Getting to Know Primaries


By: Elsiebeth McDaniel

“‘Even a child is known by his doings.’ What does that mean, Jerry!” a primary teacher asked.

“That means you should read your Bible.”

“Anything else!”

“Yes, you should be a missionary.”

Does this sound like your primaries? Do you think these are pat answers? They could be. But the primary worker talking with Jerry didn’t stop with these.

“Jerry, you’re only seven. How can you be a missionary to South America?”

“Well, I can’t go there, but I can still be a missionary,” Jerry replied confidently.


“Well, I can tell the kids who come to our house about Jesus.”

“Do you?”

“Sure. They come over to play, and I tell ’em.”

Would you be glad if this true incident was typical of your primaries? Of course, because learning is becoming action in the life of seven-year-old Jerry.

In teaching primaries, we lead them to know the Lord and what He wants them to do. We want to help them make “lip say-so” become “life do-so.” How can we?

First, we need to know something about primaries themselves: how they learn, what they can learn, how we can teach them and help them grow in their faith. But nothing will be accomplished unless we depend on the Lord to bring about spiritual growth in their lives. After all, we are only the instruments the Lord may choose to use.

I. Who Are Primaries?

We now recognize that chronological age is only an indication of how long a person has lived, not a description of that person. Being six does not mean that one child is like every other youngster of six.

A child of any age is learning, but we must keep one fact in mind at all times: at a given age youngsters can master some things, but there are also things they cannot learn at that age. If we are to work successfully with primaries, we must have some general ideas about what they can and cannot learn.

We must understand how children grow, because there is a relationship between growth and learning. The process of growth is not only physical. It affects every area of a child’s life, including the development of his mind and spirit.

If we try to force a child to do what he cannot do, we hurt him and make him feel incompetent. If we hold a child back, we make him feel frustrated and unappreciated. If we are to point a child to the Lord Jesus, we need to understand him. Watch the individual, not the average child!

If we know something in general about the way primaries behave, grow, and think, however, we can begin to personalize that knowledge as we look specifically at Jimmy or Sue. Realize, too, that children are undergoing constant change. Sixes lose teeth, but they’ll get others. Young sevens may print well, but they’ll soon be using cursive writing. Eights may be fearful of some new experiences, but as nines they’ll be much less afraid and have more self-confidence. This means that our understanding of a child must change as the child changes.

The effective Sunday School teacher tries to understand each individual pupil-where he is in his development. Then with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the teacher endeavors to make the content of the lessons vital to the life of each of his pupils.

Someone has said, “There is one way in which we are all alike, and that is that we are all different.” Each pupil is different from every other pupil, yet lists of general characteristics are helpful. For a further study of child growth, consult books such as YOU and Children (Moody Press, 1973), Childhood Education in the Church (Moody Press, 1975), and These Are Your Children (Scott, Foresman, 1975).

II. Who Are You, Teacher?

The best teacher for primaries keeps in mind the ultimate goal: “I am guiding persons as they move toward maturity-‘the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ’ ” (Eph. 4:13). How much of yourself are you willing to give to help a child reach this goal?

Why would the following statement help some teachers? Asked why she didn’t like a particular teacher, a little girl summed up her feelings by saying, “Well, when she smiles at me, it’s only with her mouth.”

If you really enjoy being a teacher, your children will sense it. Don’t be afraid to laugh and enjoy life with them.

God’s love in your heart communicated to children points them to Him. Your faith in God and assurance of love are constant evidences to children that Cod loves them.

Children need to achieve and feel valued. You can let them feel their creativity is achievement in two ways: (l) providing opportunity to use their creative abilities and (2) by accepting what they have done. You need
not use honeyed words or extravagant praise. Be sincere. Praise fairly given strengthens a child’s sense of worth, and he will likely respond with neatness, ideas, and originality.

You can help your pupils feel important and thereby prevent many discipline problems by teaching the pupils to carry their share of responsibility as group members. Children need help in evaluating their behavior. Ideally, most education toward acceptable behavior should take place in the home, but a teacher or leader in the church also has many opportunities to help children understand why particular behavior is acceptable by Christian standards. Teachers need to support the home and work with parents. When they do, both the home and the church are strengthened.

Of course, no children’s worker should ever use love for Christ as a point of pressure. Do not say, “If you love Jesus, you’ll take your turn.” The statement is true, but examine it from the child’s point of view. You are making a demand that is frustrating and conflicts with his own will. To that is added, “Jesus won’t love you unless you. . .” or “If you love Jesus, you. . .” A child is not thinking as an adult. He cannot handle this
type of situation at the age of six, seven, or even nine. It is little wonder that some children are eventually driven to the place where they seem to sacrifice their love for the Lord in order to have their own personal pleasure.

A good teacher is always searching for causes of behavior-not suitable penance for every act. As insight grows, a teacher becomes better able to help children develop self-control. Think of discipline as helping a child develop self-control, not punitive retribution for wrong actions or words. When a teacher sees the greater task-development of self-accountability- he becomes more patient and better understands how to deal with the child.

