These activities can be used both at home and in classrooms. They accommodate children between the ages of 2-8.
Holy Spirit and the Beginning of the School Year
Hands of Peace
Days of the Dead: Los Dias De Los Muertos
The Gifts of Observation and Thankfulness
Holy Spirit for the Beginning of the School Year
In preparing yourself and your children for the new school year, go right to the greatest source of inspiration: the Holy Spirit. After all, the Holy Spirit is around all year, not just at Pentecost!
Pray that the Holy Spirit helps you reach the minds and hearts of the children and that your children have a happy, healthy and productive school year.
Then prepare a little ritual and art project to help the children come to feel the Holy Spirit too!
- Small table
- Candle and candle holder, matches
For the project:
This can be done with either construction paper or felt. The felt version will last longer in a child’s pocket!
- Red felt or construction paper
- Orange felt or construction paper
- Scissors for paper or fabric
- Glue if using felt, glue stick if using construction paper
- Wet cloth for wiping sticky fingers in using glue
Before beginning with the children, make two symbols for each child:
- cut out a simple heart shape (see example) about 4” tall at the highest point
- cut out a flame shape (see example), making it smaller than the heart., about 2 ½ “ high
Gather the children into a circle around a small table that holds the candle. Explain that the Spirit of God is with us, helping us learn, listen, make friends and pray. Tell them that while we can’t see the Spirit, we can use a sign that helps us think of this Holy Spirit. A good sign is a little flame of fire.
Light the candle. Take a few seconds of silence. Then lead children in a simple prayer to the Holy Spirit, such as:
Dear Spirit of God, warm our hearts so we feel your love. Help us know you are with us, helping us learn and love each other. Amen.
Then suggest children make their own sign of the Holy Spirit that they can always keep in a pocket, backpack, near their beds, etc.
Give them the materials listed above and help them attach the flame to the center of the heart.
(pattern #1 for “Holy Spirit for the Beginning of the School Year)
(pattern #2 for “Holy Spirit for the Beginning of the School Year)
Centuries ago, people celebrated nature feasts at the change of seasons. Eventually these became Christian observances, with fasting and prayer for spiritual renewal with a focus on nature: asking for blessings on crops and harvest, to thank God for the gifts of nature, to remind people to make use of them in moderation, and to help others who needed help. There were called Ember Days, meaning “revolution” because they ‘come around’ four times a year, or simply, “four times.” Traditionally these four times were:
- Fall: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Feast of the Holy Cross.
- Winter: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Feast of St. Lucy.
- Spring: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Ash Wednesday.
- Summer: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Pentecost.
Utilize the idea of Ember Days to help children connect nature, our food, and God the Creator. Alter these activities to fit with the season you are observing.
- Observe crops growing: visit a garden, farm fields, or a plant nursery.
- Talk about the aspects of God’s creation found there: soil, sunshine, water, human work, and seeds. God made all these things, which means God gives us our food.
- Help children develop a sense of awe of God’s power and gifts. Most children are somewhat familiar with pumpkins. Look at pumpkin seeds. Talk about the power within them to grow into a huge plant. Then look at a young pumpkin plant (or a photo of one). Imagine how big the plant will get: have a child stand in one place “where the seed is planted.” Then walk about eight feet away from the child, explaining that the plant will reach at least that far. Pumpkins get very heavy. The plants become very strong to help big pumpkins grow. God gave them that power!
- Have children act being pumpkin seeds in the ground. As they curl up on the floor, talk about God giving them strength, warmth, water. The children slowly stand up and stretch their arms out like big pumpkin plants.
- Teach children the “Johnny Apple seed” prayer:
Oh, the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord,
for giving me the things I need,
the sun and the rain and the apple seed;
the Lord is good to me! Alleluia! Amen.
This can also be sung; for the basic melody: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_IrdS-zu48do
This is the angel time of year: the feast of the archangels is September 29 and the guardian angels are celebrated on October 2.
