Developing an Effective Children's Ministry Program

by Vicki Stoecklin & Randy White

© 2004 White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, Inc

Many churches' children's ministry programs continue to operate on a paradigm based upon adult education models. However, children are not small adults. Rather they have unique needs, capabilities and learning styles. An effective children's ministry program requires an understanding and recognition of the following characteristics of children's growth, development, needs and cognitive/learning abilities.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice

Developmentally appropriate practices result from the process of adults making decisions about the well-being and education of children based on at least three important kinds of information or knowledge:

  1. What is known about child development and learning - knowledge of age-related human characteristics that permits general predictions within an age range about what activities, materials, interactions or experiences will be safe, healthy, interesting, achievable, and also challenging to children;
  2. What is known about the strengths, interests and needs of each individual child in the group to be able to adapt for and be responsive to inevitable individual variation; and
  3. Knowledge of the social and cultural contexts in which children live to ensure that learning experiences are meaningful, relevant and respectful for the children

Following is a list of principles of child development and learning that inform and guide decisions about developmentally appropriate practice.

  • Development occurs in a relatively orderly sequence with later abilities, skills and knowledge building on those already acquired. Knowledge of typical development of children within the age span served by a church's children's ministry program provides a general framework to guide the design of the learning environment, realistic curriculum goals, and creating appropriate learning experiences.
  • Development proceeds at varying rates from child to child as well as unevenly within different areas of each child's functioning. Each child is a unique person with an individual pattern of growth, as well as individual learning style.
  • Development proceeds in predictable directions toward greater complexity, organization and internalization. Learning during early childhood proceeds from behavioral knowledge to symbolic or representational knowledge.
  • Children are active learners drawing on direct physical and social experience, as well as culturally transmitted knowledge, to construct their own understandings of the world around them. Children contribute to their own development as they strive to make meaning out of their daily experiences in the home, in church and in the community.
  • Children develop and learn best in the context of a community where they are safe and valued, their physical needs are met and they feel psychologically secure.

Competition & Self-Esteem - During their primary years, children's self-esteem (estimation of their self-worth, pride or shame in their competence) becomes more realistic and accurate. Self-esteem comes from daily experiences that confirm who we are and what we are capable of doing. As children mature, they begin to understand the limitation of their own abilities and become more prone to social comparison. This information becomes part of their self-concept and can affect their motivation. Unfortunately, when adults rely unduly on competition and comparison among young children, they magnify children's tendency to engage in social comparison, lessen children's optimism about their own abilities and stifle motivation to learn. Experiences that shape self-esteem and self-concept are especially important because children's self-esteem influences their behavior. The use of rewards where only some of the children achieve success sets the children up for competition and comparison. Likewise, using games that are competitive rather than cooperative encourages comparison and lessens the self-esteem of those who lose.

Integrated Curriculum - Because children's learning is integrated during the early years, the religious curriculum should also be integrated. In fact, current knowledge of brain development offers strong support for integrating curriculum; it has been found that the brain seeks meaningful connections when presented with new information. An integrated curriculum can be accomplished by planning around topics of study related to learning goals across different activity venues.

Consistency - Consistent, positive relationships with a limited number of adults and other children is the basis for healthy human development. These consistent relationships provide the context for children to learn about themselves and their world and how to develop positive, constructive relationships with other people.

Consistency can also be provided through following a familiar routine and providing orientation to the unfamiliar. Children do best in a consistent structure that limits the fear of the unknown. A well-defined schedule helps children learn the order of events that occur each Sunday.

Consistency is also important in the regulation of children's behavior. The rules for behavior must be consistent over time and among adults. Consistent enforcement of rules is reassuring to children that this is a predictable place, a place that you can trust.

Transitioning - A transition is the movement of children between one activity to another or one place to another. Children are in transition during clean up, while waiting for a venue to begin or while moving from one place to another. Young children, especially, can have difficulty adjusting to movement from one environment to another. There are no rules about what is an acceptable waiting time. However, common sense tells us that the longer and more often the children wait, the more likely they will become restless and misbehave. Children are naturally energetic and waiting does not come easy. Being actively engaged during routines, including transitions, eliminates wasted time and provides an opportunity for learning.

