How to Engage Children with Scripture
At six years old, my son is squarely in a Winnie-the-Pooh phase, which makes my husband and me very glad since we love those stories ourselves. Introducing him to Winnie-the-Pooh began a few years ago when my husband gave our son the stuffed Pooh bear that belonged to him as a boy. Pooh slept in our son’s bed every night and came along with us on many trips, short errands around town, and long trips out of state for vacation. Next I found some small, toddler-sized copies of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories and began reading them to him; he was too young to understand the whimsical humor A. A. Milne uses, but he liked looking at the illustrations of Pooh dangling in the air from a balloon trying to get honey from the bees. Our son’s interest really became his own when he discovered the wonderful audio book version voiced by British actors like Stephen Fry and Dame Judi Dench; he listened to it on repeat so many times during the pandemic “stay at home” order that he can now recite several of Pooh’s funny little poems by heart. Then, despite my purist reservations, we tried out the Disney films about Pooh and his friends, and I’ve had to begrudgingly admit that, while they don’t reflect the same contemplative nature of the original stories, our kids do really love them too.
Lately we’ve been exploring a giant forested park near our home, where we’ve found a couple of bridges over small creeks where we can play a proper game of Poohsticks; I’ve purchased a stuffed animal collection of the entire cast of characters to give my son on Christmas morning, so he can reenact the Pooh stories around the house; and we’ve been looking at a beautiful photo book about Ashdown Forest, the real-life forest in England that inspired Milne, and dreaming about making a trip there in the coming years.
Upon reflection, a few features of this process stand out to me. My husband and I didn’t sit down and develop a six-year plan of how we would go about introducing our son (and now our daughter as well) to Winnie-the-Pooh. Instead it has happened naturally, fueled by our own eagerness to see him laugh at the same points in the story that got us grinning as kids; to hear him tell us which character is his favorite and why; and to find him lining up his stuffed animals to help him pull a stuck Winnie-the-Pooh out of a rabbit hole made of couch pillows. We’ve gone about this by giving him toys, books, videos that have familiarized him enough with the story to enter into it and engage in his own imaginative play, lost in the Hundred Acre Wood while he’s right here in our living room. And as our son has gotten older, and as his interests and abilities have changed and deepened, we’ve found new ways for him to engage with these stories at a new developmental phase, hoping that one day this childhood connection with these stories will prompt him to share them with his own children. I imagine most parents reading this can relate to this process from your own experience of introducing your children to the stories that you love.
During the pandemic, most Christian parents, myself included, have found ourselves somewhat adrift without access to church-based children’s formation. Many church-based children’s formation programs ground to a sudden halt in March, revealing the way in which we have relied too much upon those programs, as Bishop Jenny Andison said in her recent post. We can’t rely on an hour of Sunday school a week to make the Word of God “dwell richly” in the hearts of our children, and we never could, pandemic or no pandemic. Our circumstances are simply revealing that truth, just as they are stripping away other false sources of security. We have depended too much on church programs to make Christians of our children, when we ourselves ought to be taking a leading role, right after the Holy Spirit. Given that reliance and the additional stresses and anxieties of a pandemic, it is entirely understandable if we have been feeling inadequate or unprepared to take on the task of catechesis. Between trying to make a living from home, navigating unemployment, and/or overseeing virtual learning, few of us have the leisure time or expertise to develop and execute a complex plan for at-home children’s formation.
The good news is, however, that we don’t have to. While it may be time for parents to step up to the plate of at-home Christian formation, we don’t need to do that by putting on a Sunday school show at home. Instead it can be as simple as teaching our children the way parents and extended family members quite naturally teach their children to love the stories that they love, whether it’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Dr. Seuss, the Chronicles of Narnia, or any other narrative world into which we hope our children will enter. As Christian parents, our vocation is to teach our children to love the Story that we love best of all. Of course, what I really mean to teach them is to love the God whom we love, and one of the primary ways we do so is by teaching them to love the Bible, the Word of God that tells the story of God and of “the goodness and love which [God has] made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be [his] people; in [his] Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, [his] Son.”
I imagine this is the sort of process Moses has in mind in Deuteronomy when he commands Israelite parents: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (6:7). The stories of Scripture are to be part of the fabric of our daily life as a family, talked about, enjoyed, brought into every facet of our day.
That can sound overwhelming, but I invite you to consider this verse in light of how you introduce your children to beloved stories and do the same with the Bible. Give your children things to listen to and watch and read, providing them with the tools to enter the story imaginatively, and then talk together about what they hear and read, whether you’re in the car or the bathroom or your backyard. Becoming a Christian parent who nurtures Christian faith requires giving up on the excuse that we need professional expertise; instead maybe it means applying more of our instincts about how we share things we love with our kids, whether it’s a book or an album or a movie. And, if this exercise reveals a need to grow in our love for and understanding of Scripture, we must take heart, because watching us deepen our own love for the Bible is something our children will notice and never forget.