Make October Angel Month with these activities:
- Before meeting with your little students, read some actual angel encounter stories. Books by Joan Wester Anderson are particularly good, and one is specifically about children and angels, called An Angel to Watch Over Me.Paraphrase one of stories and share it with the children as your introduction to a month of angels.
- Do the same with other stories on different days.
- Learn and then pray together a guardian angel prayer. The best known one is:Guardian Angel Prayer
Angel of God, my guardian dear,
to whom His love entrusts me here,
ever this day [night] be at my side
to light and guard, to rule and guide.
If you teach this prayer, talk about the meaning of words that may not be clear to preschoolers, such as entrusts, light (in this sense), guard, and guide.
There is another traditional angel prayer that may be easier for young children to understand:
Angel Blessing at Bedtime
Angels bless and angels keep
Angels guard me while I sleep
Bless my heart and bless my home
Bless my spirit as I roam
Guide and guard me through the night
and wake me with the morning’s light.
- Feast on angel food cake.
- Make wings from stiff paper for children to wear, or provide fabric that suggests lightness and movement to wear around little shoulders.
- Provide angel cookie cutters and play dough.
- Bring in angel statues for your prayer table.
- Obtain holy cards of angels, one for each child to keep.
- Have children make angel medallions. Each child can wear one, but also make several others for gifts to family or friends to show that everyone has an angel because everyone is special to God.
You will need:
- Copies of the pattern
- Crayons, markers, glitter pens
- Cardstock or cardboard, enough to back each angel picture
- A paper punch
- Yarn or string
Have children embellish the line drawing of an angel (you may want to suggest they add faces, arms and hands, feathers, and color). An adult should then glue each angel onto the cardstock and when dry, cut out. Punch a hole at the top and insert yarn to create a necklace.
(pattern for “Guardian Angels”)
Hands of Peace
In the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington D.C., there is an exhibit called “Hands of Peace.” One can see bronze castings of hands of people from the many places the pope visited. Each cast also has the person’s name, country of origin, occupation and a personal quote about his or her faith. The theme for the exhibit is that John Paul II touched and was touched by hundreds of people wherever he went, and each pair of hands has a story to tell of the person’s faith journey.
To celebrate his feast day (October 22), help children understand that their hands are part of their spirituality.
Discuss this by asking them if they can guess some ways our hands help us show either God’s love to others or show God our love. Then pantomime these actions:
After they have guessed these, ask them if they can think of other ways we use our hands for showing love. You may need to have suggestions ready, such as:
Preparing food, feeding someone
Making gifts for people
Lighting a candle before prayer
Giving the Eucharist bread
Caring for babies
Setting up a prayer table
Growing a garden (using God’s gifts to provide food and flowers)
Brushing teeth (caring for our bodies which are gifts from God)
Have each child look at his or her hands on both sides, then open and close fingers, clasp hands, etc.
Holding up your hand, tell children that the center part of the hand has five bones, each finger has three bones, and the thumb has two, so each hand has 29 bones!
Then make handprints in a variety of bright colors. You can do this with paint on paper or fabric. If time and budget allow, do plaster cast of each child’s hands.
There is nothing more delightful than the bright eyes of a preschooler in costume, ready for an evening of trick-or-treating. However, in recent years, skepticism about Halloween has caused many to question how, and if, to celebrate it.
Here are points to consider from a Catholic perspective:
Halloween began in the Celtic countries, long before Christianity. The change from summer to winter was a significant time for the ancient Celts. The final harvest was gathered and celebrated, the dark and cold were coming on, and so their daily lives changed as work went from outdoor to indoor. Times of such changes were believed to have magical powers, and the fall of the year was seen as a time when the souls of the dead visited earth. There may have been bon fires and disguises used to scare off any ill-intentioned souls. Much later, Christian missionaries began converting the Celts, but of course, the people still experienced these seasonal changes and the need for the customs they had practiced. In the eighth century, the Church moved the feast of All Saints from May to November 1, and in the tenth century, created the feast of All Souls (November 2). Some historians feel these times were purposely chosen to incorporate the non-Christian customs of recognition of the souls of the dead with the Christian belief in heaven and an afterlife with God.
