At my church on Sunday mornings, I co-lead a class of 15-20 second graders. We are a fairly traditional “Sunday School” model environment. As I have taught over this past year and through some additional ministry conversations, a need rose to the surface that has heightened my sensitivity to the kids in my group and, in my opinion, strengthened our classroom experience. Regardless of what curriculum you use and what model your church is, there are ways we can help remove barriers to learning and feeling like an outsider by leading kids to feel like they belong, like they are not an outsider of your group
Tip #1 – Celebrate each child’s arrival
This may sound either obvious or outlandish to you, but this has proven to be a big deal for the kids in my class. I make great effort to ensure that I am in my room early enough to get any setup completed before kids arrive. I know that, in and of itself, may sound unattainable to some, but for me, it’s imperative that my attention can be focused on the door before my first 2nd grader arrives.
Upon each child’s entry, I call her name with an excited tone “Gooooood morning, Emalyn! I am so glad you are here today!” as I give her a high-5 or fist bump or sometimes even a foot-5. One little guy likes to bust out in a short dance groove.
This is a great first step to let each child know that I am genuinely excited to see her.
If a visitor comes in that I don’t know, it is equally important that I celebrate him. This requires different intentionality. I first have to learn his name, so I’ll get down on a knee and introduce myself. After that, I’ll lead him into the room, introduce him to the others, and invite him to join the group, which is generally having free time or centers for the first 5ish minutes of our time.
Tip #2 – Introduce names through a fun activity
Since we are generally having free time or free play as kids arrive, the first thing we do is gather in a quick huddle to introduce the day’s teaching point for 1-2 minutes. Any time we have a visitor, the first thing we do after this is a quick, fun “name game.” It might be “say your name and your favorite food” or “say your name and favorite color.” But everyone plays, every time. Even kids who are regular attenders start to realize they have things in common with the other kids in the group. And for visitors, this allows us to start helping them feel like they know the group and the group to know the visitors. They begin to feel like they belong.
Tip #3 – Begin your session with a game
Our first activity, regardless of whether we have visitors or not, is almost always a very active game, something that kids will have fun with. We try to play this for 7-10 minutes each week. Of course, kids love to play games, but playing large group games is another barrier-breaker that helps all kids feel part of the group.
This is especially the case when we have visitors. Kids move from being an outsider and knowing no one, to starting to know a few names and the things others enjoy. With this active game, visitors are moving towards being part of the group through a shared goal. Maybe it’s a relay or Simon Says or Follow the Leader. Games have a unique way of removing barriers and helping kids feel like they belong to the group.
Tip #4 – Don’t overemphasize “what we learned last week”
This last tip is a little more general. Even though I am teaching through The Gospel Project for Kids and the chronology is important, I have begun to try not to overemphasize previous sessions. We often still talk about the timeline and things that happened before, but instead of saying “remember last week” or “who remembers who Jesus’ mother was?” I now try to phrase it more as “first time” information, such as “Earlier in the Bible we know that when Jesus was born, His mother was Mary and His earthly father was Joseph. At some point after Jesus was born, Mary had more kids so Jesus had siblings. Jude, who wrote the book of Jude was one of Jesus’ half-brothers.”
The reality I’ve seen with my second graders is that they don’t remember the details from week to week and month to month, so phrasing things this way helps me in at least 2 ways.
- Kids who are hearing it for the very first time do not feel like they missed out by this being their first time, and often consequentially, start feeling like the barriers are going back up pushing them outside.
- Kids who were present on a previous Sunday when certain stories were taught do not feel shamed for not remembering specific details.
In my experience this past year, this tip is a small one but makes a huge impact on helping all kids feel like they belong and are part of our group.
Every kid longs to belong. They all want to feel part of the group, like an insider rather than an outsider. As kids leaders we can help break down barriers allowing kids to move from outsiders to insiders. And when we do, their hearts begin to be more receptive to the gospel.
What are other ways you create an environment for kids to feel like they belong?
Jeremy Carroll is the Lifeway Kids Ministry Publishing Manager for VBS and Discipleship resources. Before coming to Lifeway, he has been active in local church ministry for nearly 20 years in TN, TX, and AL. Jeremy earned a Master of Arts in Christian Education from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. A Middle Tennessee native, he and his family live in Murfreesboro, TN.