For preschool-age children, entering into a parish or school catechetical environment is a formative event. Hopefully, their parents, as primary catechists, have included God in the events of everyday family life. But the parish or school religion program is the first opportunity a child has to experience God in a larger group. As such, this environment teaches powerful lessons about God and the Christian community.
As catechists, when we think of the messages we are sending to children about Christ and the Church, we usually think of the curriculum we are using and the things we say. But everything we do in classrooms can send a message about who God is and who we are as God’s family.
Here are some “key ingredients” for an early childhood catechetical program that will pave the way for lifelong faith formation:
1. A room that says, “This is a place for you.” Before your session, make sure the room is bright, cheerful, and child-friendly, but also uncluttered. Decorations should be at the child’s eye level.
2. A warm, welcoming catechist. Greet each child as he or she arrives. Stand nearby the child and get down on his or her level. If the child has brought a stuffed animal friend or favorite toy, ask about it. If there are any children who are reluctant to part from mom or dad, reflect their feelings, and then attempt to get them interested in an activity that is set up in the classroom.
3. Age-appropriate activities. Plan activities that fit the developmental level of the children in your group. Preschool children have short attention spans, so switching activities at least every 10 to 15 minutes is recommended. Activities should include opportunities to involve multiple senses: for example, story times should include visual aids and/or props. Activities involving music and movement are favorites of children this age. Hands-on projects that offer ways to remember lessons as well as some free expression are important. Simple games, especially non-competitive ones, are enjoyed by preschool children.
4. A chance to connect with peers. The early childhood setting is a school of socialization. Kids (especially only children) are just beginning to learn how to share, take turns, and engage in activities with others. Offer structured times for the kids to interact with one another, and serve as a “social coach” for them by moderating conflicts. Teach them to express their feelings and wishes to one another, and suggest compromises when they seem to be at an impasse.
5. A shared faith. Share your faith enthusiastically.Remember this is not a college-level theology class but a faith sharing experience. Kids often take their cues from adults regarding whether or not something is exciting. Through your tone of voice and energetic manner, you will tell the children how important the faith is to you.
6. A bridge back to family life. Offer suggestions or send a little note so that the parents can extend the lesson into the family life. Parents will appreciate knowing what their child experienced that day, and they will then have the opportunity to extend the lesson throughout the week, sharing their own faith with their children.