From then on, customs of the two intertwined in ways that were both holy and fun. For example, in medieval days, there was a custom called ‘souling’, in which people went from door to door, singing and asking for a ‘soul cake’, a sweet yeast bun with spices. In exchange, they promised to pray for the deceased family members of the household. Sound a bit like ‘trick-or-treat’? Other aspects of the Celtic festivities evolved until, in the United States and Canada, we have children wearing costumes to ‘frighten’ others and begging for treats. Skeletons and other symbols of death hang in windows of homes and stores near October 31st..
Many other cultures have festivities with similar emphasis on honoring ancestors around harvest time. In Mexico (as well as in other places), these same calendar days are called “Los Dias de los Muertos” (the Days of the Dead), in which families fondly remember their dead and enjoy treats such as sugar skulls. (See the article, “Days of the Dead” just below) If you or some children in your class celebrate this way, then don’t hesitate to bring these beautiful customs to the classroom.
Reasons to Celebrate:
Young children need Halloween!
Preschoolers learn about adult life by pretending to be someone else. This play may reflect the practical side of life, such as being a doctor, parent, or a firefighter. It may also reflect the psychological sides of life: is the child dressed as a princess trying on a sense of power, exploring her feelings about femininity, or both? Does playing with plastic dinosaurs give a child a sense of control over things bigger than him or herself, or does it serve to help confront something very scary in the subconscious?
Halloween costumes offer kids the ultimate in this kind of play. How many of these costumes end up in toy boxes after Halloween and are then dragged out regularly during the rest of the year?
Older Children need Halloween!
Children grow up too fast in our culture. Clothing, particularly for girls, makes them look older than they are. Media exposes them to topics that may be too adult for them. Halloween gives them the opportunity to still be kids. Depending on where you live, it may be one of the few nights children can be outside after dark, unaccompanied. Of course each family’s situation is unique and adults should make a judgment about safety issues.
We all need Halloween!
At some level we all must confront the fact of our mortality. Most of us do this on a subconscious level, preschoolers included. Halloween is about death. We see it in the withering of the flowers and the falling of the leaves. So at Halloween, we laugh at death. We hang up silly skeletons, use plastic skulls for candy dishes, put on costumes and eat junk. We do this and enjoy life on this side while we have it. For someday, we will all be part of that celebrated Communion of Saints.
Most great feasts of the Catholic Church are begun on the night, or “eve” before. The name “Halloween” comes from the words hallow or holy, and evening. So the Church has given us a two-day feast, and it starts on the eve of All Saints Day, the eve being October 31.
Of course, children understand Halloween early on, but teachers and parents cannot presume they know about or understand All Saints and Souls Days. And, children’s attention will be focused on Halloween. So, go with it! Celebrate Halloween as close to October 31st as possible and have fun! Hang up those skeletons, don those costumes!
Then, take the next few weeks of November to learn about the Community of Saints so the children will come to understand the significance of the two holy days following ‘trick-or-treating.’
Help them embrace all of this, for it is part of their spiritual heritage!
Days of the Dead: Los Dias De Los Muertos
While the Church is celebrating All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, and Halloween is making faces at us from stores and homes, there is a Mexican cultural celebration that is wonderfully interwoven with all of this. Los Dias De Los Muertos, or the Days of the Dead, is a time for remembering, playing and family closeness.
Many families set up home altars with photos of their loved ones who have died. Flowers, festive foods and candies decorate these altars. It is in recognition of life’s cycle of birth to death, held at the time of year when the harvest is in, and the days are waning—the death of the year.
Like Halloween, there is an element of great silliness, with children receiving sugar skulls, and parades where participants dress as ghouls and skeletons. They may carry an open coffin, in which a smiling ‘corpse’ happily catches the candies and flowers thrown to him. It is a time to laugh at death.
