Mini-retreats for the Classroom
by Chris Weber
After one particularly successful Confirmation retreat, a teenager from our parish overheard me say to one of the team members, "Retreats are pretty amazing religious education experiences." The young person stepped in front of me and said, "What are you talking about? Retreats aren't religious education!"
After one particularly successful Confirmation retreat, a teenager from our parish overheard me say to one of the team members, “Retreats are pretty amazing religious education experiences.” The young person stepped in front of me and said, “What are you talking about? Retreats aren’t religious education!”
“Okay,” I said. “Then what are they?”
“Fun!” the teenager replied enthusiastically.
That was 15 years ago. Today I stand by my statement: Retreats are fabulous opportunities for catechesis. Not only that, but they need not be just for older adolescents and adults.
Let’s explore how we can design a fun, mini-retreat for younger adolescents, intermediate, and elementary students. In order to be “kid-style,” such an experience needs to have a strong unifying theme and just the right mix of interactive components.
Start with a Theme
Determining a theme appropriate to your age group is not a complicated process. Start with the catechetical text(s) for your target audience. Scan the table of contents and maybe even the scope-and-sequence chart(s) of your grade level(s) for an overarching idea that could steer your retreat. Or you might want to base the theme on a favorite Scripture story or verse.
To keep it even simpler, work from the Trinity: Which person of the Trinity would be your best starting place with this age level? Devise a summary statement affirming what that Person of the Trinity does for us. For example: “God is really big”; “Jesus is God’s Word”; “The Holy Spirit gives us power!”
You can leave the theme at that or, with your planning committee, flesh it out further. Is there a peppy song whose title would work as your theme? Can you tie the theme into props, costumes, something from current events, or a trendy television show? Have fun with this, but just be careful not to make it so elaborate that you won’t want to repeat it another year!
Let’s develop an example using the theme “Jesus is God’s Word.” How might we apply key retreat components to this theme and adapt them for different age levels? To design each retreat component, begin with this question: How will this component of the retreat help participants know that Jesus is God’s Word? How will each component reinforce this theme?
When adapting these components for children, plan the length of time for each so that there is a change of focus in the schedule every five to fifteen minutes. The younger the group, the shorter the intervals should be. I offer examples of how to apply the theme “Jesus is God’s Word” with three age levels.
Teaching segment (10 minutes): This component introduces the theme.
For primary grades: Use the story from chapter 1 of John’s Gospel to explain that “Word” is a title for Jesus and that God speaks to us in a special way through Jesus.
For intermediate grades: Brainstorm uses for the word word in the English language and make connections between those uses and how Word is a rich title for Jesus.
For junior high: Explain the Greek word Logos and discuss how it is used in John 1.
Icebreakers (5-10 minutes each): This component (games, relay races, mixer activities) builds community among participants and helps them become relaxed and open to what follows.
For primary grades: Play the Gossip Game, also known as Telephone. Whisper a message quickly from person to person to see how it gets mangled or remains clearly stated by the time it reaches the last person.
For intermediate grades: Play the Name Game. With the group sitting in a circle, have each person give his or her name and a rhyming adjective. Go around the circle and have each person repeat all of the names and rhyming adjectives given previously.
For junior high: Play Actions Speak Louder. Teams instruct one another to complete otherwise simple tasks, like placing three objects on top of one another in a certain order, without using language or pointing. This offers a firsthand experience of the importance of the spoken word.
Skits (5 minutes each): This component begins to reinforce an understanding of the theme.
Use humor, drama, props, costumes, and music.
For primary grades: Act out the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-23), the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), the net (Matthew 13:47-50), and/or others to teach participants about being receptive to Jesus the Word.
For intermediate grades: Draft and act out skits about what happens when kids listen to Jesus and when they don’t.
For junior high: Role-play how Jesus the Word speaks to us in the Mass and sacraments.
Witness talk (5-10 minutes): This component makes the theme relevant to daily life. While young people are strongly affected by hearing testimony from their peers, this is a perfect opportunity to involve parishioners of all ages.
For primary and intermediate grades: An older child or adult shares a time when he or she felt the nearness of Jesus.
For junior high: An older adolescent shares the challenges of listening to Jesus—God’s Word—amidst pressures of school and everyday life.