Learning Styles - Children learn from active participation through several styles of learning - auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. Visual learners need to see teacher's facial expressions to fully understand the content of a lesson. They may think in pictures and learn best from visual diagrams and written materials. Auditory learners learn best through verbal discussion and listening to what others have to say. Written information may have little meaning until it is heard. The tactile/kinesthetic person learns best though a hands-on approach. They may find it hard to sit still for long periods of time and might be distracted by their need for activity and exploration. The younger the child the higher the need is for kinesthetic learning. Activities and teaching methods should allow for all three learning styles.

Multiple Intelligences - In 1983, in his book Frames of Mind, Howard Gardner, Ph.D., a Harvard University psychologist, challenged the traditional notion that intelligence is a single, fixed commodity. His contention was that we all possess seven distinct and somewhat autonomous intelligences, all ruled by different parts of the brain and that each is of equal value. He also redefined intelligence, declaring that it is the biological and psychological potential to solve or to fashion products valued in a particular culture. Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences has become widely accepted by many educators.

Since identifying the seven intelligences, Gardner's continuing research has lead him to increase the number to eight with a possible ninth:

  • Linguistic: Mastery and love of language and words with a desire to explore them. Poets, writers, linguists.
  • Logical-Mathematical: Confronting and assessing objects and abstractions and discerning their relationships and underlying principles. Mathematicians, scientists, philosophers.
  • Musical: Competence not only in composing and performing pieces with pitch, rhythm and timbre, but also in listening and discerning. Composers, conductors, musicians, music critics.
  • Spatial: Ability to perceive the visual world accurately, transform and modify perceptions and re-create visual experiences even without physical stimuli. Architects, artists, sculptors, mapmakers, navigators, chess players.
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic: Controlling and orchestrating body motions and handling objects skillfully. Dancers, athletes, actors.
  • Intrapersonal: Ability to understand oneself and use the knowledge to make effective life decisions.
  • Interpersonal: Accurately determining moods, feelings and other mental states in others. Psychiatrists, politicians, religious leaders, anthropologists.
    Naturalist: Recognizing and categorizing natural objects. Biologists, naturalists.
  • Existential (possible intelligence): Capturing and pondering the fundamental questions of existence. Spiritual leaders, philosophical thinkers.

Except in extreme cases, each of us possess all the intelligences to varying degrees. Just how much talent we are allocated to each area depends upon a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Curriculum activities should be developed to reach all the intelligences.

Group Size - Large groups easily overwhelm children. Large groups of children are also more difficult to manage. Small group sizes make it easier to facilitate leaning and hands-on curriculum. Small group sizes make it easier for children to form friendship and practice social skills and allow the shyest child to make better emotional connections with the instructor and other children. The younger the children, the smaller the group size required.

Behavior & Environment - The physical environment shapes children's behavior. Large, noisy, over stimulating rooms can produce undesirable behavior in children. Smaller spaces help children to focus and cut down on distractions.

Active Learners - Children are active learners. Education sometimes emphasizes rote learning of skills rather than active, experiential learning in a meaningful context. Consequently, many children are being taught scripture and facts, but they are not learning to apply those skills to problems and real situations. Rote learning does not develop more complex thinking skills such as conceptualization and problem solving. Nor do children necessarily acquire knowledge from rote learning.

Sense of Time & Place - Children under the age of six struggle with the concept of time. Actually, children under age six do not fully comprehend time at all. They only understand the 'present'. Past and future have no meaning to them. Children ages six and older are beginning to comprehend the concept of time. Young children have no comprehension of geography that is outside of the immediate world they've experienced.

Value/Morals Formation - The basic truth about teaching values and morals to our children is that values and morals are learned not through works or lecture, but through living it. The kind of values we ourselves treasure as adults or those that form part of our life's principles are manifested in our everyday life. Children should be taught values in concert with methods of analysis and judgment that yield answers about right and wrong, better and worse concerning personal behavior and the common good. The integration of cognitive development and character development can best be achieved through perspective-taking, moral reasoning, thoughtful decision-making and moral self-knowledge. Since young children learn through role-playing, this is an excellent way to teach values and morals to them.

Not only do children learn best, but they also enjoy themselves the most and they have the most fun when developmentally appropriate practice is followed. That adds high repeat appeal when a hands-on approach is followed. When children have fun and want to come to church, they will have a strong influence on their parents to bring them back, and back and back again.

Childhood has its own way of seeing, thinking and feeling and nothing is more foolish than to try to substitute ours [adult] for theirs.
Jean Jacques Rousseau

Developmentally appropriate practice for children is exactly what one church, Grace Community Bible Church in Richmond, Texas, calls "practical love" and "loving people on purpose." The love is personal. People are loved as very individual persons. Their wants, needs, preconceptions and emotions are addressed. The love is practical. They are offered acceptance, comfort, relevance and hope. Moreover, the love is purposeful. Developmentally appropriate practice draws upon research and knowledge on child development to accomplish practical love of children.

