If your children’s ministry is like the one I serve in, your children’s worship time probably has a large group time and a small group time. During that large group time it is likely that you have a wide array of ages, ranging from 12 year olds down to 6 year olds and possibly younger. The large group time is an important aspect of a child’s time in our children’s ministry departments. During the large group time, not only do children learn the proper “etiquette” of how to interact during a worship experience, but they actually get to worship and learn Scripture together (at least I hope they do).
A problem during the large group time arises when you begin to consider the wide variety of ages which are listening and the various stages in life each child is in. In Jean Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development, he says that the way a child perceives the world is dependent upon his or her stage of cognitive development, which is dependent upon his or her age. Here is a brief summary of the developmental stages of 4 year olds through 12 year olds (don’t skip this part…it’s important):
Pre-Operational Stage (occurs between the ages of 2 and 7): Intelligence is demonstrated through the use of symbols, language use matures, and memory and imaginations are developed. The child’s thinking is influenced by fantasy (the way the child would like things to be) and the child assumes that others see situations from his viewpoint. The child takes in information and then changes it in his mind to fit his idea. Children’s increase in playing and pretending takes place in the pre-operational stage. The child is not yet able to conceptualize abstractly and needs concrete physical situations.
Concrete Operational Stage (occurs between the ages of 7 and 11): Intelligence is demonstrated through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects. The child develops an ability to think abstractly and to make rational judgements about concrete or observable phenomena, which in the past he needed to manipulate physically to understand.
By reading these 2 descriptions, you can clearly see that, in the same room, during your large group time you have two groups of children who interpret ideas incredibly differently. The younger group interprets concepts literally and the other group is beginning to be capable of interpreting abstractly, even though they still may not fully be able to (full ability for abstract thinking does not occur until the final stage, Formal Operational Stage, in adolescence and adulthood). This raises some issues when it comes to what types of information we present to children. Take the song in this YouTube video for example. Listen to the lyrics and think about them literally, to get an idea of what children up to the age of 7, and possibly older, interpret these ideas to be.
See what I mean? When you think about the lyrics literally (which is how many children will interpret them), the meaning of the song changes drastically. When adults choose what songs and activities that we incorporate into our large group times, we must try our best to think about the perception of them from the minds of those we are ministering to. We always need to be on our guards to make certain we are sending the right message to the children who are interpreting, on their own, everything we say…possibly much differently than we do.