Is a parish early childhood program important? The short answer is yes! But why? Why is it so essential to engage the youngest members of your parish in faith learning? We can find answers to this at many levels, from research on the brain to basic precepts of the Church.
Learning the Language of Faith
The broader world of early childhood education is one place to begin. We know the brain does the bulk of its growing before the age of five, with a peak somewhere around the age of three. Amazing! During these critical years the capacity of the brain to grow and create synapses (pathways that govern everything the brain does) is at its best. The rate of development in the first five years surpasses that of any phase of life; rapid expansion of vocabulary is just one part.
Does this mean we are going to turn our four and five year olds into world-class theologians? Of course not. But we can make sure faith words are part of their vocabularies. Furthermore, we can lay the most important of foundations, that of a loving and trusting relationship with God; the kind of foundation Jesus talks about in the Parable of Two Builders (Mt 7:24-27; Lk 6:47-49).
Under the guidance of dedicated catechists armed with a quality curriculum, even such young children can learn truths of our Catholic Faith when they participate in an early childhood program. Integral — though very basic — values like taking turns, listening, being a friend, praying, knowing who to turn to when a problem arises, taking care of God’s creation are already age appropriate topics.
Reinforcing them in a faith community is an ideal part of character development. What better time to start shaping the whole child through affirming interactions? Positive experiences at a young age pave the way for lifelong learning potential.
In addition to everything that is happening cognitively with the brain, the physical, social and emotional skills of the preschool-kindergarten age child are exploding. His/her interest and ability to sing, dance, and engage in pretend play and dramatizations are modes that lend themselves so naturally to faith learning.
Fine motor skills allow him/her to create simple take-home projects that foster a sense of self-worth and “I did it” attitude. God wants us to feel good about ourselves and delight in the things we are able to do. Capitalizing on this stage of early childhood development is valuable for children and fun for the adults and older teens who may also be involved in the program.
Christ’s Call to Welcome and Love
At baptism parents pledge to guide and form their children in the “practice of the faith.” At parishes we promise to support them in that undertaking. Providing a quality early childhood program is an extension of this. It also ties into our call to hospitality as a Church. Certainly the youngest members of the parish ought not to be overlooked; providing them with an age appropriate context in which to learn is part of our commitment to supporting families and children.
Jesus’ love for children is remarked on time and again throughout the Bible. Scripture teachings such as, “unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3) and “let the little children come to me” (Mt 19:14) remind us that we have as much to learn from children as we have to teach them. Surely living as Jesus did involves attending to the needs of children from the very beginning.
Choosing a Curriculum
So, what makes a good early childhood curriculum? First and foremost is adherence to the teachings of the Catholic Church. After that, in order to be effective a curriculum must be relevant to the diversity present in our communities and focused on the needs of children.
On one hand, young children thrive on routine and structure. On the other, they have an increasing desire for autonomy and independent decision-making. A quality curriculum will strike a balance between these two by incorporating both.
Predictable rituals such as an opening and closing are beneficial just as are opportunities for flexibility and personal activity choice. Since we know children learn in different ways a program that involves a multisensory approach is crucial. Occasions for song, dance, storytelling, art activities, and hands-on learning should all be included. Having a home involvement piece allows families to further engage in faith learning and offer more reinforcement of learning.
Finally, let’s be practical — volunteers will most likely be the ones delivering our carefully chosen curriculum, so by all means it should be “catechist-friendly” and straightforward to deliver.
Margaret DeMatteo has an M.A. in teaching. She has facilitated early childhood programs in various parishes and taught in Catholic schools across the country.