Silence (5 minutes): This component allows participants to internalize the theme into their own life situations.
For all grades: Participants think about questions they might have, spend time in prayer, draw, or journal.
Faith sharing (5–15 minutes): This component helps participants understand that their experience of faith is both like and different from the experience of others.
For primary grades: Children share experiences of Jesus among themselves (or with their families) in small groups and then share with the larger group.
For intermediate grades: Participants share experiences of Jesus in small group discussions led by adult facilitators.
For junior high: One on one, share non-threatening questions about the challenges of following Jesus; share more difficult questions in small groups.
Hands-on activity (10-20 minutes): This component (making posters, doing crafts or puzzles, playing games) allows for action that reinforces the theme further.
For primary grades: Play Jesus Says, a faith variation on Simon Says.
For intermediate grades: Decorate a poster with ways in which we meet Jesus or hear Jesus speaking to us; title it “The Word.”
For junior high: Have a Gospel Quiz Show. Teams answer questions about the teachings of Jesus.
Personal prayer (5-10 minutes): This component helps participants personally encounter Christ and respond to him spontaneously in prayer.
For primary grades: Complete the statement “Jesus, thank you for...” in as many ways as possible.
For intermediate grades: Conduct a guided visualization in which participants imagine Jesus sitting next to them and speaking with them during the Liturgy of the Word.
For junior high: Pass a candle from person to person. As each person accepts the candle, he or she offers a spontaneous prayer (verbally or silently).
Songs (5 minutes): This component stirs hearts and minds to respond to the theme.
For all grades: Use church music, secular music, jingles, or impromptu “ditties.” It is especially helpful if you have parents or other parishioners willing to work with the children during this component, using instruments if possible.
Put It Together
These components can be mixed and matched to create a meaningful mini-retreat lasting 60 to 90 minutes. They can be adapted to meet your group’s needs and interests or things that are happening in the parish or community. Be sure to include time for short breaks, especially if you plan the retreat to be longer than 60 minutes. Place icebreakers and lighter activities near the beginning of the retreat, or use them to add levity when needed; schedule more intense activities later in the retreat. Conclude with a celebration that brings together music, prayer, and families.
Above all, have fun! When you are conducting a retreat, fun simply comes with the territory, as my young friend declared many years ago!
Environment, Team, Family
Be sure the space for your retreat is comfortable. Make the room temperature moderate and the surrounding area free of clutter. If you hold the retreat in the place where you usually meet for catechesis, give the space a bit of a “makeover” to signal that your mini-retreat will be something different. Rearrange chairs or use floor cushions for seating. Use alternate lighting as the environment permits. Hang drapes, posters, banners, and other visuals to celebrate the theme. If possible, include open spaces for icebreakers, skits, or other large group activities. Just be sure that all you plan to do can be conducted in the space you use.
As you bring together the details of the retreat, consider inviting young people to be on your team. For example, recruit older adolescents for small group leadership, witness talks, and other activities. Under the right conditions, you might want to have junior high students work with younger children.
For retreats with primary grades, invite parents/guardians to be part of the event. For retreats with intermediate and junior high grades, invite parents/guardians to attend the closing celebration. For all grade levels, provide opportunities for parents/guardians to communicate love and support to their children through notes presented at certain moments in the retreat, or special words of pride and affirmation spoken at the closing.
Retreats for You
While you are thinking about retreats for your learners, don’t forget to take time to nourish yourself as well. Enter “Catholic retreats adults” in an internet search engine, and you will find a variety of retreat opportunities for adults. There are retreats for men, women, engaged couples, married couples, families, those who are widowed or divorced, and young adults. There are silent retreats, Scripture retreats, social justice retreats, intergenerational retreats, seasonal retreats, and therapeutic retreats. You can retreat in the seclusion of a monastery or in the middle of a busy city. A retreat can last a day, a weekend, 5 days, or even 30 days. Many retreat houses offer private unguided retreats, when you simply take part in the daily life of the center, or guided retreats, when you are led by a spiritual director.
Chris Weber is Director of the Catholic Education Ministries Center of Central Maryland, a regional office in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, MD. He is a frequent contributor to CATECHIST and publishes regular columns online at centralmdcatholic.org.
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