On the topic of media to use, I have a few suggestions below that either teach Bible stories or are tools for memorizing particular Scripture verses, most drawn from my own childhood and reflecting the things that most helped me develop a love for Scripture as a child. These suggestions reflect what my family has been enjoying lately and are by no means an exhaustive list. While much of what I recommend here is a few decades old, I’ve found my children respond well to media that I loved as a kid, despite its age. There is certainly more recent material that is also well-done and worth investing in. I would love for readers to share other resources in the comments on this blog post.
- Things we enjoy listening to:GT and the Halo Express.
This CD series is unrivaled in its ability to teach Scripture verses, word for word, set to music. Over the course of seven albums they set 75 Bible verses to music, including the reference so kids will know what book of the Bible they come from. Notably for Episcopalians, many of these verses show up in the Revised Common Lectionary, so children in the pew who’ve listened to GT may hear verses that they have memorized read aloud in church. It means so much to me when my son pokes me in the ribs on a Sunday morning and says, “I know that verse!” after hearing it read from the lectern, and we have GT to thank for that. Unfortunately, these albums are only available through this website on CDs, but they are worth the inconvenience. As you listen, you’ll hear enough saxophone to remind you that this series is 30 years old, but I hear that stuff from the 80s and 90s is old enough now that it’s retro and therefore cool again.
This radio drama series from Focus on the Family is not specifically focused on Scripture memorization or on Bible stories; rather, it specializes in the application of biblical teaching through real life stories about kids. However, several episodes feature young characters visiting a Bible story through the Imagination Station and seeing how it unfolded firsthand. These can be pretty powerful; the episode that depicts Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (“An Adventure in Bethany”) has always stuck with me to the degree that I wish I could have it played aloud at my funeral. These episodes are scattered throughout Odyssey’s 30+ year history but have been collected into two albums:
This is an ongoing collaborative project led by Sandra McCracken, Flo Paris Oakes, Katy Bowser, and Alice Smith, that creates music based on Scripture for children. All four of their albums are beautiful, engaging, and perhaps best of all, great for grown-ups to listen to as well.
- Something we enjoy watching:
This was an animated video series produced when I was a child, but I somehow missed it. Thankfully it’s been completely redone recently by the Christian Broadcasting Network and is available on Amazon Prime Video. It introduces children to a range of Bible stories in the Old and New Testaments through the eyes of the main characters Chris and Joy, who are taken back in time to see those stories unfold in front of them. If you can get past the annoyance of the main characters’ bangs constantly falling into their eyes, chances are you and your kids will love it. A warning that some episodes are not appropriate for all ages; we have avoided or turned off the episodes about the fall of Satan from heaven, the story of Job, and John the Baptist’s ministry (because it deals with his beheading, though it does not depict it directly). I would recommend parents pre-viewing this show or at least watching with their kids and turning it off if things get too intense.
For very young children, I have found this series very engaging with young children. The illustrations, while very simple, are particularly appealing to young children. I don’t always find the lesson highlighted at the end of each story under the question “What did you learn”? fitting; sometimes I add my own conclusion or skip that page.
These books from the 1960s have beautiful illustrations and cover some Old Testament stories that many children’s Bible storybooks don’t include, like Elijah and the Shunammite woman, the reign of the young king Joash, Naaman being healed from his leprosy, and the calling of Samuel as a boy. The author, Ella B. Degering has a lovely, poetic way of phrasing things that really speaks to children. Perhaps my favorite story is the biblically-shaped account of a shepherd named Jabel in volume five, which shows what shepherding would have been like at the time of Psalm 23. Due to their age, the copies available on the internet now are all second-hand. I would also point out the dated and unfortunate depictions of Jesus as white, particularly on the inside covers. This representation of Jesus seems particularly out of place, given the clear effort elsewhere in the books to depict the land and culture of the Bible as accurately as possible at the time of publication. For instance, it’s clear the illustrators either visited the Holy Land personally or studied photographs of its geography prior to doing their work.
- Favorite Parables Jesus Told by Nick Butterworth introduces children to the parables of Jesus in a lighthearted and humorous way.
Inundating our children with Bible story books and audio series and DVDs won’t magically create faith in Christ. However, these media, created by artists and writers who themselves love God and God’s Story, can serve as tools that equip us for the daunting task of making the story of Scripture a central feature of our families’ common life. Remember that it might be as simple as riffing off the way we share other stories with them; and may our children become captivated by the story of God’s love and faithfulness to us in Christ.
The Rev. Sarah Puryear is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee and currently stays at home with her two children.