How to Engage Elementary Kids in Children’s Ministry

When we understand the phases that elementary schoolers go through, we can influence them where they are. Read to find out more!

If you are in kids ministry, you care about the faith and future of the next generation. Chances are, you spend a lot of time creating environments, training volunteers, and planning lessons to help kids grow in their everyday faith. 

Because you are a smart leader, you also know that kids don’t learn the same way adults do and they certainly don’t enjoy the same things adults do. (Cue Baby Shark as proof.) 

But, isn’t it easy to forget that is the case? 

Maybe that’s why sometimes . . . 

We try to explain big theological concepts to kids that were transformative for us, but too abstract for them to understand. 

We play worship songs that are a bit graphic for little ears. 

We expect kids to sit still for a really long lesson when even the adults around the room are bored. 

We have all been there. That’s because there are two mistakes leaders tend to make when it comes to engaging kids: 

1. Adults tend to assume, “They are like me now.” 

Now, none of us would say that out loud, but it can be easy to act that way. We can get so excited about what God is teaching us personally that we want to teach the same exact thing to them. Or, we expect them to be able to behave like an adult. Not only is that rarely effective, we also miss out what we can learn from engaging their perspective.

2. Adults tend to assume, “They are like I used to be.”

Sometimes, we forget how much the world has changed since we were kids. We forget that kids are living in a world with smart phones, social media, and YouTube. Not to mention they are being raised by a generation that may have different parenting styles and values than the ones that influenced us. 

That’s why if we want to engage the next generation effectively, we think there is one idea that has the potential to transform everything: phase. 

Phase Defined: A time frame in a kid’s life when you can leverage distinctive opportunities to influence their future.

When churches become intentional about understanding and leveraging what is actually happening in the stages of a kid’s life, it changes how they . . .
Partner with families at pivotal transitions.
Teach comprehensively from preschool through college.
Train leaders how to work with specific age groups. 
Improve dialogue and cooperation between ministries.
Resource parents to interact with kids in the home.

Every kid at every phase is changing in six ways: physically, mentally, relationally, culturally, emotionally, and morally.

So, what do we need to know about phase in order to engage elementary kids effectively? 

Your Role | Engage Their Interests

Read Their Mind…

So kids in the three phases of elementary will believe they can win.

  • Know what can be expected of them and know how they think so they will hear what you say and know what to do.
  • BIG IDEA: Elementary-aged kids think like a scientist. Repetition and a clear application are essential. 
  • Elementary-age kids want to see how things are working and learn best through concrete evidence.

“Children are most like adults in their feelings. They are least like adults in their thinking. More information does not make them think like us.”
— Catherine Stonehouse

Discover Their World…

So kids in the three phases of elementary will feel they belong.

Kindergarten & First: 
Kids in this phase are asking, “Do I have your attention?”

They crave adult attention and approval. When adults demonstrate interest in a kid’s progress, kids improve abilities. 

Second & Third: 
Kids in this phase are asking, “Do I have what it takes?”

Kids want to know how their abilities compare with peers. When adults praise a kid’s persistence and efforts, kids broaden competence. 

Fourth & Fifth: 
Kids in this phase are asking, “Do I have friends?” 

They begin to prioritize friends in a new way. When adults make introductions and include peers, kids develop friendships.

DON’T MISS THIS: The buffer in every crisis is love.

Interpret Their Motives…

So kids in the three phases of elementary will discern what they should do.

  • Moral emotions are instinctive. Moral development is not.
  • If you want to help a elementary-aged kid develop a moral conscience, you have to interpret and influence their motive.
  • The ultimate motive is love.
  • Elementary kids are motivated most by fun.

Play To Your Audience…

So kids in the three phases of elementary will discover how to relate to God.

  • Your job is not to redefine God to an elementary-aged kid. Your job is to help kids rediscover God in a new way in the elementary phases.
  • How elementary kids related to God: God’s story inspires my story.
  • When you engage their interests you help an elementary-aged kid trust God’s character and experience God’s family.

Three Ideas to Help Elementary-Age Kids Mature in their Relationship with God:

  • Tell one story. Pre-decide the one thing you want them to know.
  • Use “real” illustrations. Make it concrete and avoid abstract metaphors.
  • Make it fun. Have more than one way to say the same thing.

How Understanding the Elementary Phase Changes Your Ministry 

When we are intentional about engaging elementary kids and creating developmentally appropriate ministries, it changes everything-definitely more than what can fit in a blog. But, here are a few ways understanding the elementary phase changes what you do in your ministry and how you partner with other life-stage ministries. 

Ministry Strategy 

When you understand how kids learn and grow, it will change how you partner across life-stage ministries. As a kids leader, you will partner differently with the preschool ministry leader because you know that what you teach in your ministry needs to build on what kids learned in the past. You will also deepen your partnership with middle school ministry leaders because you care about how you move kids to what is next. 

When every life-stage ministry works together, you increase momentum for next gen ministry as a whole. 

Ministry Programming 

When you know kids learn best through fun, it changes the way you tell stories, plan games, and create environments. When you know kids think like scientists, it changes what activities you choose for the lesson and how leaders help kids process what they learn. 

Phase changes everything when it comes to how you teach and what you teach kids. That’s why 252 Kids and Preteen Curriculum is created to be both theologically sound and developmentally appropriate. 

Here are some ways that shows up in curriculum: 

  • One big idea and theme each month that connects to kid-friendly application points.
  • A single Bible story a week that’s presented in a way each phase of development will understand, yet stays true to the eventual way they will understand that story.
  • One bottom line for elementary students.
  • Complex ideas broken into simple phrases so kids can understand them.
  • Activities that connect with various learning styles at each developmental phase.
  • Discussion questions attached to activities for younger students.
  • Discussion questions on their own for preteens.

Training Leaders 

Volunteers sign up to serve because they care about the faith and future of kids, too. 

But, if they don’t understand phase, they may . . . 
Get frustrated when kids have short attention spans. 
Ask kids questions in small group they don’t understand. 
Or, not understand why fun matters so much for your kids ministry. 

At the same time, when you understand phase, you know that you need to recruit consistent volunteers because kids will tell anything to a stranger. You also know that who you recruit to volunteer matters, too. 

Partnering With Parents 

When you understand that every year comes with unique opportunities to leverage to influence a kid’s faith and future, you will also equip parents to understand those opportunities. You will cue parents to have more intentional conversations at home and lean into important conversations differently at each life-stage. 

If you want to learn more about how to integrate Phase strategy into your ministry, check out the Phase Starter Kit today! 

Middle School: Understanding This Wonderfully Awkward Phase

Navigating the Three Phases of Preschool Ministry

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