One of the problems that puzzles many children’s ministries is how to group children when you don’t have enough children, volunteers or space for each age to have their own Bible class.
What often happens is that children are grouped together in ways that may be expedient, but aren’t necessarily developmentally appropriate. As a result, children can become frustrated, annoyed or bored and learning is hampered. You may also find behavior problems increase when children are placed with others who are developmentally too far ahead of or behind them.
There are some things you can do to solve grouping issues in a smaller children’s ministry. First, let’s look at the ideal combinations of ages. These are based on Piaget’s stages of cognitive development as well as other developmental issues.
- Infant classes, ages birth to 2 years. These classes often repeat the same Bible lesson for a period of 6-12 weeks. Lessons are very concrete and basic and often cover stories like Creation and Noah’s Ark. Children are often given individual toys or items to represent each point in the story, which may also be accompanied by gestures or repetitive phrases. Basic concepts like “God made everything”, “God loves us” and “The Bible is God’s book” are taught.
- Toddler classes, ages 2-4 years. Children in these classes begin having a different Bible story each class period. The stories are told very simply without a lot of the details taught older children. Children in this age range have attention spans of about six to fifteen minutes, and activities should be changed accordingly. Children this age also need activities that allow them to move and experience the concepts and world found in the Bible.
- Preschool classes, ages 4-6 years. Children in these ages may not be reading fluently yet, but have longer attention spans. They are capable of more advanced activities that require skills like cutting and gluing. Because their attention spans are longer, they are capable of listening to Bible stories with more detail. They can also begin answering basic questions about the stories they are taught. They are concrete thinkers, so abstract ideas need to be explained as concretely as possible. They still need to move periodically, but can usually sit still for a Bible story or activity instructions. They may be able to memorize familiar worship songs, Bible facts and short scriptures. This age group needs activities that help them experience and understand things they are taught from the Bible. Activities should be hands-on, experiential, meaningful and memorable.
- Early elementary classes, ages 6-8 years. While most of these children can read, many may still not be fluent readers. To prevent issues, it is still best that an adult does any necessary reading. Because these children attend school, they should be capable of the same behaviors expected from them in school. They can understand application principles, even if they cannot find them within a Bible story without assistance. Children this age are beginning to see the connections between scripture, God’s commands and principles and the choices they make in life. They need lots of hands-on, experiential, meaningful, memorable activities with their Bible lessons.
- Upper elementary classes, ages 9-12 years. These children are approaching or have reached the age of accountability and may express an interest in becoming a Christian by being baptized. In addition to Bible stories and application principles, they need to be taught the over-arching plan of God, from Creation to the Fall to the prophets and Jesus. They should be exposed to God’s plan for redemption and the Gospel message. Children this age should be taught abstract concepts like repentance, forgiveness and grace as they move from being concrete to abstract thinkers. Although the topics are more advanced than in Bible classes for younger ages, these children still need plenty of hands-on learning. They are also capable of project based learning, complex service projects and learning field trips.
Some of you may have the space or volunteers for only one or two classes. Or you may only have one small child and lots of school aged children.
Regardless of your circumstances, you really must do everything you can to provide at a minimum, one class for children five years old and younger and one for school aged children. Mixing those two groups is not only inappropriate educationally, it can become dangerous.
So what should you do if you only have one or two children in the older or younger group? For them to be safe and learn, you need to have a separate class. Most children love the personal attention this provides. If the child is upset about being separated from the others, you may be able to tell the Bible story to all of the children and then separate for their activities to different areas – even if it is in the same room.
This may seem unnecessary, but it really is vital. Teaching in a shared, open space isn’t easy. Public school teachers taught this way for years though several decades ago. Managing noise levels and being respectful of the separate areas helps.
Sometimes, creativity can give you the extra space you need. Consider taking the older group outdoors for their lesson or to a part of the church that isn’t really being used during class time like the auditorium, foyer or kitchen area. Screens/dividers that are portable can also help.
If volunteers or leaders are reluctant to provide developmentally appropriate classes for children, it may help to remind them that the first twelve years of life are perhaps the most important in spiritual growth and development. Giving each age group what they need to best learn about God should be a top priority.