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The practice of prayer with children

Parents, Sunday school teachers and ministry leaders often prepare children to pray by encouraging eyes to be closed, hands to be folded and heads to be bowed. This is certainly one way to pray, and it’s not wrong to teach children to pray in this manner. But it’s certainly not the only way. By experimenting with different types of prayer practices we open the door to a rich world of possibility where talking to God and hearing from God can happen in many different ways, using a variety of different styles. Parents can explore these practices at home with their children, or they can be modeled in a church school class or worship service.

The 17 practices listed here are loosely arranged by age. That is, the first prayer practices are designed, loosely, with the youngest of children in mind and get progressively older as the practices continue. However, the suitability of each prayer for any particular child depends on so many factors including temperament and personal preference. For this reason, no hard and fast ages are given. These prayer practices become even more beautiful when children and adults of all ages practice them together as one family of faith. Aim to make prayer an intergenerational activity whenever possible.

Prayer practices for children of all ages

Rocking chair prayer. This is suitable for even the tiniest of children. A family member or caregiver sits with the baby in his or her lap and says a simple prayer to the rhythm of the rocking chair. The prayer can be as simple as one word (“peace,” for example). The rocking prayer can also be a sung lullaby, something parents have been doing for centuries. Sometimes it is useful to have a special blanket for use only at prayer time

Photo prayer. Print out pictures of significant people in the baby’s life. Hold the photos and show them to the baby repeating slowly and deliberately: “God bless Mama. God bless Grandpa. God bless Esteban. God bless Omar.” End the prayer with “Amen.” The beauty of this prayer is in its daily repetition. In time, babies begin to associate a specific time of day with prayer, and can connect faces to the people who are most important in their lives.

Walking nature prayer. Put the baby or small child in a stroller and cover with a special blanket reserved for prayer time. As you walk together pray for God’s creation. “Thank you God for the birds! Thank you God for the grass! Thank you God for the sun!” As you return to the home or church, keep silence as you listen for God’s voice.

Bubble prayers. Bubbles are light and colorful and a beautiful reminder of our breath and the Spirit’s presence. After each prayer request or gratitude, blow out the bubbles and watch them fall to the ground. Small vials of bubbles in the pews on Sunday morning make for a great opportunity for adults and children alike to pray visible bubble prayers.

Building block gratitude prayers. Place a pile of plastic building blocks in the center of the room. Have each child name one thing he or she is grateful for and add one block to the tower. Watch the tower grow with each new prayer and conclude with “Amen.”

The Lord’s Prayer body prayer. There are several examples online of The Lord’s Prayer as a body prayer where each phrase has a different motion attached to it. Research and learn one of these prayers and teach it in your home or worshipping community. Alternately, make up your own!

Matchbox prayers. Does God have a mailbox? Well, no, but creating a special place where prayers can be hidden away is a whimsical practice that children enjoy. Decorate a small matchbox and use it as a place to store prayers that are written on tiny slips of paper hidden inside.

Prayer paper chain. Have each person write a prayer on a strip of paper and then connect the strips of paper together in a chain. Place the completed prayer chain on the Communion table in worship or somewhere it can be seen by all. For home use, keep strips of paper in a jar and ask friends and relatives if they’d like to add to the chain when they stop by.

Prayer art. How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t find the words I need to pray”? We associate prayer with words, but prayer transcends spoken and written language. For some, the opportunity to pray with pictures and art instead of words is a challenge. For others, it’s a deep joy. Lay out a variety of crayons, markers and paints and allow participants to draw their prayers using words or pictures.

Prayer beads. Our Roman Catholic siblings have been using beads to pray for centuries, but the practice has spread to Protestants as well. There are many different ways to use beads to pray. One way is to string together beads of different sizes and colors, and assign a specific meaning to each bead. Lead participants in an exercise where all have the same beads with the same colors and meanings, or let each person come up with their own meaning.

Prayers for the world. Often our prayers center on personal or family concerns. Invite children and families to look for prayer concerns in the newspaper or magazine. Find specific cities or areas listed in the periodicals and write or draw prayers for them. Place the prayers on a large world map with pushpins.

