Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sensorimotor Worship: Winter Art

Sensorimotor worship can be defined as a spiritual experience that is visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Young children are sensorimotor beings who discover their world with the five senses.   In order to begin to understand a concept as abstract as “God”, they have to be able to explore in the same way.  Almost any spiritual experience can be made sensorimotor with a little thought beforehand. 

In my previous post, I mentioned that in creating spiritual space for our children, we should consider what we and our children are naturally drawn to and use these interests to provide opportunities for our children build a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  My natural bent is towards art and creativity.  While my children also enjoy being artistic, they are equally passionate about nature.  Unfortunately, nature pedagogy was not at all a part of my own childhood, so I have had to make an effort to engage my children in this way.  However, I am now of the opinion that nature pedagogy is one of the most effective ways to help children learn and experience God as the Creator as well as develop compassion for other living things. It is also sadly one of the most neglected aspects of children’s ministry in the church, although some churches are starting to catch on to this idea.

I want to share with you a recent way that my children and I combined both of these interests to worship God together. It is winter here in Berlin and we have lots of snow. In fact, we have the most snow that the city has had since 1931!  Having grown up in a very warm part of the Southern United States, I am absolutely fascinated by snow.  Taking this as a cue, I began to talk with my children about winter, what happens during this season, and why it is important for animals and vegetation. Then, I suggested that we take a moment to thank God for the different things we like about winter and also thank him for his wisdom in creating this wonderful season.

Afterwards, I explained that we were going to do something together to help us keep thinking about how wonderful God is for coming up with the idea of winter.  We were going to make ice ornaments and I got the idea from this book, Make it Wild, by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield:

 (I actually have the German version called Werkstatt Natur.) This innovative book has tons of great ideas for making art “for the moment” (rather than something to take home and keep) and allows children to connect with nature in a hands-on way.      

Step 1: Making molds for our ice ornaments out of modeling clay.  My 7-year-old easily made his own shapes, but my four-year-old needed help from cookie cutters.

 Step 2: Filling the molds with water and laying string in the water to freeze, so that they can be hung up.

Step 3:  Lay the molds in a cold place and wait.  We had fun guessing how long it would take.  My son said 3 hours and my daughter said 100.  It actually took about 7 hours for them to freeze.

And “Voila!” – ice ornaments!  Here you can see a heart and Baby Jesus in a manger:

Here is a Christmas tree and a star:

We hung our finished ornaments from the table on our balcony. This might seem a strange place to hang them, but the table is right at eye level for the children when looking through the balcony door.: )

This art exercise isn’t so great for children’s church, since it takes a while for the ornaments to freeze and there is generally a week in between sessions of children’s church. However, it is perfect for families or religious schools or kindergartens, where are children able to see the results the next day.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Creating Spiritual Space for Children

A new year is right around the corner and many of us are thinking about our lives last year and considering what we might do differently or seek to improve.  (I  am certainly thinking a lot about this!)  I’d like to share with you some thoughts about how to create spiritual space for our children.  In this article, I am specifically speaking to our role as the parents of 3-8 year olds, but in the future I would like to discuss this role as pastors or religion teachers as well. 

What do I mean by spiritual space?  Webster’s Dictionary defines “space” as the following:  1) a continuous expanse extending in all directions; 2) area or room sufficient for or allotted to something; 3) an interval or period of time.  And when talking about our children’s spirituality, all three of these definitions can apply.  We are talking about time and a family’s rhythm. We can be talking about a physical space.  And we are referring to something that will extend out in all directions in their lives and influence every aspect of their growth. 

Here are some things that I think can help us to make room for our children’s spiritual growth: 

1) Pray and believe that God will engage your children.  I know many people who are anxious about their child’s relationship (or lack of) with God.  Relax. God lovingly created your child and He will take every opportunity to build friendship with her.  I also know other people who feel that prayer is a passive activity and that they must always do something.  While there certainly are things that we can do to encourage our child’s relationship with the Father, praying and believing is a way of giving up our control.  It is acknowledging that we are not at the center of the universe and everything does not depend on us.  It is acknowleding that a gracious God is at work in our child’s lives regardless of our failures or triumphs.  Believe me, the God who became a man in Jesus wants your child to know Him much more than you do. 

