Strategies for Helping Our Youngest Believers Grow in Faith

Share this article:

by Kate Ristow

For an activity to help preschoolers prepare for Easter, see Easter Flowers at the end of this article.


It takes a special kind of catechist to work with preschoolers! You need extra patience for the child who constantly tugs on your sleeve for attention, and you need compassion for the tearful tyke whose goodbye hug turns into a death grip around Mom’s neck. You need an eagle’s eye to spot the curious child’s hand reaching for a tantalizing item on a too-high shelf, and you need the ability to tap into the Holy Spirit’s gift of awe so that you can communicate the wonder of God’s love.

Counterbalancing the talents we possess and those that we have yet to cultivate is the most important gift of all: faith. It is the key to being a successful catechist with three-, four-, and five-year-olds.

Your Own Faith

Jesus tells us that even if our faith is as small as a mustard seed, we can move mountains (Matthew 17:20). As a preschool catechist, your faith—the gift of believing in and knowing God—trumps every other skill and talent.

As you work with your class and participate in faith formation sessions, you can and will develop as a catechist. But it is your faith that will be a magnet for the kids; it will shine through you. As St. Paul says, your faith will enable you to give glory to God (see Romans 4:20) and to be a model for the children’s growth in faith. God planted the seed; your faith and example will help it to grow.

So the first step in being a creative preschool catechist is to cultivate your own spiritual life. Here are some suggestions for your personal faith growth:

* Pray often.
* Find quiet time each day to be with the Lord.
* Read the daily Scriptures.
* Keep a faith journal.
* Invite another catechist to be your faith partner; meet on a regular basis to discuss the Sunday Scriptures or the weekly theological background in your catechist guide.

Tips for Creative Class Sessions

Work with an aide or parent volunteer. If your program does not recruit aides for preschool classes, invite parents to sign up to be helpers at the class of their choice. Aides are an extra set of hands in your classroom and they enable you to ensure that each child gets individual attention.

If you use parent volunteers, give each one a copy of the lesson plan at least a week in advance, along with a list of the specific things you want him or her to be responsible for, such as proclaiming Scripture, working with some of the students on a specific activity, helping teach the gestures to a song, and so forth.

Engage the children’s interest immediately. Young children have very short attention spans. They simply cannot sit quietly waiting for latecomers to arrive or for the session to begin. As far as they are concerned, class starts as soon as they arrive. Make this a reality by preparing an activity that relates to the lesson theme. It should be something that the children can begin to work on immediately after they arrive. This might be working with clay or chenille strips (pipe cleaners), completing a worksheet, drawing a picture, learning a song—anything that gets young learners involved and sets the stage for the chapter of the week.

Set aside a special area for this introductory activity so that it becomes part of the children’s routine each week. Ask your aide or volunteer to explain the activity to the children and get them started.

Move! Move! Move! It’s been said that preschoolers are like gelatin—wiggly and jiggly. It’s true. Accommodate their need to move by frequently changing activities and settings within your teaching space.

For example, move youngsters from tables or desks to a gathering area on a rug or carpet squares. Have them go from working independently on an activity page to working in pairs or a small group for a focused discussion. (How does God show his love for us? What is your favorite part of God’s creation? Name one way you can show you are a friend of Jesus.) No matter how small your classroom, have the children gather together for prayer in the area you have designated as “sacred space.”

Frequent movement actually helps children pay attention. Your task is to keep relating how the pieces of the lesson fit together. At each lesson step, review what has been learned thus far and connect the theme of the chapter to the activities you do, the story you tell, the song you sing, and your prayer.

Engage the children’s imagination through storytelling. Imagination is often the first way children come to know something about God, Jesus, and our faith. For example, having the experience of building a castle in the sand or shaping a ball in clay can be a springboard for imagining God creating our world. Planting seeds or watching a flower grow helps children know something about the beautiful garden God gave to the first man and woman. The parades they’ve seen in person or on television help them picture how Jesus was greeted as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. The children’s experience of searching for a treasured, misplaced toy gives them a mental picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd searching for his lost sheep.

Awaken the children’s imaginations by inviting them to close their eyes as you tell them a Scripture story. Afterward, invite them to tell you the details of the things they pictured. What did the garden look like? How many people were lined up to greet Jesus? What sounds did you hear? How did the people look? How did Jesus look?

If you give the children a chance to tell you what they imaged in their minds’ eyes, you’ll see that imagination is an important element in a preschooler’s faith growth.

Make story time special by inviting the children into the “story circle”—an area in your learning space where the children gather to hear Bible stories. Know the story well and practice it enough to tell it, rather than simply reading it. Change the tone, timbre, and pace of your voice. Don’t be afraid to experiment with using different voices and inflections (deep, gruff, slow, high-pitched, gentle) for various characters.

A great place to practice storytelling is your bathroom; it’s tiled and often has a large mirror. You can hear how your voice sounds as it bounces off the tiles, you are able to see how you look as you speak, and you are almost guaranteed privacy!

Invite the children to respond to the story by retelling it in their own words or acting out a critical scene or event using props you’ve brought to class. Preschoolers never tire of being part of the story. You may think that acting out the story of the Good Samaritan one time is enough, but it never is—not for the little ones. Repeating enactments is their way of processing what they heard. Their physical involvement actually helps them learn.

Plan active-learning experiences. Drawing and coloring quickly become old hat to even the youngest child, and it is very frustrating for children of this age to color within the lines because of their still-developing motor skills. Rather, invite children to retell a story using flannel figures, or teach them gestures to accompany song lyrics, or plan hands-on activities for them.