Pitcher and bowl water prayer. Place a large pitcher of water next to an empty bowl. As each person comes forward with a prayer, he or she pours a small amount of water into the bowl. As the prayers join together in one full bowl of water, talk about how they are all combined together in God’s hearing. Pour the water outside to water a special tree or to water plants.

Prayer wall. There is something holy about having a sacred place to go to lay down one’s prayers. Whether it’s a sanctuary on Sunday morning or a bench in the park on a sunny afternoon, to go somewhere to pray feels holy and important to people. Recreate this feeling by going to a homemade prayer wall. There are many different variations of prayer walls that range from simple to quite elaborate. Some examples are rolled up pieces of paper tucked into fishing nets, or ribbons tied to chicken wire. Or, prayer walls can be as simple as sticky notes stuck to a whiteboard for a time.

Prayer rocks. Paint rocks with words or phrases to God. The rocks can be exchanged with another person as a reminder to keep the other in prayer, or left outside in a public place as a gift to the person who finds them.

Prayer flag. Many cultures and countries have the custom of hanging flags in the wind. The image is a reminder that as the wind blows, the prayers are carried away with it and everyone who is touched by the wind benefits from the prayers. Flags are kept up, even when they are weathered and worn, and eventually burned. Families can make their own prayer flags together and hang them outside. For Christians, a prayer flag is a way to talk about the presence of the Holy Spirit. Evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work is all around us, even if we can’t see it at times.

Mixed media prayer collage. Have participants choose images and phrases from old magazines or newspapers and combine them with drawings, paint or other art materials to create a prayer collage. Ask participants to share the meaning behind them or display them without comment.

Candle prayer. Keep a special prayer candle at home or church for special requests or prayers. When the candle is lit, look at the light and imagine a prayer going up to God on behalf of the request. Either let the candle burn until the wax runs out (tea candles work well for this) or until it can no longer be monitored or observed. Use battery operated candles for very young children. Instead of thinking of the cell phone as a hindrance to prayer practice, use it as a tool. Take a photo or video of a burning candle and send it to a friend in need of prayer.

General tips for prayer practices with children

Experiment. Use the above prayer practices as a starting place and add, subtract and change as your imagination allows. Don’t be afraid of something “working” or “not working,” if the activity encourages children to talk to God or hear something new from God, it is automatically a success! Some practices will resonate more than others.

Focus on listening. For each of the prayer practices above we can remind children (and ourselves!) that prayer is a two-way street of listening to God as well as talking to God. Find ways to incorporate the discipline of listening and to teach children to listen as well. Listening does not always involve complete silence and stillness. A child can be walking and moving and listening at the same time. If we are to teach children to listen to God, we must be willing to broaden our perspective and welcome their own unique ways of listening. Some children need to fidget and sway as they listen. Some need to lie flat on the ground.

Tailor practices to children’s needs and desires. Offer more body/movement prayers for wiggly children and more introspective and art-focused ones for children who are more inclined to art. Explain to children that some practices might be easy and others might be hard.

Encourage participation, but do not force it. Keep in mind that all children are different and that God speaks in many different ways; encourage everyone to try something new, even if it seems hard or unfamiliar. Do not pressure or force children to participate, though, as forced participation in prayer practices can lead to resentment and anger.

Keep a sense of humor. Where did we get the idea that prayer is always serious? Children often have a way of bringing levity and humor to prayer time. There’s no need to stifle laughter at prayer time. There is joy in the Lord!

Be flexible and open to the Spirit’s leading. Sometimes where we end up is not at all where we started. That’s OK! Be willing to allow children themselves to offer adaptations and variations of the prayer practices offered. Scripture reminds us that children will lead the way.

A life of prayer

James 5:13 says: “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” These words apply to young and old alike. As we seek to develop prayer practices individually and together, let’s look beyond what we’ve always done and try something new, knowing that God speaks to us in many different ways. Parents, Sunday school teachers and pastors can take the lead in inviting children to a life of prayer that will sustain them their whole lives long. Let us invite creative ways of praying into our homes and churches and be prepared for God to surprise and delight us! Let all God’s children say … Amen!

TRACI SMITH is pastor of Northwood Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, Texas, and author of “Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home.” Connect with Traci at traci-smith.com.

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