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Puzzles With a Purpose: From Time Filler to Teaching Tool

Using puzzles and activity pages in children’s ministry is nothing new. I grew up doing Bible word searches and dutifully filling in the blanks.

But Group has historically taken a hard line against puzzles as busy work. In the book Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church: And How to Fix It, company owners Thom and Joani Schultz give a clear warning: “Puzzles, scrambles, fill-in-the-blanks, and encoded messages do not promote thinking. They confuse and consternate. Through this type of meaningless busywork, our students will not grow closer to God.”

So you may be surprised to see that our new DIG IN Children’s Church curriculum includes an Activity Pages option that’s full of puzzles and coloring sheets! Look a little more closely, though, and you’ll see the full block name: Activity Pages With a Purpose.

Puzzles can be used poorly. But they don’t have to be! Read on to find out how we’ve infused our puzzles with purpose and intentionality to help kids make discoveries rather than regurgitate facts.

Purposeful puzzles are NOT just “r-bbits…”

In Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church, the Schultzes warn against teachers helping kids learn with “nonsensical fill-in-the-blank drills, word scrambles, and missing letter puzzles.” According to the book, educator Frank Smith coined a term for these exercises: “r-bbits.”

R-bbits are silly, fill-in puzzles that in no way reflect how kids learn to speak or read, and yet are intended to teach just that. And they can also make their way into children’s ministry. For example, one use of a puzzle might be to ask kids to fill in blanks to complete a verse. (Or for adults, we might provide sermon notes with blanks to fill in!)

We know churches love to use puzzles, but we also know that most of the Bible puzzles out there are full of r-bbits. They don’t help kids learn, and they don’t help kids think. So we created something different. The puzzles you’ll find in DIG IN Children’s Church are not just r-bbits.

…Instead, our puzzles reinforce the lesson by becoming a hands-on object lesson.

Since 1992 when Hands-On Bible Curriculum first came out, Group has used gizmos to create object lessons that help kids make discoveries. It’s our “Teach as Jesus Taught” model. Jesus used everyday objects around him to help teach faith lessons and provoke thinking. In his day, those items included mustard seeds, sheep, fish, and coins.

For kids today, it might include bouncy balls, toys, and puzzles. In DIG IN Children’s Church, we avoid creating r-bbits by turning our puzzles into object lessons—just like we would with a gizmo. For example, in a lesson that teaches “God is real” and covers the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18), we have a word search with 12 words on the list. But we let kids know upfront, only eight of those words are really in the puzzle. They’ll have to look carefully to identify what’s real and what’s fake on the word list.

Now, rather than a word search that’s simply a rote review of words from the Bible story, we’ve evoked emotion as kids experience looking for something that’s not really there. Just like the prophets of Baal prayed to a god that wasn’t really there.

In a lesson on Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:1-28), kids learn the point “God uses our talents.” In this lesson’s activity page, kids have three puzzle options that use different types of talents—observation, language, and math. Kids get to choose which puzzle they’d like to do based on their talents—and then help a friend who completed a different one. Rather than merely spotting the difference between two images, they’re using their talent to help someone.

Purposeful puzzles are NOT time fillers…

We’ve all been there. The sermon runs long, and we’ve finished our lesson. It can be nice to fill the extra time with some Bible-themed coloring pages and puzzles that may or may not relate to the day’s Bible story.

But at Group, we don’t believe in “filling time.” Our time with kids is so short, so extra time from a long sermon is an opportunity—not something we have to “fill!” DIG IN Children’s Church provides an “Overtime” activity that’s no prep, no supplies, and full of discovery to use that extra time wisely.

But if you’re going to use puzzles, they shouldn’t be time fillers. They should be an intentional part of the lesson that helps kids make more discoveries.

…Instead, we use time strategically to include discovery-infused discussion.

In their book, Thom and Joani Schultz suggest, “Our people don’t need to be told what to think. But they desperately need to learn how to think in a Christian context.”

And the way to do that is through strategic, intentional questions. So often, Bible lessons for kids are full of “right answer questions.” Questions like “Who built the ark?” don’t help kids make discoveries.

In the book Endangered Minds by Jane Healy, Healy writes, “Studies demonstrate that educating teachers in specific questioning techniques can improve their students’ reading comprehension, among many other skills, by moving their thinking up from literal repetition of facts into the realms of comprehension, application, and inferential reasoning.”

In other words, discovery-based questions help kids learn to think about faith! That’s why a huge part of the puzzles in DIG IN is the discussion that follows it. The discussion takes intentional time, but it adds so much discovery and meaning to what might otherwise be an r-bbit.

Using the example above of the word search with extra words on the list, the real meaning comes when kids debrief their experience. We follow up that puzzle with these questions:

  • Which words did you look for that weren’t really there?
  • What are some things that don’t have any real power but people treat like they do?

After evoking emotion through the puzzle itself, we’ve helped kids share about that experience. We’ve also helped them analyze how that relates to things in their lives.

Similarly, we help kids unpack the choose-your-own puzzle by asking about their talents:

  • Why did you pick the puzzle you picked?
  • How could God use talents like being good with words, math, or pictures?

It’s critical that puzzles are followed up with the purposeful debriefing. That’s where kids personalize, analyze, and discover.

Don’t forget coloring keepsakes!

We haven’t forgotten the non-readers in our Activity Pages With a Point activity block! Although the puzzle pages are geared for elementary kids, we include coloring pages that help younger kids visualize the Bible stories. But these are more than simply coloring pages. Our hope is that you—or families—collect these pages over time to create a keepsake book for each regular attendee. Kids will have a picture Bible of the stories they learned about at church—that they colored themselves!

Want to see what we mean? Check out the activity pages we mentioned above! Click here to see for yourself.

If you want to find more purposeful puzzles that you can add to your ministry, check out this book full of 52 faith-building puzzles. For more teacher tips, check out these posts!

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Puzzles With a Purpose: From Time Fil...

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