2) Make spiritual downtime for your children – time to talk about who He is, read a Bible story, pray together.  Children need distraction-free, unencumbered time to reflect just as adults do. Find a time that works best for your family’s rhythm. For years, we tried to do morning devotions, but most of the time it was too rushed and became just going through the spiritual motions.  I discovered this past year that my children needed this time with God at night in order to process their day and were much more open in the evenings.  Some nights they just want to “be”, but often they are very much wanting to talk and share what is going on in their hearts and minds.

Find ways to do this that appeal to your child.  Maybe there is a good children’s Bible or devotional book. You might use Godly Play. Or tell stories yourself from the Bible or about other Christians, saints or historical figures who have experienced God in their lives. Or ask your kids to tell you the stories.  One of our most meaningful evening times together this year was during Advent when I happened to have some nativity figures lying around and I asked my son and daughter (ages 7 and 5) to tell me the story of Jesus’ birth.  They alternated and amazed me with their insights and choice of words.  One might also use the church calendar as a catalyst by highlighting topics and biblical stories that coincide with the church calendar. Singing songs is another great way to spend time with God together. 

And perhaps this happens in a specific location in your house or apartment.  My kids love to gather on our sofa or on my daughter’s bed and snuggle as we are spending time with God.

3) Allow your kids to see spirituality in your own life. Pray authentic prayers with simple language. Admit when you don’t know the answers or when you have questions about something you don’t understand.  (We set our kids up for failure when we pretend to get it right all the time!)  Examine how you express your relationship to God and include your kids in it.  Maybe it is by caring for the needy. Maybe it is through art. Talk about how your faith influences your decisions. We are our children’s first teachers and if they sense that school, job and doctor’s appointments are a higher priority, then those things will also trump spiritual space in their lives. 

4) Cut down on organized activities.  Children need time to use their imaginations and play.  Where I live, there is a children’s class for everything.  I haven’t yet seen a class entitled “Underwater Basket-Weaving for Childen”, but I’m sure that Prenzlauerberg has one somewhere!  Your child doesn’t need to learn or be good at everything or have a playdate with every friend from school.  They need time to explore and express the world and their life.  When they don’t have this free time, they are easily stressed.

5) Don’t be frustrated if your child does not show interest or seem motivated.  Children go through phases.  The last thing that will help is making their spiritual experiences like school.  I have come to believe that a Montessori-type approach where a child is encouraged to explore his particular expression of relationship with God is ultimately the healthiest.  Let’s face it, as individual adults and even as whole churches, we highlight a only a few aspects of God’s character at best.  None of us alone live out the full Gospel in it many diverse forms and neither will our children.  That’s why we together are the Body of Christ and not all-encompassing, self-sufficient, autonomous spiritual beings. Interdependence is part of God's plan.

My sincere hope and prayer for those of you reading this is that God will help you create the spiritual space for your children that they need.  Just so you know, being a children’s pastor doesn’t make me an expert and I am learning all of this myself!  Please feel free to share your ideas as well.  And as we say in German, “May you slide well into the New Year!” 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Advent Club - Week 4

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity this December to co-lead an Advent Club at a local elementary school.  The theme of this year’s club is “Die Hoffnung von Weihnachten: an unsere Mitmenschen denken” (The Hope of Christmas: Thinking of Others). We have been discussing with our 1-3 graders what hope is, how we can find it in the biblical narrative of the Christmas story,  and then experimenting with how to pass it on to other people once we have it ourselves.  

As usual, we began with a Godly Play story.  If you will recall, in the first week, I told the children the entire Christmas story, emphasizing that just as God chose to send hope into the world through a small, helpless baby, hope often comes in unexpected forms.  In week two I told the story of the Good Samaritan and we stressed that giving hope to others often costs us something.  This week we wanted to get the point across that hope and learning to give hope to others is a process and usually starts with small steps. So this week I chose to tell two Godly Play stories that illustrate this beautifully, the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven (Yeast). 