Children's church programs should follow developmentally appropriate practice in everything they do and offer to children. This means that different age groups of children have to be treated and taught differently and have different environments, designed to meet their needs.

Preschoolers lack abstract reasoning, the concept of time and geography, and are not ready for instruction that is more direct. Mary Irene Flanagan, C.S.J. explains it this way in Children's Ministries that Work:

"Preschoolers aren't developmentally ready for formal instruction in faith. They can't interpret Scripture, understand deep theological concepts, or participate meaningfully in adult religious practices. Priority isn't to communicate religious information. It's to provide a healthy, loving, family environment. Doing so reinforces a preschooler's sense of trust and independence... If preschoolers feel valued and accepted, they'll want to return to experience more of those feelings. Eventually they'll want to learn about the sources of these feelings. This becomes the foundation on which more mature faith understanding can be built. . .

"For preschoolers, their faith experience is based on life experiences. God's revelation occurs in the world of bugs and hugs. However, children need to learn to interpret these works of God, which is where [children's ministries] fit in. A preschooler's world is one of discovery. So, when a four-year-old discovers ants, share in the excitement. Explain that God made the ants. By sharing in the discovery and wonder with a child, we begin to lay the foundation for faith. . .

"Preschoolers lives are grounded in the world of here and now. They learn by doing, smelling, tasting, feeling, hearing, and seeing. They don't have a sense of history or the ability to understand the past (there is only now. They don't understand the concept of yesterday or tomorrow) Therefore, concentrate on the concrete values presented in Scripture that preschoolers can understand and experience. They can understand the loving care of God as they love one another and praise and thank God. That is, preschoolers can understand these concepts as long as you give children a way to experience those concepts. . .

"Active, hands-on learning lets preschoolers learn through their fingers, eyes, ears, noses and even their taste buds. [The] lessons become experiences they remember."

Preschool children need a different program than older children. 5 year-olds can use some performance and hands-on activity venues, but the 4 year-olds and younger need dedicated, developmentally appropriate classrooms. Direct teaching and memorization of scripture is not considered developmentally appropriate for preschoolers, as they will become lost in the symbolic language of the Bible. Not until adolescence can children really grasp the symbolic language and abstract concepts. When children are presented with concepts they cannot grasp, that they are not developmentally ready for, they can actually become alienated, and even develop a phobia to the subject. This has been discovered in extensive research on the teaching of mathematics.

Julian Green, a child development specialist has suggested that for the first six years of a child's life, faith is primarily understood through experience.

Preschoolers need lots of hands-on, interactive opportunities for self-directed play. Young children are concrete thinkers and learn mostly by exploring, observing, imagining, imitating (role-play) and creating, not simply talking or watching. Even into middle childhood, children actively construct their understandings, their knowledge, through interaction with the physical and social world. For learning to be effective, children need interactive and hands-on activities whenever possible. In some ways, teaching children about God has less to do with the content that is delivered as with the climate, the loving environment they encounter. A child comes to understand faith when he or she experiences an atmosphere that communicates God's Love and a gracious invitation.

Moral Development

There is little if any scientific research or studies on how children develop and learn religious principals and teachings as they grow.

Recent research by the Barna Group on faith development found that "a person's moral foundations are generally in place by the time they reach age nine. . . Their fundamental perspectives on truth, integrity, meaning, justice, morality, and ethics are formed quite early in life. After their first decade, most people simply refine their views as they age without a wholesale change in those leanings." The research found that a majority of Americans make a lasting determination about the meaning of Jesus Christ's life, death and resurrection by age 12. "In essence," one Barna researcher noted, "what you believe by the time you are age 13 is what you will die believing."

There have been some studies on children's moral development from which it is reasonable to interpolate parallels to faith development.

How children think about right and wrong, about values and morals, is just as developmental as how children think about numbers and letters. There is a typical progression of their moral thought. Understanding this progression of emerging morality allows it to be linked to developmentally appropriate practice.

Young children think about moral issues differently than older children. Preschoolers tend to think of right and wrong in black and white terms. There are no shades of gray and possibilities of negotiation. Young children typically define the rightness or wrongness of an act in terms of whether or not it will evoke punishment. Children in this stage of moral development are convinced of the absolute nature of rules. However, they consider it right and fair to ignore rules if they interfere with their individual benefit. When a child takes an egocentric approach to right and wrong, they are not bad or immoral. He/she is simply demonstrating their stage in the normal progression of moral development.