The Christian teacher plans the lesson to include both methods and activities-teacher and pupil responsibility. He should be prepared to stimulate thinking. This means making pupils really think.

Asking the right questions is a very important teaching method. The teacher who settles for “yes,” “no,” “God,” “the Bible,” or “Jesus” answers is not stimulating thinking. Instead, ask “how,” “why,” “what do you think?” and “what would you do [have done]?” These questions demand thinking and evaluating. “Yes” or “no” answers seldom test comprehension of a truth which the pupil must internalize-use in his own life.

Check your questions. Are they at the level of the ability, experience, and knowledge of the pupils? For example, the question “Why do you think Samuel used oil to anoint David?” is an impossible one for a primary child who knows nothing of Bible customs. A better question might be, “How do you think David felt when Samuel told him he would be king?” This question makes a child an active participant in the story as he tries to feel as David felt and visualize the circumstances.

III. How Do Primaries Learn?

Primaries are not a group that wants to sit and listen. Primary years are wonder years, asking and discovering years. Are you ready to teach in ways that focus on activity?

Because the Bible contains factual information and abstract concepts, it is important to understand children’s mental development. A teacher works in partnership with God through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. If the teacher is aware of and depends on the work of the Spirit and also understands how children think, he will better understand how to teach.

A. Levels of Learning

The work of Jean Piaget, child psychologist and author, is especially helpful to Sunday School teachers. Piaget has suggested four levels of child development which he roughly defines in terms of chronological age.

1. Sensory-motor period (birth to 2 years). At this level the child learns through his senses and his ability to manipulate objects. In the early years this touch-hear-see method is a child’s chief means of learning. But
this means of learning does not stop at two; primaries still want to touch and handle.

2. Preoperational thought (2 to 7). The child in this period is not able to use certain mental operations which are necessary for mature reasoning and understanding. He makes judgments on how things look rather than on the basis of mental operations.

Thus primaries have difficulty in understanding that God is everywhere. They cannot find Him as they would tangible objects or people they see. Or again, some children think of God as being present only in certain places or during specific experiences, such as church or at bedtime. These children depend on past experience and cannot think abstractly.

3. Concrete operations (7 to 11). Most primaries are at this stage of development, though they also use the processes of earlier years. Using concrete operations, the child can manipulate data mentally and can come
to some logical conclusions. He can define, compare, and contrast. He still thinks, however, in very concrete terms; primaries are not the age-group to teach with symbolism. These children need to understand Jesus as the Son of God who became a Man. Do not attempt to show them how Jesus is the Light, Door, Bread, and Morning Star. Concentrate on literal explanations of biblical events.

A teacher cannot be too careful in avoiding symbolism with children under fourth grade. Words should mean what they say and say what they mean!

4. Formal operations (begins at 11 or 12). In this period a child can think in abstract terms. He can foresee results. He can understand religious symbolism and appreciate the beauty of some of the figurative language used throughout the Bible.

When a teacher has grasped the significance of the levels of learning,he understands why children make mistakes in their reasoning. A child cannot understand a Bible truth unless he has the God-given ability to
receive it.

No teacher can cut short a child’s normal development toward logical thinking. When teachers present object lessons, hymns, or other symbolism and believe children understand because they are quiet or can parrot the words, those teachers do not realize that mere telling is not teaching, or that ability to repeat words is not learning.

B. Value Development

The four classifications set up by Jean Piaget help teachers understand how children think. It is also helpful, however, to examine a theory about the moral development of a child. Lawence Kohlberg, Harvard University, developed a typological scheme describing general structures and forms of moral thought and containing three distinct levels of moral thinking. Within each of these levels he distinguishes two related stages.

What does this mean? Kohlberg wants us to understand how children develop their values. His levels of development and stages might be outlined as follows:

1. Preconventional level. The child is responsive to labels of good and bad. He interprets these labels in terms of what happens to him-he is rewarded or punished. At this level a child is best motivated by what will happen to him. He decides that a particular mode of behavior is good because of the good physical consequences to him. At this level, a child defines right action as that which satisfies his own needs. He cannot readily perceive the needs of others.

2. Conventional level. At this level, an individual becomes concerned for the wishes and demands of other people. He is concerned about his own reputation and what people think of him. He also recognizes that laws hold society together and have a very important function.

3. Post-conventional level. This level is reached by a comparatively small group of people. These individuals can see right action in terms of standards that have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole of society.

This brief description of the Kohlberg theory, as related to Piaget’s levels of cognitive thought, should help teachers realize how limited the thinking and moral development of primary children may be. If the teacher is working with pupils whose main concern is to avoid punishment and behave in ways that bring pleasure to them, any approach on the level of universal ethical principles is beyond their understanding.

