What do we tell the Children?
The Easter story can be a difficult story to share with children, particularly young children. From birth through to their teenage years children go through a series of stages of intellectual development that affect both the way they learn and what they can understand. The stories of Jesus’ death are both violent and distressing, and quite inappropriate for young children. In addition, children’s experience of death can vary from none at all, not even the death of a pet, to fairy tale or cartoon versions of death (e.g. the prince kissing Sleeping Beauty alive again, or the cartoon character flattened by a steam roller only to peel himself off the road again) or computer games where people are killed without compunction in order to win, to the experience of losing someone very dear in distressing circumstances.
And then there’s the question of language. The traditional religious language often used to explain the death of Jesus is totally meaningless to children – sacrificial lamb, atonement for sin, new life, redemption, salvation, Jesus dying to save us. Let’s face it, most twenty-first century adults find these terms out of date and meaningless too!
So what then do we tell the children? In her excellent book on the subject * Carolyn Brown explains what children at their different stages of development can understand and what may be appropriate to tell them at each stage. Essentially, Brown suggests:
From birth to 18 months: Babies and young toddlers learn through their senses, so at this age, simply introduce them to Easter through the sights, sounds, touch, tastes and smells of Easter: palm branches and Easter lilies, Easter music, hot cross buns and other spicy cooking smells, candles and chocolate eggs all help to imprint Easter as a special time of celebration and ritual.
18 months – 3 years: The senses remain important so continue with sensory activities, but now language is developing rapidly so they delight in words such as Hosanna! and Hallelujah! The Palm Sunday story lets them know that people were happy about Jesus, and they can enjoy the story of the crowd greeting Jesus like a king with a parade. At BUC in our Little Children’s service on Palm Sunday in 2011 we told the Palm Sunday story very simply with Godly Play figures, and the children helped put the people along the road side and the palm branches and cloaks on the roadway. I was amazed this year how many of those then 3-year-olds remembered the story and the experience. We followed the story with a craft session making Easter hats and an Easter bonnet parade!
4-5 year olds: Pre-schoolers are ready to hear more of the Easter story, told very simply. Feelings are a good way into the story, as well as the five senses. They are concrete thinkers so experiencing something physically helps them understand. Children at this age are also learning about rules, and who has the power, so the idea of a Jesus who breaks the rules and challenges those in power is quite confronting for them. This year we got the children to help us tell the Palm Sunday story with a walk through the sanctuary with the donkey into Jerusalem. We added the grumpy church leaders who didn’t like what Jesus was telling the people, the idea of Jesus being a different sort of king, without a crown, a palace or an army, and the Last Supper. We followed the story with a simple meal of roast lamb, pita bread, hommus, yoghurt, grapes, cheese and a green salad. We decorated the tables with blue/purple table cloths, floral Easter table decorations and LED light candles to create the atmosphere of a special meal. We decided to leave the death and resurrection of Jesus till they are at least another year older, though Carolyn Brown says you can introduce the death of Jesus to pre-schoolers as long as you also tell the resurrection at the same time. Don’t go into gory detail, but you can say it hurt a lot, and that his family and friends were very sad. It also helps if you tell them that Jesus came alive again to show he was in the end more powerful than those who killed him. And they love surprises, so tell the resurrection story as God’s Easter Surprise!
Junior Primary: 6 – 8-year-olds are beginning to understand the world beyond themselves. Friends are important, so the stories of Judas betraying his friend, the disciples running away and Peter denying he knew his friend resonate with them. You can explore the motives of the various people in the stories and tell the women’s stories on Easter day. Making decorations, dressing up and learning some of the traditional Easter songs all help make Easter come alive for them.
Older Primary: Children 9-12 are capable of understanding most of the Holy Week stories, The challenge for them is to get the stories in chronological order, made more difficult because they are beginning to see that the different gospels tell the stories in different ways, often with contradictory details. They are also very strict on rules and can be quite judgemental, and loyalty of friends is highly important. There will be lots of questions about why and how and who from this age group. It can be helpful to retell the story of Peter, showing how Jesus forgave him and he was given a second chance. Children of this age are also more dexterous so they can do much finer craft work like intricate decorations on blown eggs, making models of the empty tomb, origami paper folding (butterflies, palm branches), making and decorating Easter biscuits and the like. They can even start taking on simple Lenten disciplines – but that’s for another post another time!
The main thing is be be authentic, don’t be afraid to answer the curly questions as best you can, or to say “I don’t know – who do you think we could ask?” Explore the stories together and be aware of what your child can cope with and what s/he is not ready for. Above all, children up to their teenage years love to be involved, so whatever you do with them they will appreciate.
Click here for crafts and activities we have done with children at BUC
Click here for lots of Easter crafts and other activities for Easter on the SA UCA’s Mission Resourcing Children’s Ministry site.
* Sharing the Easter Faith with Children by Carolyn C Brown, Abingdon Press 2005. Available from MediaCom Education Inc