Like All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, it is a fond remembrance of those who have passed on. Family members gather to feast, lighting candles on the altars, which burn all night to welcome back the souls of any departed loved ones. The next day, families go to the cemetery, with rakes, rags, flowers, blankets, picnic baskets, and maybe a guitar or two. They weed around graves, scrub tombstones, and decorate them with flowers. Then they picnic, play games and sing. As darkness comes on, they light candles, and stay the night, with their memories of the ones who precede them.
You may want to combine the similarities of the official Church holy days and the Mexican tradition to celebrate with children. If necessary, ask someone with experience of Los Dias De Los Muertos to advise you or to lead the class.
You will need:
- photos of children’s relatives who have died (Ask parents to bring these in and promise you will give them back after class—and make certain they are returned.)
- a loaf of bread, preferably uncut, so you can tear off pieces
- an autumnal colored tablecloth
- statues or holy cards of saints
- fall foods (pumpkins, apples, corn, etc.)
- flowers (mums, marigolds).
- If possible, candy skulls and other decorations of Los Dias De Los Muertos
- Other simple finger foods that are festive and appropriate
With the children, create the altar. Take time and enjoy the process. Talk about the saints as children place the statues or cards on the table. Let each child place the photos brought from home. Then gather around the altar, light the candles, and pray together for all the good people that have gone to God before you. Share bread and other food. Tell a good story of someone who has died, but that you still feel close to, and encourage children to do the same.
The Gifts of Observation and Thankfulness
Many families may be encountering difficult economical times. Still, there are many things for which to be thankful. Give your children the gifts of observation and thankfulness with these simple experiences:
As Thanksgiving approaches, take just a little time each day to help children become aware of the abundance of the little miracles we receive each day. For example, when the children are outside, have them hop, jump, run, climb, etc. Then, as soon as they have settled down, help them reflect on the many subtle aspects of this experience. Lead a discussion with these questions:
What did you just do? (climb, run, etc.)
What did you use to do these things (legs, muscles, lungs, bones, arms, fingers, knees, elbows, heart)
Then lead the children in a short but joyful prayer:
Blessed are you, oh God, for giving us lungs,
muscles, bones, fingers and elbows! Amen.
If you do this regularly, children may want to add to the prayer. Welcome this and say your own prayer of thanksgiving for the grateful children!
Always keep in mind, of course, any limitations a child in your class may have before choosing your topics.
Here are further suggestions for experiences of observing and thanksgiving:
- Think as you breathe in and out a few times. What are we breathing in? What is air? Can you see it? Can you touch it? What are our lungs doing? What are our noses doing? Did you ever think about God making your nose?
- Listen to recorded music. God gave these musicians gifts so they can play, sing, write music. What about the instruments they are playing? What are these made of and how to they work? Who made the CD player/phone? What are the parts made of and where did they come from? Who first figured out how to record music? What are we using to listen to music? What amazing things our ears are!
- Point out beauty (a houseplant, a bird on the wing, a piece of art, a smile). As this is an opportunity that presents itself frequently, begin by appreciating that you have eyes to see it, that colors are amazing, that shapes are pleasing, etc.
- Discover textures. Touch bark on different kinds of trees. Check out houseplants for smooth and fuzzy leaves, etc. How does the outside of an orange feel differently from an apple? How do the textures of sidewalks and carpeting compare? Touch satin, leather, burlap, wool. In addition to all these wonders, our fingertips are amazing as they tell us about these textures. And what about the sensitivity in cheeks and noses? Do you ever rub a favorite blanket against your cheek?
- Go outside on a windy day and watch how trees, bushes, fallen leaves, etc. react. Hold up a handkerchief and watch it fluttering, point out flags or laundry on a line, or other light fabrics in the wind. Why do we need wind? What does it do for the growth of plants, etc.?
- Become cloud watchers. Learn some different types. Why do we need clouds?
- Explore picture books. Enjoy the stories, the different kinds of illustrations, and the colors. Recognize the talents of writers and illustrators, photographers, and librarians. Realize all the “ingredients” of a book and where they come from: paints, paper, inks, glue, printing equipment, etc.