For example, instead of having them draw a picture of creation, have them paste on a large page pre-cut created objects (the sun, plants, human beings, animals, etc.) you and volunteers have prepared for them. Rather than simply discussing prayer as a way of praising God, have the children make praise wands by sealing one end of a paper towel roll with tape, sprinkling raw popcorn kernels or beans into the open end, sealing the top, and decorating the roll with markers and crepe streamers. Have them shake or wave their praise wands during an appropriate psalm prayer or a lively song.

In short, engage as many senses as possible. Ask yourself, “Which senses will this activity allow the children to utilize?” Do a self-check each time you plan an activity; if only one sense is engaged, rethink it.

One final thought about activities: Always ask yourself: “Will this activity contribute to the child’s understanding of the chapter theme?” Too often, preschool catechists do activities because they are fun or because they give the child something showy to take home. Your time with the kids is precious; everything you do must relate to what you are teaching. Tell the children the purpose of the activity. For example, “We made our praise wands to help us celebrate God’s love.”

Make prayer a priority. Children have an innate gift of spirituality. Develop reverent attitudes and behavior by building on their natural sense of wonder. Make prayer time short but meaningful by using echo prayers or litanies with brief responses for the children to repeat.

Help them pray with their whole bodies by encouraging them to suggest gestures for a psalm prayer no longer than three to four verses. (See “Psalms for Movement and Gesture” below.) Model the importance of silence and listening in prayer by lighting a candle on the prayer table and inviting the children to look closely at the candle’s flame as they talk and listen to Jesus in the quiet of their hearts.

Preschoolers have no qualms about praying spontaneously. Ask each to name one thing for which he or she is thankful or a person who needs God’s help. They all will eagerly participate. Ask them what THEY want to pray about. They’ll be quick to offer suggestions.

You can even review the lesson prayerfully by using the chapter objectives as invocations. For example: For making us your children at Baptism, we pray…; For welcoming us into your Church at Baptism, we pray…; For our new life as friends and followers of Jesus, we pray….

Include parents. Parents want their children to have a positive preschool religious education experience. Most of them want to be involved as much as possible. Get to know the parents by greeting them at the door as they drop off and pick up their children before and after sessions. Collect e-mail addresses and send short notes about class activities. Suggest one practical and easy thing parents can do at home each week with their children to reinforce chapter learning.

For example, if your lesson focused on Baptism, urge parents to trace the sign of the cross on their children’s forehead each day or evening during the coming week to remind them of the day they were baptized.

Keep in mind that although you are the children’s catechist, the parents catechize by their daily example. Affirm and encourage parents in their efforts to share our Catholic faith with their children.

Psalms for Movement and Gesture

Invite children to think of an action or movement to accompany each phrase in the psalms below. Teach only one line a week so that the preschoolers can learn the psalm and gestures by heart. After they have learned one of the psalms well, invite parents to join you for the last ten minutes of a class session and ask the children to pray their psalm prayer for their parents.

Praise God!
Sun and moon, praise God!
All shining stars, praise God!
Mountains and hills, praise God!
Wild and tame animals, praise God!
All creatures that crawl and fly, praise God!
All people, young and old!
Let us give glory to God!
(based on Psalm 148:1, 3-10, 12-13)

All countries bow down before you, O God.
You do wonderful deeds.
Teach me your ways. O God.
Your love for me is great.
You are kind.
Help me always, O God.
(based on Psalm 86: 9-11, 13, 15, 17)

Lord God, you know when I sit and stand.
You understand me.
O God, where can I hide from you?
If I fly up to the heavens you are there.
If I go to the deepest ocean you are there.
Your hand always guides me.
How wonderful are your ways, Lord God!
(based on Psalm 139: 2, 8-10, 14)

Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, is National Catechetical Consultant for RCL Benziger. She has been involved in children’s religious education for over 25 years as a Catholic-school teacher and parish catechist.

Easter Flowers

Make copies of the Easter flower stem [CLICK HERE] for each child in the class. Be sure each child’s name is on his or her worksheet.

Use the flower petal pattern [CLICK HERE] to trace petals on different colors of pastel construction paper—five to ten petals for each child—and cut them out. Place the petals in a basket on a worktable, along with several glue sticks.

Tell the children that on Easter Sunday we remember that Jesus rose from the dead. Emphasize that Easter is a time to celebrate Jesus’ new life. Explain that we get ready for Easter by trying to live as Jesus lived. We follow Jesus’ example by sharing, helping, and loving others as Jesus did. We do these things especially during Lent, the time when we get ready for Easter.

Tell the children a paraphrased version of John 12:24, emphasizing that the seed grew into a strong plant. Ask volunteers to name what the seed needed to grow (water, sun, care, good soil). Tell the children that Jesus wants us be like the seed during Lent. He wants us to grow and change so that we can share in the joy of his new life.

Distribute the worksheet. Explain that it is a picture of a stem that has grown from a tiny seed. Show the children the multi-color flower petals you have traced and cut from construction paper. Tell your preschoolers that every time they share, help others, or act with love, they may use a glue stick to add a petal to the stem. Soon they will have a beautiful flower to take home for Easter.

Get the children started by asking them to name a caring or kind act they have done recently. Reward each story with a flower petal and have the children glue the petal on the stem. Collect the children’s worksheets each week between now and your last class before Easter. Allow time at every session for the children to share their stories and to decorate their Easter flower with petals. Affirm the preschoolers for their efforts to be more like Jesus. Tell them that Jesus invites all of his friends to celebrate and to share his new life.

Copyright 2011, Bayard, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Bayard, Inc.

This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, February 2011.

Image Credit: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutter Stock 557866771

Share this article: