality care, one caregiver for every three children is recommended in infancy, whereas one teacher for every eight children is adequate for 4-year-olds. If you have a sufficient number of adults, group only a few children with each teacher.
Emotions and Perspectives
Preschoolers’ ability to understand emotions and their ability to take the perspective of others boosts their cooperation, empathy for others, pro-social behavior, and general social competence. These are all desirable characteristics that help kids have Christlike compassion and make positive contributions to society. Children’s knowledge about emotions, what elicits people’s emotions, and perspective-taking skills develop rapidly during the preschool years.
This developmental window offers a perfect opportunity to talk with preschoolers about how God feels about us, how you personally feel about God, how Jesus wants us to treat others, and so on. Use these guides to support children’s emotional acuity and help infuse faith in them as they grow.
What To Do
1. Support kids’ expression of emotion.
Preschoolers need to know that emotions are okay. If you see a child get angry or sad, allow the child to express it. (Of course, if the emotion leads to harming someone else, such as hitting or shoving, put a halt to it.) Avoid saying things such as, “It’s no big deal,” “Boys don’t cry,” or “Calm down.” Experts believe that invalidating emotions or encouraging suppression of emotions may lead children to conceal the outward expression of emotion. At the same time, the internal reaction to the emotion worsens, which may lead to anxiety. When adults squelch a child’s emotional response, it can negatively impact their overall coping skills.
2. Talk about emotions.
Explore the situations that elicit emotions and the consequences of emotions when opportunities arise. For example, if Lisa takes Dawn’s scissors during craft time and Dawn yells, you can discuss the emotions involved. “Dawn, did you yell because you were angry? What made you angry? Lisa, when you take others’ things without asking first, you’ll probably make them upset. Wouldn’t that make you angry?” Give kids the words to identify how they feel.
3. Encourage kids to think about others’ emotions, beliefs, and desires.
Understanding that others’ internal states can differ from theirs helps kids respond to others appropriately. You can encourage thinking about others’ internal states while exploring the Bible. For example, “If you were in the belly of a big whale fish like Jonah, how would you feel? What would you be thinking about?”
4. Demonstrate consistency.
Consistency in children’s lives is important. If possible, arrange schedules so the same caregiver or teacher sees the same children each week. Quality, stable relationships help kids learn that others can be dependable, and they give volunteers the opportunity to really get to know the children in your ministry. Additionally, interacting with the same teacher means the child is exposed to the same rules and expectations each week. Kids in your ministry may be going through chaotic and confusing times at home, for instance during parental divorce or times of financial stress. You can make your ministry a dependable and safe haven for kids.
Neuroscientists have recently found that the brain continues to develop through adolescence, but brain development actually begins in the womb. In fact, results from several studies support the notion that prenatal learning can occur. In a famous study conducted by Anthony DeCasper at the University of South Carolina, researchers asked pregnant women to read aloud a passage from a Dr. Seuss book twice each day for the last six weeks of their pregnancy. After they were born, the babies who experienced repeated exposure to the Dr. Seuss story showed a preference for listening to the familiar passage as opposed to a new passage. This study supported that repeated exposure to the sound pattern while in the womb was recognizable during infancy. That’s pretty remarkable!
If you want to create a positive environment for your little ones so they can flourish emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually, start early.
What To Do
1. Destress, Not Distress
New technology and experts’ growing interest in the prenatal period has led to an abundance of knowledge about life in utero. For example, results from several studies throughout recent years have found that mothers who have chronic stress and anxiety during pregnancy are more likely to have kids who are fearful and even have lower density of gray matter in the brain later in childhood than children of mothers who didn’t experience chronic stress and anxiety.
Consider offering a series of educational classes for expecting moms in your congregation and community. Give kids a better start in life by teaching moms about proper nutrition, avoiding teratogens (certain drugs, environmental agents, and disease), stress management, neonatal care, and skills for parenting during early childhood. If your staff isn’t qualified to teach the classes, think about recruiting guest speakers from a university or medical center.
2. Follow-Up That Follows
Your ministry can support healthy development throughout children’s lives by hosting periodic follow-up, faith-based education for different stages of life. Classes might include topics (based on a Christian perspective) such as: finding quality day care for your toddler, parenting preschoolers, raising socially competent school-age children, talking to your preteens about sexuality, and setting healthy boundaries for your teenager.
You may have limited time with the children in your ministry, but giving parents additional tools allows your ministry to positively influence kids’ development and competence every day of the week.
Natalie Eggum holds a doctorate in developmental psychology. She serves on short-term missions to Africa with Hope 4 Kids International, and recently conducted a study of Ugandan children’s resiliency.
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