Working with Under 5s

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This Saturday I will be speaking at a Lichfield Diocese event in Stoke on Trent about Working with Under 5s. Here’s a few of the thoughts I’ll be sharing:

Working with under 5s: Seeing Jesus at work among the nappies and play dough

There are many challenges when working with under 5s. I’m sure you can list a few. However, there are so many opportunities.

The Bible is clear that age is no precursor to knowing God. In the Old Testament, children were included in the community festivals and rituals (e.g. Passover), and in the New Testament we see families coming to faith together (e.g. the jailer and his family). Many children are mentioned in the Bible as being spiritually active, including John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb as Mary arrived with Jesus in hers.

Professionals know that the early years of ours lives are very important, giving a foundation for all that is to come. I’ve heard that we learn more before we are two than we do for the rest of our lives! The government has heavily invested into services for young children, but this is not as often reflected in our churches.

When I talk about ‘working with under 5s’, I’m including those of us involved in Sunday groups (including creche), mid week groups such as Toddler groups, other church settings where under 5s are present, such as all-age or adult services and Messy Church, as well as the home.

Here are some of my top tips for working with under 5s:

1 Give them a warm welcome

Children respond a lot to environment, to how things look, to the way people are with them. Get down on their level, talk with them, know their names, prepare the room to be welcoming for them.

2 Be a great person for them to know

We all ‘catch’ more about God from the Godly people we know than we learn through what we’re told, so let’s be people from whom under 5s can ‘catch’ what God is like. Let’s be kind, patient, interested in them; let’s be trust worthy, doing what we say we’ll do so that they can learn to trust which will help them trust God.

3 Get to know them

It’s all about relationship. And it’s fun! Even from a young age children are individuals, with their own preferences. For very young children, we can find this out from having a good relationship and handover with parents, asking what their child like to do, to sing, to eat. For those who are starting to point and talk, we can give them choices.

It’s also good to know when they would like to eat, drink, sleep and use the toilet. At this age, children often function best when given opportunities for these necessities at a similar time each day. If your church service or group runs at a time lots of children would have lunch, why not invite parents to bring a pack lunch for them and eat it as part of your group time together?

Although not essential, I’ve found it’s helpful to have an idea of what to expect from children developmentally, of course allowing for wide personal variations as we would with adults! Saying this, I always find children surprise me in their abilities! And remember, just because children can’t talk doesn’t mean they don’t understand or want to be involved. Imagine if we waited until children could talk before speaking with them!

4 Provide quality, age-appropriate resources

This should include Christian books, worship music, toys and food. Personally, I really recommend the Big Bible Storybook. See why here. And here’s a collection of Easter books for under 5s too.

5 Set up Invitations to Play

Play is children’s first language. Giving them opportunities to play is giving them space to think and grow. This is a concept articulated really nicely by The Imagination Tree but it simply means putting things out in an inviting way. Try a few and you’ll be surprised how children are drawn to them and play with them for longer than you might expect.

I have found this works well if you match things you know the children enjoy with things you’d like to give them an opportunity to explore. For example, if you want to share a story about Jesus and his fishermen disciples (the calling of the disciples, Jesus calming the storm, the great catch of fish etc), you could set up various invitations to play featuring boats, water, fish, and little people. One could be water represented by cloth with a wooden boat, another with water in a paddling pool with various items to float and sink. You could have a quiet area with cushions and books out about fish, including some of the story you want to share, and a play dough area with fish and/or boat shaped molds. You could have an area with dry, coloured pasta which could be used to make pictures of boats and storms and fish, and a big cardboard box which could be used as a boat. All of these would give opportunities for the children to self-initiate play, as well as adults to join in. Each of them could be used to simply share the story and what it means to the individual telling it. Here are some examples of exploring a story with soft toys and a toy house, with Duplo, and play dough.

6 Use open-ended materials

By focusing on resources which can be used in many different ways, you will inspire and give opportunities for lots of creative play. You’ll also find you need less actual things, because the children can use them, well, in many different ways! For example, if you buy a toy Jesus (please don’t!), the children will play with it as Jesus. If you buy a male toy, they could play with it as Jesus, but also as Adam, Moses and loads of other characters in the Bible. If you buy a simple wooden person shape like these, the children can use them to be anyone including themselves. Here’s an article about open ended materials with a list of ideas for some resources. You may well find you have some in your cupboard already!

In a setting where Bible stories are being shared either individually or with a group, open ended materials provide one way for participants to explore and express their own response to the story and to God, developing their own theology or thinking about God, as well as their relationship with Him.

7 Don’t be afraid of repetition.

Don’t be afraid of repetition. Repetition is good! Particularly for under 5s, who often thrive on the same stories and TV programmes for weeks. It works well to use a resource such as Tiddliwinks where there are plenty of ideas to be able to do the same story for a month, repeating the same activities, perhaps adding one or two new ones if you have 3-5 year olds.

8 Encourage and equip parents

Most parents of under 5s feel inadequate, and a kind word goes a long way, and can have as much impact on the life of the child as what you do directly with the child. I’ve found that helping parents find easy ways to share their faith with their children is a gift. You could do this by inviting them into your group to share some of the activities you do together, or giving them something to play with their child at home. Parents might appreciate an informal library or even bookshop of great under 5s Christian books, or being given things to help them help their child in parts of a church service which are not currently accessible to them. YOu might like to check out Under 5s GodVenture52.

9 Pray with and for them.

It’s easy when working with young children to switch off and do things with and for them, rather than seeing them as on the same journey as us. Children loved to be involved, and finding ways to pray without talking allows even the youngest child to get involved. I’ve been amazed watching my own children pray, and seeing God respond to their prayers in ways I could not!

10 Expect God to show up

This should be the case, but often the under 5s is viewed more of a childcare operation than a spiritual event. And sometimes the nappies and the play dough can seem to drown out the voice of God, but God says if we seek Him, we’ll find Him. So let’s ask Him to be there, and expect Him to be active in their lives of our youngest children.

There’s a great network of Christian Toddler groups called 1277 (On average a UK child has just 1,277 days between birth and starting nursery education. Together, we want to ‘make them count’ for the children, for their families and for the toddler groups that they attend.) They have a FaceBook group.

What would you add?