Does this mean that we cannot talk about sin, grace, repentance, or sanctification to young children? If this is true, our work as Christian educators is wasted. But the answer to the question of what young children
can be taught is not so much in the content as in the method and relationships. For example, no primary will understand very much about the Fall when we use that term. But primaries can understand that Adam and Eve sinned. They do not find it difficult to recognize their own wrongdoing or sin. Primaries may not understand a theological discussion of sanctification, but they can understand that Jesus wants to be in charge and help them grow spiritually.

If we are to help children learn to know God, we must be convinced that understanding the child is important. We must recognize that biological growth or chronological age does not assure moral development. In teaching children, we must be careful not to ask them to be what they cannot be
physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually.

Christian educators should be aware of Piaget’s levels of cognitive thinking and Kohlberg’s three levels of moral development. Examine them; and, if we agree with the theories, we should profit from them. More
reading and observation are necessary for any teacher to fully understand Piaget or Kohlberg.

Some people believe that Kohlberg’s findings are an argument for delaying Bible teaching until children are pre-adolescents. Most Christian educators, however, believe that understanding moral development helps them realize how children perceive biblical truth. Is there anything wrong with a young child obeying parents because God, the authority figure says he should? Is it necessary for a child to understand that obedience is a universal principle? No, a child needs to see Bible truth as relevant to his own life.

IV. What Can Primaries Learn? Children learn facts or knowledge cognitive learning. They also learn information that affects their attitudes and emotions. This is called effective learning. Christian educators should set realistic goals to accomplish both cognitive and effective learning.

Bible truth must be communicated to children as something to live by, not as intellectual theories. We want children to not only hear Bible truth, but also to see how to live it. Bible truths must be communicated in the context of life itself. How?

We will use role-playing, thought questions, and various opportunities for decision-making. Then a child can accept the truth and use it in his own life.

Imagine that you are teaching the story of Jacob’s long journey. You may talk about the night sky, the feeling of loneliness, and repeat the memory verse, “I am with thee” (Gen. 28:15). At the end of your lesson, your children may remember Jacob, recalling his long-ago experience. But when you take time to play out, draw, or imagine situations where your children are afraid, you are closer to their experience. As the children repeat the memory verse during their playing out of contemporary situations, they begin to realize that God is with them in every circumstance. Creative teachers will provide many opportunities for children to “feel” Bible truth as well as to know it.

Knowing Jesus is a basic spiritual need, one Christian teachers can begin to meet. Some primaries will be ready for a conversion experience; they will be able to understand the atoning death of Christ.

But many primaries will not be at this place. What shall we do? Continue to present the plan of salvation as suggested in the lesson material you are using. Be aware that the Holy Spirit alone can convict of the need for the Saviour. Recognize that even young children can experience God and the meaning of truths they cannot fully understand.

Paul wrote to Timothy, “Since you were a little child you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise and save you through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15, An American Translation). Does the I example of Timothy encourage you to be a better primary teacher? Has the Lord included this particular verse in His inspired Word to make Christian parents, pastors, and educators recognize the importance of teaching children?

Christian education materials for primaries should be designed and written to lead the children into all the basic truths of Scripture. But these truths must be presented on a child’s level and in relationship to the
child’s life.

V. How Shall We Teach Primaries?

Primaries need to be motivated to learn. Some teachers find this need of motivation difficult to accept because they think of their children as energetic, active, and “key-up” people. But mere activity is not enough. The primary child needs to be motivated to learn in ways that channel his activity.

Teachers use various types of motivations – sometimes singly and often in various combinations. Verbal motivation is the skillful use of questions and discussion. Visual motivation utilizes audiovisuals: filmstrips, cassettes and recording, flipcharts, and visual presentations of all kinds.

Perhaps the type of motivation used most infrequently is motivation through participation. This is also the most difficult kind of teaching because a teacher must move from the role of a “teller” to that of a guide. How can you help your children learn through their own activity? It is comparatively easy to think of activity as a means of applying Bible truth through drawing, playing out the story, or writing. Can this type of motivation be used to help children discover Bible truth? Yes. A good filmstrip and some thought-provoking questions preceding its presentation will help a child discover for himself.

The teacher who is truly concerned about learning recognizes that review and repetition must be part of teaching. Creative teachers use matching games, puzzle pieces, guessing games, and pantomime to make review meaningful.

Any good teaching method is really a channel for two-way communication.Choosing a teaching method should be choosing the best means to establish and foster communication. Is the method you choose one that helps aid you aid a child in receiving and that enables him to tell something to you? This is the meaning of good communication. Unfortunately, many favorite teaching methods are popular because a teacher tells while pupils listen and look. Art activities and some music activities help a child express
what he has learned. These activities also provide teachers with a means of measuring what they think they have taught. Open-end questions also draw out pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the lesson.

The Christian teacher knows he is working with God to help primaries move from “lip say-so” to “life do-so.” God has promised that He will work in the lives of children. He says children will be known by what they do (Prov. 20:11). The Lord promises that knowledge of His Word can lead to salvation (2 Tim. 3:15). And He says that what children learn will stand them in good stead as they go on growing (Prov. 22:6).

(The above material was published by Scripture Press Ministries in Glen Ellyn, IL).

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