One of my favorite television shows is “Extreme Home Makeover.” (So sad it’s going off the air.) During each episode a family is chosen who demonstrates a tremendous need for a new home. Many of the families chosen for the show have special physical needs within the family and could benefit greatly from having a specialized environment set up to facilitate care, living conditions, and therapy. For a family who has a child with breathing problems, the home is built with a state-of-the-art air purifying system. Large open rooms, wide hallways, and low counters in the bathroom and kitchen go into a home where the mother is bound to a wheelchair. These people are able to thrive once a home is created with their specific needs and capabilities in mind. Before a plan is drawn up for the home, the specific needs of that family are analyzed carefully and thoroughly. Now, compare this show with setting up children’s ministry. In order to create a place where children will grow and thrive spiritually, we need to understand their developmental stages, how they take in and process information, and what physical needs should be addressed.
The list could go on and on, getting more and more detailed, but let me give you some broad developmental characteristics for different age groups.
2 and 3-year-olds
- They love to be on the move. Large muscles are developing more rapidly than smaller muscles. They’re jumping, bouncing, running, but not yet coloring beyond a scribble.
- They’re attention spans are on the move, also. Activities need to be brief and alternate between sitting and moving.
- They are starting to express themselves verbally in complete sentence structure.
- They like to be cuddled.
- They are still in the “mine!” stage and are just beginning to understand that everything in the world is not theirs.
- They can learn basic biblical concepts, such as: God loves and cares about me; God made my world; and the Bible is a special book that tells about God.
4 and 5-year-olds
- They still love lots of movement, but small motor skills are rapidly developing. It is wise to alternate between activities that utilize large and small motor skills.
- Their attention span is still fairly short.
- They are curious and full of questions.
- They are very literal.
- They don’t distinguish between truth and make-believe easily.
- They think their teachers are wonderful.
- They want adult approval.
- They start to participate in group activities.
- Some of the spiritual concepts they can understand: God will forgive me when I say I’m sorry for doing wrong; the Bible tells us how to live; we should obey God; we can talk to God in prayer; I have a church family that loves me; and God cares for everyone, not just me.
Grades 1 and 2
- Girls are generally ahead of boys in physical and intellectual development.
- Smaller motor skills are still developing and becoming more precise.
- They are expressing themselves through very simple writing.
- They want to do things themselves.
- A specific set of friends is becoming important to them.
- They want to please the adults in their lives.
- They are sponges for new information.
- They love being involved in service projects and feeling like they have made a contribution.
- Spiritual concepts they can understand: Others know I am following God by my actions and words; they understand God by seeing Him in the people around them; they are ready to start using their Bibles on their own; God is holy; God is fair and just; I am like God in some ways and different from God in some ways; God is preparing a place for me in heaven; and God’s way is always best.
Grades 3 and 4
- They are starting to establish their personal identity.
- Their motor skills are developed to the place where they can feel successful in a specific sport or musical instrument.
- They are very aware of fairness in games, choices, and decisions.
- They start seeing faults in others.
- They have developed several very strong friendships and are somewhat protective of those circles.
- They like opportunities to be creative.
- They are able to see several viewpoints of the same issue.
- They are beginning to think abstractly.
- Spiritual concepts they can understand: I have disappointed God by the things I have done or said; Jesus can be my personal Savior; God has a unique plan for my life; and there are disciplines I can adopt that will help me grow closer to God.
- Their bodies are beginning to change.
- They desire to try new experiences.
- They are drawn toward friends and away from parents, seeking independence.
- They feel most comfortable with same sex activities.
- They start having quick mood shifts.
- Movie and music public figures are important to them.
- They start questioning what adults have told them.
- Spiritual concepts they understand: I can have a meaningful relationship with God; nothing exists without God; God has given me spiritual gifts.
I will be the first to admit that this is not an exhaustive list of characteristics; there’s much more that could be added. And don’t draw the lines between age development categories with bold dark lines. These are generalizations and won’t fit every child. At four years of age, tagging along with her mom, Sarah hung around with the ladies who made prayer shawls. She was quite capable of carrying on a conversation that is more characteristic of a fourth grader. The point is, know YOUR kids and know where they are in their development. Tailor your curriculum and activities as much as possible to meet their developmental stage. The more age-appropriate and developmentally-appropriate the activities are, the more the children will take from the experience.
When our son, Jarad, was about four years old, my sister, Tracy, was visiting our home for a couple of days. Something happened during that visit that awakened me to the fact that a 4-year-old processes information at a different developmental level. The explanations that I thought were clear, actually were quite unclear because I used metaphors, similes, word pictures, and other abstract comparisons. One afternoon Tracy pulled out an anatomy book she was studying. Jarad was inquisitive and wanted to know what each picture was. Tracy used his questions as a personal review and patiently answered each question. “What’s that?” Jarad asked. “That’s the heart” Tracy responded. Jarad’s eyes lit up and he said, “Oh, that’s where Jesus lives!” My sister didn’t know what to say. Jarad was still in a stage of development when he took everything literally. It was difficult for him to separate the physical heart from the spiritual heart. Although we may understand exactly what we mean by the words we use to represent our thoughts, young children will misunderstand because they give physical meaning to abstract concepts.
Continually work at understanding what different age groups are able to comprehend. This will raise questions about whether or not they should be taught the entire Bible or just parts of it. All of scripture is not important for children to be aware of. Different parts of scripture are more applicable to their stage of development. Several years ago I was asked to write some lessons for an editor I’d never written for and had never met. She gave me the scripture for each lesson and the first lesson was to cover Proverbs 7. Go ahead … look it up. The heading in my Bible for that chapter reads, “Warning Against the Adulteress”! The editor wanted four activities for 6-year-olds. There are plenty of appropriate topics in the Bible to cover with children. Why spend time teaching something they are developmentally not ready to handle and that has no point of application relevant to their age? They can learn the rest at a more suitable time in their lives.
There’s one more critical area of development that needs to be discussed and that is a child’s spiritual development. We are so anxious to lead kids through a salvation experience that we tend to misread what’s really happening. I’m going to step on some toes right here, but think about what I’m saying before you stomp. Children who are raised in a Christian home may feel left out if they haven’t had their spiritual experience. When they ask the first question, parents get excited and think their question is actually a statement of commitment. Remember how we listed “curiosity” as one of the characteristics of preschoolers? They ask questions, lots and lots of questions. They are naturally going to ask questions about spiritual matters. They want to find out more. On numerous occasions a parent has called to say, “My daughter asked me a question about baptism last night. When is the next baptism service so she can be baptized?” I’m amazed that they think one question of inquiry suggests they are ready for this huge step. Admitting your disobedience to God, asking for His forgiveness, making Jesus Lord of your life, and following Him in baptism is very high-level thinking, abstract in many ways. Help parents understand that a personal decision to follow Christ is the most important decision a person can make and that’s a lot to put on a child. Concentrate on moving them toward being a Christian and a time when that decision will be more than wanting to be like everyone else in my Christian community. Each question they ask is one more step closer to a sincere and heartfelt decision.
Your challenge is to put aside any preconceived notions of what kids are capable of and understand the truth about their development. Tap into the way God has mapped out their brains and feed them the kind of spiritual food they are able to digest at each stage.