This natural egocentrism is also connected with a preschooler's cognitive difficulty (often impossibility) in taking someone else's mental perspective or thinking about how the other person feels. Developmentally, they can only consider one perspective - their own. Their brains have not yet developed to the stage of feeling empathy. It isn't until middle childhood that children develop this capacity.

Preschoolers also cannot understand the concept of an accidental wrong. They tend to think about the wrongness of an act solely in terms of how much physical damage has been done. If a classmate spills water accidentally, they don't see it that way. The wrongness of an act is judged in direct proportion to the amount of damage, not the motive.

Lawrence Kohlberg has done some of the most extensive research on moral development. Like some earlier developmental psychologists, his view is that in order to move up the progression or staircase of moral thought, a child needs the cognitive ability to think about moral issues in more and more abstract ways. However, moral development can be facilitated if a child is regularly exposed to reasoning that is slightly higher than the level on which he/she is thinking.

Kohlberg also found that preschool children make moral decisions based on avoidance of punishment and satisfying their immediate desires from an egocentric perspective. Kohlberg felt that preschoolers should be exposed to the next level of moral development to facilitate their growth. This is the level of moral thinking that develops during middle childhood for most children.

At this second level of moral thinking, children's concerns turn from egocentric morality to consideration for the needs of working and living together. Children start to think in terms of pleasing others and being helpful, of being a good boy or good girl. Concern starts to move from self-interest to the good of the group.

Because young children's thinking is constrained by their cognitive level of development, they need to be provided with opportunities to deal with religious, faith and moral issues and thinking about right and wrong in developmentally appropriate ways.


One of the best ways to teach children of all ages is through stories.

Jesus made consummate use of stories in his teachings. Leading educators have recommended stories about heroes as a main means of teaching and learning values; they urge the use of personal models - heroes - in history, fiction, and current events to exemplify and encourage emulation of particular virtues or desirable traits of character. Dramatic stories about heroes in the Bible, literature of history and fiction attract the attention of children, arouse their interest and raises questions among them that lead to discussion and reflection about values.

Stories for younger children need to be much shorter than those for older children. By selecting some stories involving moral dilemmas, preschoolers can be exposed through discussion about the perspectives of the characters, exposing them to the next level of moral thought.

Although younger children do not have the cognitive development to philosophically reflect on the stories, becoming familiar with stories and the Bible still introduces them to religious words, concepts, God's Love, right and wrong and the idea of faith. This pre-religious literacy becomes a foundation they build on as they grow and are exposed to more formal learning of religious concepts and language.

Children need examples of morals, not just lectures. Children also need to develop a connection to a long line of people who have struggled to have integrity and live with faith. They need to see what it looks like. Stories are a very effective way to accomplish this.

Every child's four most magical words are "Tell me a story." Storytelling evangelism has many advantages when it comes to using stories to communicate spiritual faith to children:

  • Stories hold children's attention.
  • Stories stir their emotions.
  • Stories help them remember.

Children should not only be told stories, but also have the opportunity to act them out. This is especially important for children 6 and younger who almost exclusively learn experientially. They need to be given opportunities to become storytellers and act out stories in playful ways. This can include role-play and pretend dress-up.

To provide children consistency and a sense of security, they need a 'homeroom' they first go to and return to after going through performance and hands-on activity venues. They also need regular adult instructors. Children need a steady, stable environment to deal best with the challenges of learning. For 5 year-olds and younger, they should stay in the homeroom with the exception of maybe one visit to an appropriate venue or playground each Sunday.

Parents' Trust

Parents' trust that their children will be secure and safe is essential to the any children's program's success. In addition to a secure check-in/check-out system and notification system, all volunteers and staff that work in a children's program should be screened for suitability (background checks) and trained in working with children and child safety. A policy requiring newcomers to wait six months before volunteering in children's ministry is a wise precaution. This gives time to get to know a newcomer's qualifications and also discourages sexual predators who come to church looking for quick access to children.

Vicki Stoecklin is the Education & Child Development Director, and Randy White is the CEO of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City, MO-based firm that specializes in the design of children's and family leisure and learning venues, including children's religious and ministry programs and facilities. Vicki or Randy can be reached at +1.816.931-1040 or by e-mail.