Over the years I've had many opportunities to teach a wide variety of church groups, including Sunday Schools, children's camps, teen youth groups and teen camps, adult seminars and church services, and messages for church services in nursing homes.
Each group has its own set of challenges and rewards, but one of my favorite groups to teach is a group which contains a cross-section of each of the age groups.
In order to understand how to teach/preach effectively for a group that spans the ages, we must first understand each individual group. This article will be the first in a series of articles called Spanning the Ages. In this article I will explore lessons I have learned about teaching children (up to the teenage years). In future articles I will explore the other age groups (teenagers, adults, senior citizens).
Children and Distractions
One of the first lessons I learned about teaching children is this: children are very easily distracted. Thus, one of your first jobs as a teacher is to examine the setting in which you will be teaching, and -- as much as is possible -- remove potential distractions. These distractions can take many forms, from disinterested/uninvolved adults standing at the back of the room talking, to visible/audible activities going on outside, to objects children may be holding in their hands.
Once I was invited to speak to a group of children who had just completed a "carnival" in which they competed for prizes. The prizes were kept in a brown paper bag, with the child's name on it. The children came into the room and sat down, carrying their bags of candy and toys, and I knew I was in trouble. So can you guess the very first thing I did when I was introduced and given the floor? I asked the children to take their bags of candy and set them on the floor in the corner of the room (I was glad their names were on their bags!) and then come sit back down again. One of the leaders said to me later, "I never would have thought to do that." If you want to be an effective teacher, you must think of things like that.
Children and Behavioral Cues
Another important thing to understand about children is this: children, more than any other age group, take their behavioral cues not from their peers so much as from those older. Once they reach the teenage years they are not looking to the adults so much as they are looking to one another for behavioral cues.
I first discovered this because I am a ventriloquist, and when I do skits with my "dummies," I occasionally throw in jokes that go completely over the heads of the children. When I do these jokes in a group containing only children, they flop badly. But if I do them in a mixed group, the children see the teens and adults laughing, and they pick up on this cue, and begin laughing themselves.
For this reason, it is imperative that adults and teenagers in the room are seated with the children and listening. It is not unusual to find a setting in which the children are all sitting together, and a group of adults are hovering at the back, chatting quietly. After all, the lesson is not for them, so why should the sit and listen? Don't be afraid to ask stray adults to either come join you, or leave the room.
Children and Storytelling
Children love stories. Thus, a good children's teacher needs to be a good storyteller. Whether you are telling a story from the Bible, from history, or from your own life, use stories to drive your point home. If you are teaching a passage of Scripture from the Epistles, you might think, "But there is no 'story' in this passage; how can I be a storyteller?" And the answer is, there's a good chance that somewhere in the Bible -- either in the Old Testament or the Gospels -- there is a story that helps illustrate the message of the epistle. And if there isn't, surely you have an example from your own life that will help drive the point home.
Practice telling your stories. Stand in front of a mirror and talk to the mirror about David and Goliath, or about Jesus and the lepers. Watch yourself. Listen to yourself. Discover where in the story you lose your place, and review those spots. Some people are natural-born storytellers, but anyone can become a storyteller with practice.
Incidentally, storytelling is a technique that works well for all the age groups, so this should be an automatic part of your teaching, no matter who you are instructing.
Talking To, Not Talking Down
Children have a more limited vocabulary than teens and adults. Particularly when it comes to doctrinal words like sanctification, justification, etc. There is a temptation, therefore, to use a form of "baby-talk" with young children, talking down, instead of talking to them.
Don't fall into this trap. Yes, when you speak to children you will be more animated, more visibly enthusiastic, more physically active. But this does not mean you need to talk down to the children. Treat them as though they are intelligent, thoughtful people, just with a slightly more simplified vocabulary.
If you get in the habit of talking down to children, they will not take you seriously. But that isn't the only problem. If you get in the habit of talking down to children, you'll end up carrying that habit over into teaching other age groups, and I can guarantee that they will not listen to you!