By Sarah Walker Cleaveland, MDiv ’07
This past fall, one of my job responsibilities was writing the curriculum for, and teaching our Junior Kindergarten and Kindergarten Church School class. The teaching part was a lot of fun—four and five year-olds have A LOT to say about A LOT of things and it is all VERY IMPORTANT; they make me laugh—but writing the curriculum for them was one of the hardest parts of my job and often took an inordinate amount of time. What do you teach four and five year olds about God, the Bible, Jesus, the Church? What do you want them to walk away knowing or having experienced? What are they capable of grasping and how can we impart that to them in a way that is fun and engaging?
Despite having purchased a curriculum for this age group for the remainder of the year (we chose Holy Moly!), the questions are ones that continue to rattle around in my head, especially with regard to my own three-year-old. What do I want my child to know about God and faith at three? Can you “spiritually form” a preschooler? Or should we simply be trying to create positive associations with church for our youngest members?
I don’t think I (or likely anyone else) am going to succeed in teaching our three-year-old lectio divina any time soon. Nor do I anticipate his being able to tell me who God is or what the story of Noah and all the animals can tell us about God or how we’re related to God, but I do believe that when we strip away the language and technicalities of spiritual formation and theology there are some underlying principles that we can begin to impart to our children from a very early age. To that end, here are my top three suggestions for spiritual formation for toddlers and preschoolers:
1. Help them pay attention. With games like I Spy and books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See? we help instill in our children the value of noticing what we see. In our house we play a simplistic version of I Spy when we’re outside or driving: we each take turns saying what we see. Sometimes we see ridiculous things like White Whales, but 90% of the time we see actual things like lampposts and water towers. Our son has also turned Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? into a song of sorts and he loves to make up new verses about strange animals and the things they see. While the animals are made up, the things they see are almost always things surrounding my son. Activities, songs and rhymes like these help children learn the first step of spiritual practices like lectio divina because they help them learn to pay attention and to notice. In the same manner, you can help them begin to pay attention to their own lives by asking them about the best and worst part of their day every night at dinner or before bed.
2. Have fun. Lots of “adult spiritual formation” is quiet and serious and focused, but a three-year-old is not going to sit quietly while you read a long meditation before dinner. In our house we say the very short, very simple dinner grace “God is great, God is good, thank you God for our food.” About six months ago our toddler decided he no longer wanted to say grace before dinner. Now if you have a toddler, or are familiar with toddlers, you know that there is no one more stubborn than a toddler, so despite our numerous attempts to explain to him that both of his parents are pastors and therefore such things were important, and then (when our theological training kicked in) that giving thanks is an important part of who we are and what we do, and then (when we got desperate and hungry) that taking five seconds to say grace was much faster than throwing a tantrum every time, our child simply refused to say grace. So, after a few nights of saying it without him, which he was also not a fan of, we started to make saying grace goofy. Instead of asking him to say grace with us, we started asking if he could say grace as loud as possible, or with his tongue sticking out, or with his hands in the air, or like a dinosaur. Prayers don’t need to be formal or quiet; they can be goofy or made up or said while trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time.
3. Provide access. Our child loves Bible stories. Partly, I think, this is because he learned early on that he could trick/guilt/cajole his dad into reading extra stories if he asked for another “Jesus story,” but partly because we have a lot of kids Bibles in our house. We never ask him if he wants to read the Bible, we don’t require one bedtime story to be a Bible story, we rarely even mention the Bible, but there’s always one on his shelf with his other books and there’s always a different one under the coffee table, and there’s usually one on the bookshelf in the living room. We tried to pick engaging Children’s Bibles with language we liked and pictures we thought would be engaging, but mostly we just put them around and read them when he asks. Likewise, whenever possible, we always ask if he wants to come to worship rather than go to the nursery. We never force it, we don’t react one way or the other, but we always offer. Most of the time, the choice is the nursery (duh—different toys, new friends, easy choice), but about 10% of the time he’ll choose to stay in worship for awhile with one of us. We leave with him whenever he gets restless and wants to go, but we let him stay as long as he wants.
Spiritual formation with young children is less about what and more about how. It’s about laying a foundation they can grow on later. Positive associations are important, but it’s also about shaping the way our children approach the world and their lives. Some of it is creating rituals (like dinner grace or bedtime questions about the day), but more of it is about helping your child start to see what God has created. After all, before we can begin listening and looking for where God is calling us in the world and in our lives, we must first learn how to look and how to listen.
Sarah Walker Cleaveland is a Spiritual Director and the Acting Associate Pastor at Winnetka Congregational Church in Winnetka, IL. She did her Spiritual Direction training at SFTS after receiving an MDiv from Columbia Theological Seminary in 2007 and a ThM from Princeton Seminary in 2008. Prior to working at WCC, Sarah completed the coursework and exams for a PhD in Christian Spirituality. She withdrew from the program when she realized she’d rather be doing full-time ministry than writing a dissertation.
Sarah is part of a clergy-couple—her husband, Adam Walker Cleaveland, is an associate pastor at Winnetka Presbyterian Church. Sarah, Adam, and their son Caleb live in Wilmette with their dog Sadie. When not parenting or working at the church, Sarah writes curriculum for Augsburg Press and gets sawdust all over the basement while building and refinishing furniture and children’s toys.
Sarah will be ordained on February 15, 2015 at Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY.
The Center for Lifelong Learning offers Christian Education classes for church educators instructing all ages and stages of learners. Check out our upcoming classes, including Dr. Galindo’s Seven Concepts That Will Change Your Teaching.