Teaching preschoolers scared me. I have taught almost every other age group, but I avoided this one for a long time! As my old pappy used to say, there is only one way to overcome a fear and that is to face it head on. So in June 2014, I began helping in a 4-year old Sunday School class. My responsibility was to lead the group time (telling the Bible story) and do whatever I was told the rest of the time. All I knew was to do what the curriculum told me to do, and that is exactly what I did. Along the way, I learned some important lessons.
1. What they can see matters. Nothing gets by a 4-year old and that includes what is on the walls, even if you did not put it there. The first Sunday I was with the group, one child noticed a poster on the wall and had all kinds of questions about the poster. The poster had nothing to do with our study, so I spent all my time dealing with a distraction.
2. Class starts the moment the first child arrives. You can’t tell 4-year olds to sit down and wait for everyone else to arrive. The class starts when the first one arrives and isn’t over until the last one leaves.
3. Names are important. We have nametags that work as security as well. The first names are printed larger so they can be easily read, but the nametag usually gets attached on the child’s back. The children expected me to know their names and to pronounce them correctly. One child corrected me several weeks until I got it right.
4. Flexibility is a must. We have a plan but something always happens. Storms in the area, an overflowing toilet in the room, or an art project that takes longer than expected (or worse, takes less time than expected) all force you to be flexible. It is just part of the experience.
5. What you think is a goofy idea usually is the one that works best. The idea was to make a donkey out of a paper bag and then to color a paper cover to go on the back of the donkey. I thought this was a doomed idea, but I was wrong. The children colored both sides of the cover, making different designs on each side. They explained to their parents what their design symbolized and why their cover would have been perfect for Jesus to sit on as He rode into Jerusalem.
6. It is about the Bible. Even 4-year olds expect us to read the Bible and to talk about it. We may do all kinds of things, but if we don’t reference the Bible or a Bible story, they let us know about it. One child was in the restroom while we were telling the Bible story. After exiting the restroom, he sought me out to get a recap of the Bible story.
7. They want to participate in the process. Early on, one child was having trouble removing stickers from a sheet, so I thought I would step in. I was clearly informed by that struggling child that my help was not needed. The tone used was not sassy or mean. That child simply wanted to participate in the experience, even if it took a while to get the task finished.
8. Routines give a framework. We followed the same pattern every week, and I thought it would be good to shake things up after a few weeks. The group knew our pattern and let us know we were not following it. The pattern was important to them, giving the group a sense of security. Changing it just to change it only confused and frustrated the group.
9. If you let them talk, they will. There have been many times when kids have talked about some serious things while playing in a kitchen or building a block wall. I needed to listen and let them talk. I learned more in those times than they did.
I am sure there are others lessons I am learning, I just don’t know it yet. As I reflect on these nine lessons, it strikes me that these same lessons are true when teaching adults. People are people regardless of their ages. So is teaching. The group time starts when the first person arrives. Adults expect me to know their names as well. Adults want to participate in the group time as well. I’m a better teacher of adults as a result of teaching 4-year olds, and both groups are grateful.
G. Dwayne McCrary is the team leader for Adult and Young Adult group resources at Lifeway, leads two weekly Bible study groups (one for empty-nesters and one for 4-year olds), serves as an adjunct professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and carries 20-plus years of church staff experience. He is married to Lisa (both native Texans), and they have two children and one grandson. Find him on Twitter: @gdwayne.