A Baby that grew up to change the world, a tiny seed that became a large tree, a little yeast that caused the entire dough to rise . . .   “Oh, I get it,” said one of the boys, “From little things come big things.”  Exactly.  I lit the Christ Candle again and reminded the children that if I blew out the flame, the physical light would be gone.  But the hope of Christmas, the hope that God will make the world a better place through His children,  is a light that does not have to go out.  We can carry this light in our hearts the whole year whereever we go.  And even though the children are small, they have an important role to play in this world. 

Here is a picture of my colleague and the children thinking over the two parables and how they relate to the Christmas story:

After the story, we planned our final project, which would be taking place the next morning.  We would be receiving a visit from a preschool in another part of Berlin and would be putting on a party for them at our school.  (This particular preschool caters to the needs of children with cardiac problems, although we did not tell our children this.) 

Because the group that we visited last week, Die Arche, had given us gift bags at the end of our visit to them, we got the idea to make gift bags for the preschoolers.  

Here are some pictures of our children filling the bags, tying the bows and painting decorative tags:

The next day, the preschoolers arrived at 10 am at our school.  Our kids got to miss some of their regular classes in order to help put on the party.  Our kids wanted to do a game room and a craft room again, very similar to what we had done at Die Arche last week.

We began the party by sitting in a circle and introducing ourselves.  The preschoolers led us in some Christmas songs, and then we ate Christmas goodies together.

The group dynamic was very different this week because the preschool children were younger than our kids. The preschoolers were far more interested in our facilities and the different toys in the rooms than in playing organized games!  Also, some of our older boys were rowdier than usual, perhaps because they were the big guys on the block this time.  The craft time went well and the older girls in our group did a great job of helping the preschoolers. 

Here you see one of the preschoolers absorbed in a new toy:

Here are some photos of our craft time. The woman in the picture is a teacher from the visiting kindergarten.

Because the preschoolers could only stay for a short time, I chose a craft that the kids could finish in a short amount of time.  It is called Stacking Trees and I found it through the Living Montessori Now website. Here is a child displaying her “matryoschka style” Christmas tree:  

When I asked our children later about how the experience had been, they answered that it had been easier to mix with the preschool children and play with them, because they were younger.  The drawback had been that the party had been too short and the preschoolers had to leave just as everyone was getting comfortable with one another. 

This party was another small step in learning how to be an agent of hope for others.  Like babies that take small steps before they can walk, our children are learning to find their balance in interacting with complete strangers.  The experiences with these children during Advent 2010 are priceless and I wouldn’t trade them for anything!  May the small seeds planted in their hearts flourish and may God use their lives to shine light into dark places. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Advent Club - Week 3

After two weeks of discussing what exactly hope is, what it has to do with Christmas, and how to pass it on to others, we took our first baby step in exploring what all of this practically means and how to express it.  Earlier this fall, I had already contacted a well-known group in Berlin, called Die Arche  (“The Ark”),  a Christian organization that serves inner city children in difficult living situations to ask them about the possibility of doing a project with them.  One of the things that I respect about this group is that they are very open to working with other groups.  They said yes and agreed that we would put on an Advent Party together for the children in the neighborhood where one of the Arche branches is located. 

