These articles can be used both at home and in classrooms. They accommodate children between the ages of 2-8.
Learning Lenten Symbols
Lent and Family Life
Loving Actions for Lent
Creating Lent and Holy Week with Symbols
Learning Lenten Symbols
While young children have little concept of death and resurrection on a cognitive level, they can understand things symbolically. This Lent, offer them symbols and the words through activities.
Lent comes from the word lencten, meaning spring. What better way to symbolically understand Jesus, the Light of the World, than to observe spring, with its increasing light? What better way to observe death and resurrection than through the death of a seed resulting in a plant?
- Light: This requires a bit of ‘homework’ for the parent or teacher. At least once a week over the course of Lent, record the hours of daylight. This information can be found in some daily weather reports online.
- Create a visual prop to help children understand the increasing daylight. It can be very simple and need not be scientific: Make several small, construction paper (yellow or white) suns (or have children make them). Hang up a dark-colored piece of paper on the wall or bulletin board. Tell the children that each sun represents 1 minute of daylight. Explain that as we get closer to Easter, we get to see the sun a little more each day. To give them a better understanding of the amount of time you are speaking of, you may want to have children try to sit quietly for one whole minute.
Once a week, calculate how many minutes have been gained during that week. Tell the children, have them pick out the appropriate number of suns and hang them on the dark paper.
- As you near Easter, the number of suns should create a bright color over the dark colored background. Talk about this. Then tell children that one of our names for Jesus is “the Light of the World”. Together, create a large sun. Make it ‘fancy’—use glitter and glittery ribbons, metallic streamers, etc. Soon after Easter, replace the small chart with the large, beautiful sun. Tell children it is there to help you all remember that Jesus is the Light of the World.
- If you have some children who understand numbers and their values, you can work with them on this in a more detailed way: make a simple bar chart where they record the increased minutes by coloring sections in yellow to represent the minutes of sunlight.
An alternative to the bar chart is to use yellow Lego bricks of the same size and built up a tower of sunlight.
- Place 3 or 4 bean seeds on a wet paper towel in a pie plate. Keep moistened. Another method is to use a clear glass jar, filled with wet paper towels, with the seeds placed between the glass and the wet paper.
- As the seeds begin to sprout, have children observe that the seed diminishes and dies, so that the ‘new life’ of the bean plant can begin.
- Then take this one step further into a Lenten theme. Provide a container that is like a window box. Fill it with potting soil and place in a warm and sunny place. Near it, leave a bowl of bean seeds. Tell the children that every time they do a good deed, they can plant a seed.
- As beans tend to grow quickly, you will soon have a garden of ‘good deed seeds’ growing into new life. The children are bringing ‘new life’ to the classroom by their kindnesses. And of course, this is how Jesus teaches us o treat one another!
- When the children are not present make certain to keep the seeds moist but not too wet. If a seed is not totally immersed into the soil, poke it further in. If some plants appear to be dying, pull them up and replant another seed. You do not want common gardening problems ruining your symbolism!
Another way to help children equate new life with Lent is by creating a paper garden. Explain to children that the word Lent means spring, and the class will take the days of Lent to create a spring time scene which will result in a wonderful Easter decoration.
- Provide construction or other colored paper, scissors, glue, glitter, ribbons, etc. Encourage children to create large (2-4 feet tall) flowers. On an open wall, hang these flowers, adding to the ‘garden’ each week.
- A simpler version is to hang paper and provide markers or crayons in various colors. With children added flowers, etc. during Lent.
During Advent and Christmas, young children hear the wonderful stories of Jesus as an infant. Lent is good time to now offer them stories of the adult Jesus, his healings and teachings. Some suggestions:
- Jesus heals the blind man (Luke 18:35-43)
- The catch of the fishes (Luke 5:1-11)
- Calming the storm (Luke 8: 22-25)
- The lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7)
- The sower (Matt. 13:3-8)
- Jesus and the children (Luke 18:15-17)
Lent and Family Life
Lent is a time to turn inward, to find ways to return to God. It can be a good time for reflection on what leads us to or from having a rich spiritual life.
Some people choose to look at their use and misuse of something by limiting it during Lent. Our lives are bombarded by media and technology. For parents of young children, this may be a good time to look as the family’s use of technology and how it affects family life. Here are some questions to help you evaluate whether curtailed use of technology is a good Lenten plan:
- What does your family do to laugh together?
- Does your family eat together regularly?
- What opportunities do you have to pray with your child?
- Do you talk with your child about God’s love for him/her?
- Do you read together regularly? Many picture books offer opportunities for discussions for values such as unselfishness, concern for others, caring for and appreciating the natural world (God’s creation).
