Sunday, 27 May 2012

More things kids say.

We've finished our story cycle for this year - we did the whole Old Testament this year, and will do the New Testament next year.  Now we're doing a half-term of churchy stuff - the Bible, Baptism, the Eucharist, the Creed, the Church Year, etc.  But today, as we do at Easter, we celebrated a special occasion, separate from our story cycle.  Because today was Pentecost.

So I told the story of how Jesus rose from the dead and ascended, to give background, and then told the story of Pentecost.  We learned how to say "God loves you" in four different languages, we sang "One More Step Along the World I Go," and we made windsocks, decorated with whatever imagery we wanted, to show the spirit of God, the wind, moving in our lives.  When we went back into church, we got candles, and had them lit from the Paschal Candle, which was then extinguished, showing that God's spirit has moved from being just in Jesus to being in all of us.  And then we were sent out into the world.

The kids disagreed with each other about what the most important part of today's story was, so I asked them to explain their reasoning.

"The most important part was when he rose from the dead, because if that hadn't happened he wouldn't be God."

"The most important part was when the Spirit came, because if that hadn't happened, the disciples would still be afraid instead of telling the story."

My kids are fabulous.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

God has gone up with a shout!

We released balloons on Ascension Sunday.  Here's the play-by-play:

The balloons in hiding before the service.
The ones that didn't fit in the office were tied to the tower stairwell.

During the notices, we snuck the balloons outside.

They also provide an excellent disguise.

All truly fashionable priests know to match their balloons to their liturgical vestments.

Our children's work is rigorous and comprehensive: here, Serena learns the useful skill of "holding a service sheet and something else as well," which is crucial for life as an adult Christian.

The congregation begins to gather outside with their balloons.

The excitement builds!

And they're off!

"God has gone up with a shout!"

"The Lord with the sound of a trumpet.  Alleluia!"

Away they go.

Once the balloons are gone, we have our final litany, before going back inside for tea and biscuits.  Phoebe (striped skirt) watches the last of the balloons disappear.  And we are alone ... until Pentecost.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The lazy children's worker's guide to Sunday School.

Let's be honest, there are some times when every one of us thinks "I just don't have the energy to do a brilliant Sunday School lesson this week.  I'm exhausted, I'm braindead, and if I have to clean out one more paint tray on a Sunday afternoon, I'm going to scream."

So here are some ideas for activities that can be set up easily and which don't make much mess, but still provide scope for children to work creatively with the Gospel.

(Incidentally, I want to point out that I never have only ONE option for what children can do with their activity time.  I try to have at least two crafts available, each of which has room for creativity, and children who aren't interested in either are free to play with the Beulah Land feltboard materials, read the books we have out, or write or draw a prayer for our prayer box.  Soon I hope to add some toys - the Playmobil Egypt set, puzzles, and so on.  I'll do a separate post soon about our younger group and their activity time.)

1. Scratch art.  I know I go on and on about the virtues of scratch art, but they really are marvellous.  Baker Ross makes cross and Easter Egg designs, and I've seen butterflies (Easter - symbol of new life) and dragons (St. George's Day?) as well.  What makes these craft kits wonderful is that kids can sketch out any design they like on them.  We have had children decorate their crosses with the words "Holy Holy Holy," with doves and IXOYE fishes, with rows of three smaller crosses, with rainbows - all kinds of Scriptural imagery.  The act of scraping away the blackness of the cross to reveal the beautiful colours beneath it is, in itself, a metaphor for resurrection, and the project creates about ten seconds' worth of cleanup.

Useful for: Holy Week and Easter, St. George's Day - others if you can find templates in different shapes (or just square ones for children to design their own pictures).

Follow up: Hang your crosses on a tree to symbolise Christ's triumph over death and his gift of new life.  The cross is often referred to as "the tree" in Christian poetry and hymnody, and the imagery of a tree throughout the Bible, from the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis to the Tree of Life in Revelation, is powerful and pervasive.  Our Sunday School tree has been used throughout the year, changing through the seasons of the church calendar, from the Tree of Knowledge in September, when we told the story of The Fall, to become the Family Tree of Abraham, then a Christmas tree, and then, during Lent, stripped bare, to symbolise the cross.  Now, adorned with our rainbow-coloured crosses, it is the Tree of Life:

2. Paper bag puppets:  The idea is simple.   Using a folded paper party bag, the fold becomes the mouth, the bottom is the face, and the bag is the body.  These can be made into animal or human puppets.  All you need are paper bags, scissors, paper, and glue.  You can elaborate with ribbon, googly eyes, fabric, feathers, etc. if you like.  Clean-up consists of sweeping all the fragments of paper into the recycling, and putting away any fabric or other items you've used, and that's it.