During the second week of our Club, we told the children that we would be visiting Die Arche in another district. Because our children come from fairly affluent, well-educated families, we purposely did not tell them that many of  the children we would be visiting came from difficult backgrounds. Rather we told them that some of the children might be a lot like us and some of them might be different.  As I have researched how to encourage social responsibility in children, many educators with experience in this field agree that young children develop this mindset through small steps such as sharing with their siblings and simply coming into contact with people who are different.  An excellent article on this topic:

After a subway ride and trekking through the snow,  we arrived at Die Arche in the district of Wedding. We were a little shocked at first, because the elementary children who came on that day were almost all older than our children, who are in grades 1-3.  Using our children’s ideas, we had planned to offer two stations, one with games and another with arts & crafts. My colleague (another teacher at our school), who was led the game station, had to quickly change all of his plans, because 4th, 5th and 6th graders would have found our games too babyish. He did a great job, though, by asking the Arche kids what they liked to play and spontaneously coming up with a new plan.  I led the craft time with the help of a mother who came along to chaperone.  We did Christmas collages with the children using patterns of angels and Christmas ornaments.  Die Arche staff then surprised us by giving each child a gift bags with treats inside!

I was particularly proud of our kids when they went straight into the kitchen at Die Arche and began to put the things they had brought for the buffet on plates:

Here are some pictures of our craft time:

Below is in the game room and the kids are playing "Stopptanz", a game where music is played and when it stops, the kids have to freeze.  Whoever moves is out.

At the end, I got a chance to tell a Godly Play story to a group of kids.  I told them "The Holy Family", an ingenious story that tells of Jesus' birth and shows how Christmas and Easter are related.  Here are two girls from the Arche who listened and "wondered" with me at the end.

Considering that we were only there for one afternoon, our children did a good job of mixing with the other children.  They did, however, notice straightaway that some of the attitudes and behaviour of some of the Arche children were different from theirs. When we asked our kids later about what they thought and how the experience had been, they surprised us by saying that the day had been fun.  One little girl, a first grader, said that she thought the kids would be mean at first, but that they had turned out to be nice to her. When I pressed them a little more about things that had been challenging, they agreed that they had been intimidated by the fact that the Arche children were older.  One of the girls said that she had been uncomfortable with the way some of the children talked to each other.  After all is said and done, I can’t say that this was the most fun day ever for our children, but from a pedagogical perspective it was a success.  The children learned and experienced that it takes effort to reach out to other people, and that you can’t always judge a book by its cover.  And that gives me hope for their generation.

Quote of the Day

"The secret in education lies in respecting the student."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Quote of the Day

"If a child finds no stimuli for the activities which would contribute to his development, he is attracted simply to 'things' and desires to possess them."
- Maria Montessori

Friday, December 10, 2010

Advent Adventure Continues . . .

Advent Club - Week 2

“The Hope of Christmas: Thinking of Others” (“Die Hoffnung von Weihnachten: an unsere Mitmenschen denken”) is the theme of this year’s Advent Club at our school, and our goal is to awaken and encourage kindness, tolerance and social responsibility in our first, second and third graders through the biblical Christmas story.

As I mentioned in the last post, things got off to a rocky start in the first week. One reason was that this Advent Club was very different from what the children expected. Rather than just doing a lot of fun, seasonal things, we were challenging the children to think beyond themselves and to try and put an abstract concept – hope – into concrete terms.  Another reason is that children who are not familiar with the quiet, meditative nature of Godly Play often need time to become accustomed to it.

Week 2 proved to be an interesting development! In order to help the children grapple with the concept of doing something for others without necessarily expecting something in return, my colleague and I introduced a game called “Weihnachtshandschlag Fangen” (Christmas Handshake Tag).  At the beginning of the game, each child gets three pieces of candy. One child is “it” and tries to tag the other children.  When a child is tagged, he or she has to remain still until freed by another child.  The other children who have not been tagged can free a tagged child by shaking his hand, saying “Merry Christmas”,  and giving the him a piece of candy.  The idea for this wonderful game came from this website:

I added the part of giving the children a piece of candy to make it a little more challenging not to just think of themselves.

Here is my colleague passing out the candy:

Here is a boy freeing a girl:

Children, of course, learn by playing and the point of this game was to put them in a situation where they had to give away something they really wanted to keep for themselves.  The kids loved the game and would have kept playing the whole time if we had let them.  Afterwards, we asked the children why they thought we had played this game.  A third grader hit the nail on the head, “We had to work together in order to keep the game going.”  What a great metaphor for life, I thought.