- Do you spend time outdoors? Numerous studies show a significant need for unstructured outside play. The benefits from this type of play are almost too numerous to mention. See http://www.childrenandnature.org/ or read Richard Louv’s acclaimed book, Last Child in the Woods. See http://richardlouv.com/
To enhance your reflection on your family’s life, check out this list of pros and cons of computer use by children. These can also apply to the use of television, movies and other visual media.
Look over the information, pray for guidance and evaluate how you feel the computer may or may not benefit your child.
Proponents of young children’s computer use say:
- Having computer skills is akin to being able to read and write
- Children who do not excel socially, academically or physically may excel at computer skills, for which they may gain respect from peers when they are older
- Studies have shown that given a good preschool-level game, children can learn to:
- follow instructions
- manage resources
- think quickly
- make fast decisions
Opponents of preschoolers using computers say:
- Preschool children have difficulty separating reality and fantasy and computers do not make that distinction
- Computers do not develop imaginative or creative thinking, while most spontaneous play of preschoolers does
- Too much computer use encourages a child to be sedentary
- Some computer games encourages violent play
- Time alone on a computer isolates a child
- Time spent on the computer is time not doing other important activities (using books, art, pretending, climbing, etc.)
- Research suggests that some games can increase depression and anxiety in children
Loving Actions for Lent
Perhaps the best way for children to participate in Lent is by doing loving actions. A visual reminder of what they have done makes this a more significant experience. That the reminder becomes an Easter gift to take home makes it even better!
Each time you meet, discuss with children something they can do for someone else at school, home or daycare. Be specific and give them only one suggestion at a time.
- Do a little job for someone, like putting spoons on the table before a meal.
- Share a toy.
- Say “I love you!” to someone you love.
- Tell someone they did a good job at picking up, reading a story, cooking, etc.
- Say a prayer for someone else, such as, “Jesus, please watch over ______”
- Give someone a hug.
Then explain that each child can make a flower centerpiece to take home (see details below). Each time they do a loving action, they can add a flower. Show them a piece of Styrofoam and some flowers.
The next time you meet, ask them to remember what they did. They may not remember, or may not have done any of the suggestions, but that may not stop them from giving some example anyway! At this age, children live in the moment, and they usually want so very much to participate that they are not really fabricating a story. Acknowledge their good deeds, and begin the art project. Each time you meet during Lent, discuss what they have done for others, and add to the project. At the end of the last class before Easter, have them take their projects home to be a centerpiece.
Lenten Deeds Centerpiece:
Give each child a small shoebox with lid, filled with crumpled newspaper. Tape the box shut and write the child’s name on the bottom. Have an assortment of artificial flowers on hand, which the children can choose from. They simply push the stem into the box base. (The box is a substitute for Styrofoam or florist foam which in ecologically unsound.)
By the end of Lent, the box should sport a collection of colorful flowers, a happy reminder of many good deeds and a wonderful centerpiece for the days of Easter!
- The stems should not be longer than 3 inches.
- You want children to be able to fill the centerpiece gradually, so give them smaller flowers at the beginning of Lent.
- Reserve some large flowers for the last weeks to fill out a skimpy centerpiece!
- Some flowers have several blossoms on one stem. Cut the stems off to make numerous flowers.
Creating Lent and Holy Week with Symbols
Lent and Easter are particularly difficult for young children to understand, and some descriptions may even leave them fearful and confused. However, they are masters at grasping the importance of symbols, and there are many for this time of year. Let the symbols be the first to “speak” of the Paschal Mystery to the children.
These intuitive little ones love to use their hands to create something. Use that desire too. Give the children a space to work with the symbols that reflect these two holy seasons. This can be a prayer table in the classroom or home, or provide a space in your church’s gathering space where others can appreciate it too.
Then let them create! Depending on the size of the group of children you work with and how often you meet, you will need to establish how many children work at a time, how often the display is rearranged, etc. Given the length of Lent, consider adding new symbols each week, taking away some if necessary for the space you have.
Below are suggestions for materials to offer children. If necessary, briefly explain them, but for the most part, let the symbols speak for themselves.
LENT: The liturgical color is violet.
- Tablecloth or other fabric, in a solid violet
- Pretzels (you may need to have pretzels for snack to discourage the display from being nibbled away—or replenish the bowl!)
- Cacti (use only if children are old enough to understand not to touch them)
- Ashes (if you can obtain some from Ash Wednesday services; place in to a clear jar with a tightly fitting lid; however, consider having children touch them at least once.)
- Containers of seeds the children have planted.
- A bare branch in a vase of water, which will send out leaves over the weeks (such as pussy willow, forsythia, apple and crab apple.)