Useful for: Stories with lots of characters, e.g. Noah, Joseph and his brothers, the Exodus, Christmas, the feeding of the 5000, the Prodigal Son (outside of the main characters, you can have crowds of pigs and party guests), etc.

Follow up: Finish by having the children, using the puppets they have made, re-tell the story.

3. Book-making.  Type up the story script you use for telling the story.  Divide it into pages, with no more than one key event on each page.  Include a title page.  If you can, string out the dramatic stuff into several pages.  Print out two or three copies of each page.  Set it out, with markers, and let the children illustrate the story.  It's okay if you end up with two page 2's or whatever, if more than one child desperately wanted to do that page.  Stick the markers back in their box and your clean-up is done - but the children have fully explored text, imagery, and story for themselves.

It helps if you have a binding machine and binding combs, but if not, you can punch three or four holes along the edge of the pages, and bind with a plastic cover and paper fasteners.

You can also do this with hymns you've been learning - have a few lines on each page, and children can illustrate them.  It helps to reinforce the imagery of the hymn, and allows children to interpret the words for themselves.

We also once made a book of the Lord's Prayer and one of the Nicene Creed.

Useful for: Longer stories, hymns, prayers, the creed.

Follow up: Keep the book in your church library, so children can come back and read it.

Obviously, you shouldn't ONLY ever do one kind of activity.  If you're book-making every week, the children lose the chance to explore other media and express themselves in different ways - and the ones who aren't strong readers will never have a chance to shine.  But these activities can be life-savers for those weeks when you just don't have the energy to spend half an hour cleaning up.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Deeper Magic From Before the Dawn of Time

Just an admin notice to announce that our summer programme this year will run from August 13th to August 17th (yes, this is AFTER the Olympics finish and BEFORE the Paralympics begin), and will be based around The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  We will be making a short silent film version of the story, using props we make ourselves and locations around the parish.  Our own altar will serve as the Stone Table.

We need:

1) Children!  If you are the proud owner of a child aged 5-11, who might be interested in this experience, please let me know.  The programme costs £25 for the week.

2) We need someone with technical skills to film and edit the project.  This would involve coming for the last few hours of each day, teaching the kids how to use the camera, supervising their filming while I supervised the kids' acting, and then editing the film and setting it to music.  Ideally, a bit of editing would be done each night, so we could record from Monday to Thursday and then screen the finished product on Friday, but if this isn't possible, that's fine.  You'd be needed from approximately 1:00 to 3:00 every day, plus editing time.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Why it's important not to be too hard on yourself.

We use the Beulah Land felt storytelling materials in our Sunday School.  I always have the pieces for that day's story set aside, but also a tray full of other pieces - fish, birds, and animals from the Creation and Noah stories, altars and flames, wheat sheaves, crowds of people, bursts of fire, clouds, water, planets, desert and mountain landscape pieces, fruit trees, rivers, doves, Adam and Eve, Jesus, Satan, the cross, the tomb, the burning bush, and so on.  If children aren't interested in making something after we finish worshipping, they can play with the felt board if they like.

Very often, I've been troubled by how children have responded to this.  Some of them will get silly about it, placing the large hands of the "God" figure (represented by two hands and a heart) on smaller human figures, or putting flames on people and giggling about them being on fire.  Some will get together in small groups and set themselves the challenge of using every piece in the tray.

I've been torn about whether to intervene.  On the one hand, I want them to use the pieces for spiritual play, to explore the symbols and imagery of the Bible.  But on the other hand, I don't want to create a situation where they feel compelled to produce a "Bible picture" for adult approval, rather than explore the symbols independently.  I've found the uncomfortable middle ground of telling them off for "not respecting" the pieces, but not specifically saying, "this is for thinking about God - you have to use it that way."

So today we had a group of girls, aged about 5-10 at the board.  They were trying to use every single piece, and giggling about putting some of them on backwards.  Since it was a fairly quiet day (thank you, Bank Holiday), I was able to get away from supervising the activity and engage with the children at the felt board.

"Why is there a fish?" one asked me.

"Well, from the story of Creation, when God made the world.  And when Jesus fed the crowd with only five loaves of bread and two fishes."

"What's this?" another asked.

"That's the burning bush," I said.

"Oh, when God told Moses to set the people free," she replied.

I looked over to where a 10-year-old girl was piling felt pieces on the board three or four deep, seemingly at random.

"That's Adam and Eve," I said.