Next we sat down together to hear another story.  I reminded the children of the Godly Play Advent story and how God had given us hope in the form of a small, helpless baby rather than a grand king with a great army.  Then, I explained that Jesus did not remain a baby, but became a grown man who, in turn, gave us many gifts.  And one of these gifts was the parables.  Then we moved into the story of The Good Samaritan. 

Here is a picture of the materials I used:

For many of the children, this was a brand new story.  The children were absolutely outraged when the priest and the Levite refused to help the wounded man and voiced their protests loudly. They were then visibly relieved when the Samaritan finally helped the man.  During the Ergründungsgespräch (Wondering Phase) at the end, the children were really putting two and two together.  We asked them if why they thought that the priest and Levite didn’t help the man.  They replied, “Maybe they were afraid” and “Maybe they were in a hurry”.  My colleague and I were able to point out that helping someone often costs us something such as time or overcoming our own fears.  I had been concerned beforehand that the children might wonder why in the world I was telling this story and what it had to with Christmas, but here again the children were on track.  The answer came, “Because it is about helping people”.

Next we brainstormed with the children what we are going to do next week when we have our first social project together.  And then we worked more on our art project from last week and finished with hot cocoa and cookies.

Two more weeks to go! And hopefully, this will prove to be an Advent that the children never forget.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Advent Club - Week 1

Last week I and another teacher at our school began the first week of Advent Club. Called “Die Hoffnung von Weihnachten: an unsere Mitmenschen denken” (“The Hope of Christmas: Thinking of Others”), this project is an attempt at combining several things:  Godly Play, art and social projects with children.  Over the next four weeks, we will be discussing with 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders what hope is and how we can share it with other people.  Our pedagogical goals are to encourage social responsibility, kindness and tolerance through the lens of the biblical Christmas story.  We will also being doing two social projects with the children. Hope is a very abstract concept for young elementary school children and the task has proved challenging!

From the beginning of our first session, it was clear to the other teacher and me that what we were offering was very different from what the children expected.  Most Advent Clubs center around Christmas crafts and various traditions surrounding the holiday.  After asking the children what they most liked about Christmas (almost all answered “presents”), we dived right into the Christmas story that you can see below. 

The Godly Play story tells the Christmas story from the perspective of the four Advent Sundays and their meanings.  At the end, I lit the Christ candle and explained to the children that this candle represents hope and light coming into the darkness.  Although we can blow the candle out and the physical light disappears, there is a light that doesn’t have to go away.  This light, the hope that God gave us through the birth of Jesus, is something that we can keep with us the whole year and share with others.  I went on to say that God gave us hope in the form of a small, helpless baby rather than sending a great man with an army or riches.  Like many things in life, God starts with small steps.  We encouraged the children that although they are young, they still have an important role and can give hope to others. As with the Easter Club that I did with the children in the spring, I noticed that the kids who had not experienced this meditative, quiet sort of storytelling, had a difficult time paying attention at first.

Afterwards, we talked to the children about how we would be putting into practice the things we were hearing by helping put on a Christmas party in another part of the city.  (We’ll be working with a group that runs an after-school program for children in a lower income, inner city part of Berlin.) Though some of the children seemed to respond, most of the children seemed to be asking themselves what all of this had to do with Christmas.

Then, the children were able to choose between playing with the story or doing an art project in order to process their thoughts.  I value this part of Godly Play so much, because children like adults are so often bombarded with information and not given the chance to think through it.  

The art project we did comes from one of my favorite blogs. “That Artist Woman”.  Gail Bartel is an art teacher in Canada and she inspires me with her work.  We did her project, “Nativity Silhouette”, which you can find here:

I added a slight twist to the project by asking the children to depict their favorite part of the Christmas story.  Several of them depicted the Three Wise Men as well as the Holy Family.

To end our time, we drank hot cocoa and ate Christmas cookies together.  Stay tuned for Week 2!  

See these links for the rest of our Advent Club: