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.