Developmentally appropriate Sunday School

Jean Piaget’s research regarding the intellectual development of children and James Fowler’s studies dealing with faith development are incredibly fruitful works. Included in this article are brief descriptions of each stage of development and ideas for applying these theories to the field of children’s Christian Education. 

Children two years of age and younger: Children are learning to explore the world using their five senses. Piaget calls this stage the “sensorimotor stage” as a child’s learning skills develop from simple reflex movements to understanding object permanence, which usually occurs around 18 months of age. Fowler describes this stage as “primal faith,” the time when a child learns concepts of trust, love, and hope.  

Since individuals at this age are absorbing material through all five senses it is wise to utilize this as a part of your pedagogical framework. When doing simple theological activities, prayer, for example, pray for something someone is thankful for and then describe it during the prayer using the senses as applicable. Sing songs together that highlight God’s love, presence, and protection. Highlighting the senses and God’s love will best prepare a child for the next stage.

Children ages 3-7: Egocentricity, language development, and motor skills highlight this new phase in cognitive development that Piaget calls the “preoperational stage.” An individual starts to understand that one object can represent another object, for example, a doll can represent a person. Imagination starts to form as many children believe inanimate objects are alive during this stage. Fowler’s faith development blends well here as imagination, fantasy, and discovery are key aspects as a child first starts to become self aware. This “intuitive-projective” faith is influenced by a child’s actions, moods, examples, and needs.

Exploration, imagination, and discovery are the key concepts to work from during this stage. Allow the students the opportunity to explore, ask questions, and be inquisitive. You will most likely get questions of the “where is heaven” or “what does God look like” nature; however, these are crucial developmental moments that should be cherished in the faith community. Language is a novel tool for children at this age, utilize this and have them explain their relationship with God. Since a child’s needs are influential at this stage, focus on how God provides water, food, the community, relationships, Sunday School teachers, and whatever else is appropriate in the given setting.

Many Sunday School and VBS curriculums utilize puppetry and drama as an effective tool for this age group. 13

Prepare a child best for the next stage by building on the earlier concepts of God’s love and presence with examples of how God provides for people both in the Bible and in present day, and encouraging imaginative explorations of both God and self.

Children ages 7-12: Piaget’s “concrete operational” stage encompasses a new level in development as children start to understand metaphors, start to think logically and lose their egocentricity. Their “mythic-literal” faith stage is highlighted by a strong belief in justice. Children in this stage usually understand their deities as anthropomorphic. An individual’s development begins to take on beliefs and observan-ces that belong to their community. At this stage children can hear a story at great length but have difficulty finding the meaning.

Metaphor and conceptual thinking outside of one’s immediate environment are evident during this stage. Biblical stories that have multiple levels of interpretation, such as the parables or the creation story will start to take on new meanings for children at this stage. Encourage them to ask what these meanings imply both for their immediate community, as well as for the global community. Since justice and logic are key, also maintain fair practices in both classroom activities and classroom management techniques. Students will realize when an unfair advantage is given to another student, team, or family, and will most likely raise it as an unjust and unacceptable occurrence.

Piaget described a child as “a searching being, actively attempting to understand the world.” While children wrestle with their ability to make sense of their interactions with the universe, it is crucial that the church put children in healthy situations from which a positive relationship with the divine can arise.  By utilizing these theories the church can create a dynamic environment from which a child’s burgeoning spiritual journey can flourish.


G. Jacob Bolton is director of family ministries at Fifth Avenue Church, New York, N.Y.

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