"I know," she told me, "because they have no clothes on."  She pointed to a grey felt piece across Eve's midsection.  "This is prison.  Eve's in prison."  She then pointed to Adam, who had an elephant across his midsection.  "And Adam is getting trampled by an elephant, because they were bad and listened to the snake."  Then she pointed to Jacob's ladder behind them, and as I turned around to deal with a child who'd splashed paint on his jumper, I heard her tell another child, "but they're climbing to heaven."

I've been being too hard on myself.  The kids ARE thinking spiritually, even though they're probably ALSO sometimes just being silly, or just playing randomly.  Either way, these images are becoming part of their symbolic vocabulary - they see them in the stories, and that DOES sink in.

"They're in prison, because they've been bad, but they're climbing the ladder to heaven."  That's the Gospel, in a sentence, out of the mouths of babes.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Daniel in the Lions' Den

We made a book in Sunday School last week.

Some pages are in there twice and one - the climactic moment when Daniel cries out to Darius that God has shut the lions' mouths - has not yet been illustrated.

See our Facebook page for the pictures.  (The link takes you to the first one.  To move to the next picture, move your mouse over the picture, and click on the right arrow that will appear.)

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Building the library.

The last year or so of mine and my husband's life has been turbulent.  Everything from a burglary (while we were home and asleep) to unemployment, the death of a family friend, and much more, has seemed to happen to us all at once.

The other day, I was doing chores around the house, not consciously thinking of anything in particular, when I found a verse of "How Firm A Foundation" running through my head:

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

We've all had these moments -  when our subconscious throws up exactly what we needed to hear right then.  More often that not, it's something we've known for ages, something whose words are so familiar to us that they feel like part of what makes us ourselves.  This is our library - the songs, stories, quotes, prayers, poems, pieces of scripture, words of wisdom from friends and family that we draw on to make sense of our lives, and to get us through tough times.

One purpose of children's ministry is to make sure that Christian stories, Christian imagery, and the great works of Christian hymnwriting and prayer are part of our children's library.  This is why it's important not just to present our children with prayers and hymns that are "for children," but to introduce them to the classics, the ones whose words are rich and mysterious, and which they may not entirely understand.

Dorothy L. Sayers wrote about three stages in educational development - "These, in a rough-and- ready fashion, I will call the Poll-Parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic--the latter coinciding, approximately, with the onset of puberty. The Poll-Parrot stage is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished. At this age, one readily memorizes the shapes and appearances of things; one likes to recite the number-plates of cars; one rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things. The Pert age, which follows upon this (and, naturally, overlaps it to some extent), is characterized by contradicting, answering back, liking to "catch people out" (especially one's elders); and by the propounding of conundrums. Its nuisance-value is extremely high. It usually sets in about the Fourth Form. The Poetic age is popularly known as the "difficult" age. It is self-centered; it yearns to express itself; it rather specializes in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness; a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others."

When a child is given as much rich mental food as possible during the "Poll-Parrot" phase, the child has a ready-made library on which to draw for analysis and expression in the "Pert" and "Poetic" phases.  The "Poll-Parrot" phase is all about learning facts, memorising words, poems, prayers, stories - building information which can then be drawn on when mere memorisation is not as pleasurable as it was before.  But if we rob our child of stimulus during the "Poll-Parrot" phase, by the time they come to analyse what they have learned, there will be nothing there.  Children who have been taught the Noah story, the Exodus story, the Jonah story, the Baptism of Jesus, the imagery of the River of Life in the Kingdom of God, who know the words to "Wade in the Water" and who can recite "when I tread the verge of Jordan / Bid my anxious fears subside / Death of death, and hell's destruction / Land me safe on Canaan's side," who have heard the Prayer over the Water at Baptism services and been sprinkled with water at Easter Vigils ... they will have the building blocks on which to discuss, when they grow older, the imagery of water in Christianity, its paradoxical position as source of life and metaphor of death.  Children who have had these things withheld from them "until they're old enough to understand" will have no such instinct.

I was reminded of this two weeks ago when I was finishing a Sunday School lesson with the 5 to 11-year-olds.  I lined the children up and, as usual, began to recite the prayer of St. Francis, moving down the line and making the sign of the cross, with my thumb, on each child's forehead.

First one child, then another, and finally, most of the row, began to join in. "Where there is darkness, let us sow light - where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith ... where there is discord, union ... grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love."

I doubt many of the five-year-olds could tell you what "discord" meant, and probably even some of the older children are envisioning us SEWING peace, rather than sowing it, coming up with some complex explanation for why this makes sense.  But this prayer is in their blood now - they know it, its rhythms and cadences are becoming more familiar every week.  It is becoming part of them.  And who knows when, twenty years down the line, on a day when they are full of grief or confusion, the line "it is in dying that we are born to eternal life" may spring, unbidden, in their minds, with all the promise of Christian hope that it contains?