- A bulb dish garden
- A cross
HOLY WEEK: To put the focus on the powerful symbols of this week, remove the Lenten symbols.
Keep any growing symbols (bulbs, seeds, leafed branch) in another place and bring them back for the Easter season, with the exception of the cacti.
If you do not meet with the children during Holy Week, consider having them use the Holy Week symbols the previous week and tell them they will see these things in church just before Easter.
PALM SUNDAY: The liturgical color is red (or violet)
- A red or violet tablecloth
- Palm branches
- A statue or toy donkey
- Ask someone who can do palm braiding to contribute some braided palms
HOLY THURSDAY: The liturgical color is white
- A white tablecloth
- Flat bread or unconsecrated hosts in a basket
- A clear glass of wine or a wine-colored juice
- A pitcher of water and a towel
- A candle, lit during a supervised time; tell children it helps us think of Jesus being with us.
GOOD FRIDAY: The liturgical color is red
- As the altar in church is stripped of cloth, candles, etc., you might choose to have children take off the symbols and cloth from Holy Thursday in a ceremonious way.
- A red cloth, or do not use any cloth
- The candle, left unlit.
- A crucifix
HOLY SATURDAY: The liturgical color is white
- The candle, once again lit
- Many flowers
- A statue of the Risen Christ
- If possible, keep the “Easter Table” up until Pentecost, refreshing it with new flowers when necessary.
Somewhere in my teen years, I was amazed to learn that Easter lasted for fifty days. Despite the fact that I was surrounded by Catholic ritual and customs, I had never caught on that we were still celebrating. I wondered if anyone could keep being joyful for that long. In the years since, I can’t say I have met anyone who has!
However, we are an Easter people. There is nothing more joyous for Christians than Christ’s Resurrection. Children, with their wonderful capacity to live in the moment, can learn that Easter lasts fifty days, and that they are part of the Easter people! Just celebrate with them in small ways, many times in fifty days. Below are suggestions of celebrations. There are not fifty, but some can be repeated, and, well, you might not be able to keep up that much joy for fifty days!
The activities have a common theme of new life. You are giving children a symbolic language to understand the mystical experience of Resurrection. Talk a little about Jesus’ new life after Easter Sunday, and the new life we see in springtime flowers and baby animals. Tell children they will be doing a fun activity because it is Easter. But mostly let the symbols speak to the children’s subconscious, which is where the joy is bubbling too!
- Dye eggs. If you did not want to bring in an Easter symbol before Easter and did not dye hard-boiled eggs with children, now is the time!
- Tell children the story of two of Jesus’ disciples encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24: 13)
- Bring in a bulb garden. Observe its changes each day.
- Take walks once or twice a week and note the changes in trees, grass, etc.
- Make placemats to be used for the fifty days of Easter. Have children create one with Easter stickers, pastel colors, etc. on placemat-sized paper. Cover each one with clear contact paper on both sides.
- Bring in a branch from a flowering bush and place it in water, so it will bloom.
- Sing alleluia! Familiarize yourself with three or four melodies sung in church for the ‘alleluia’. Teach them to children and together sing them regularly.
- Create an ‘alleluia!’ banner. (You can ‘bury’ it next Ash Wednesday.)
- Hang the banner with great ceremony. Sing and process to where you will hang it. Sing one of your alleluia songs after it is hung.
- Feast on strawberries or other foods that symbolizes spring to you.
- Make yeast bread and note how it rises.
- Visit a petting zoo.
- Plant bean seeds in pots. They germinate and grow quickly.
- Bring in some annuals, such as pansies, and have children plant them into small, individual peat pots, which they can later plant in the ground.
- Fly a kite.
- Plant lettuce in a window box
- Sing all the happy songs about Jesus that you know
- Tell children the story of Jesus’ breakfast with his apostles after the Resurrection (from John 21) and eat fished-shaped crackers
- Make cuddly caterpillars. Have an assortment of colorful socks and a supply of cotton or poly fiberfill for stuffing. Children stuff the socks and an adult securely ties the end shut with yarn. Offer a variety of felt pieces to create eyes and mouths, which can be glued onto the rounded (toe) end of the caterpillar.
- Cut paper into the shape of a butterfly. Put spring colors on the easel. Hang the finished paintings around the room.
- Visit a plant nursery. Look for flowers that are mostly blue, or another color a child chooses, smell different herbs, see what tomato plants look like, as compared to pumpkin plants, peppers, onions, etc.
- Make an Easter mural. Provide a very large piece of paper and lots of paint and brushes. You paint a sunrise and create a simple horizon while children paint flowers, bugs, grass, etc.
- Celebrate Ascension
- Take balloons for a walk. Tie them to children’s wrists so the balloons come back from the walk too.