By Teresa Sayles, Children’s Creative Arts Director
Woodland Hills Church
One of the things I love most about my job is that I get to interact with kids of all ages, from infants all the way to tweens. As I’m working with each age level, I need to keep in mind the differences between these age groups. What a toddler can’t conceptualize might be something a kindergartener can latch onto and really get. What needs to be laid out in very concrete, basic terms to a preschooler can be more abstract and detailed for a preteen.
Below are some of the basics to keep in mind about the various age groups as you engage your children in their faith.
Infants (Birth to 18 Months)
Age Characteristics: This is the age of discoveries. Over the course of a child’s first year, his or her brain will triple in size, forming millions of neural connections (something like 700 a second). That means that as a baby experiences the world, he/she is constantly learning and taking in new information. Every taste, smell, sight, sound, touch, and relational experience brings with it new discoveries and knowledge.
Spiritual Characteristics: Although an infant can’t mentally understand the concept of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross or the lyrics to a song of praise, he/she can understand what it is to be cared for and loved, and he/she can experience the delight of joyful or peaceful music. At this stage, the most spiritually significant thing you can do for children is to help them experience unconditional love and pure joy, modeling what their heavenly Father feels for them. Through play and snuggles, music and even dance, you can help an infant know he/she is loved and cared for and that God is good.
Toddlers (18 Months to Three Years)
Age Characteristics: We could call this the age of self-discovery. A toddler, having built up months of experiences and learning, begins to separate himself/herself from the world. He/she generally latches onto the idea of possession, which often leads to some issues with sharing, taking toys, claiming things as his/her own, etc. It also means he/she may experiment (to your chagrin) with rebellious behavior and the need to have things his/her way. With this self-awareness also comes the ability to reciprocate relationships. Empathy begins in its earliest stages here where the sight of a sad child across the room can make peers spontaneously burst into tears, as well. They may not know what to do with their emotions yet, but children at this age are definitely aware of them.
Spiritual Characteristics: This age group loves to explore and experience the world as they grow in their ability to understand it and its relation to themselves. Using colorful pictures as you tell a simple Bible story or going for a walk and talking about how God made all that you see can be a great way to engage a child spiritually at this age. Be sure to use very concrete ideas and wording. He/she won’t understand the theological reasons why Jesus came to earth, but he/she can understand that Jesus came because He loves us and wants to help us live His way by making loving choices like sharing with a sibling or giving a friend a hug.
Preschoolers (Three to Five Years)
Age Characteristics: The preschool years are the age of seemingly endless energy. These kids are powered by an eagerness and excitement about life. Everything from play and learning to relationships is charged with electricity. This age group loves to jump, dance, sing, run, laugh, and even scream. They have A LOT of questions (some more embarrassing than helpful), and they have a great curiosity about the world outside of themselves. Their emotions are incredibly strong – They LOVE their friend, they HATE broccoli, and they are so MAD they have to go to bed. A child in this age group will want to test out his/her independence and experiment with using imagination in play. He/she begins playing with other children rather than simply alongside them. Although still very concrete in their thinking, this age group is able to piece together basic reason, logic, and cause-and-effect, and they love when their knowledge and abilities are recognized and praised.
Spiritual Characteristics: Preschoolers are at a prime age for recognizing God’s love and reciprocating it. With their brilliant imaginations, they love to hear and create stories in their minds, and Bible stories you read together can become beautiful learning opportunities. With their energetic bodies, encourage them to dance and sing worship songs. And with their simple yet profound ability to believe the impossible, they can believe in a God they can’t see. Encouraging a preschooler to talk about God, ask questions (even if you can’t answer them all), and worship God in a variety of ways (music, dance, art, etc) helps to build a firm faith foundation on which he/she can grow.
Early Elementary (Kindergarten-2nd Grade)
Age Characteristics: With the beginning of the school years come a lot of changes for a child. He/she learns what it’s like to socialize apart from parents and on his/her own. He/she, though still very active and energetic, slows down a bit and can sit still for longer amounts of time (even more so as they age). This age group is still very curious with lots of questions and imagination involved. Having grown in their socializing abilities, they are more interested in doing things with groups such as sports or organized activities. They can begin to really articulate their feelings and thoughts and why they might be feeling them. A child in this age group, whether he/she realizes it or not, likes routine. As he/she begins to make more independent decisions on a daily basis, he/she will still need input from parents to help make the best choices.
Spiritual Characteristics: In general, this age group wants to do what is right and good. They’re able to usually know the difference, even if they don’t always choose the wise decision. Talking to your child about why that is – the concepts behind sin and choosing our own way versus God’s way – can begin to happen here, as can the foundational concepts of forgiveness and grace. Where a preschooler can generally understand forgiving someone means you choose not to be mad at them anymore, a first grader can begin to understand we should forgive others because God forgives us when we mess up. This age group also deals with a lot of fear and anxiety due to new things likes school, friend groups, and a broadening understanding of the world. It’s important to bring these conversations about fear and anxiety back to God. Remind the child of God’s role in his/her life, His love, and His promises to be with us no matter what. Reading Biblical stories of God’s love and power are helpful in this.
Upper Elementary (3rd – 4th Grade)
Age Characteristics: This could be called the age of logic. Kids of this age group, though still concrete thinkers, are beginning to take abstract concepts and piece things together logically. What they accepted as a preschooler may suddenly come into question as they rethink it. Having watched the “big kids” for a while now, kids at this age often want to be more independent, make their own decisions, and do tasks and activities that are for “big kids.” They may struggle with the idea of being “too little” for something and may need to have a conversation or two around this subject. This age group loves to choose what music they listen to, what clothes they wear, and what games they play. They may also struggle socially as drama around slumber parties, bullying, and a growing self-consciousness emerges. A child in this age group, though wanting independence, still very much relies on parents and other adult figures to know how to perceive himself/herself and in decision-making.
Spiritual Characteristics: With a growing sense of empathy and broadening understanding of the world, kids at this age are beginning to think more globally, which is a great opportunity as a Kingdom parent to talk to your kids about Jesus’ call to spread His love to everyone. Look for ways to help your child serve others and be a light of love in their immediate community as well as the world at large. This age group is able to dig a little deeper into more abstract concepts such as Jesus being God’s Son and how we can make a difference through prayer.
Tweens (5th-6th Grade)
Age Characteristics: Here we have the age of perceived independence. These kids feel they’re no longer “little kids” and want more freedom to make their own decisions. They feel ready for bigger tasks and more challenging work. However, this also happens to be the age at which some children begin to experience puberty, and with the shift in hormones and other bodily changes, their decisions may not always be rational or wise. In their desire for independence, they still need a strong parental influence in how to make those decisions. This age group’s social drama is rising to its peak with the preteen and early teen years. Broken friendships, bullying of all kinds, and self-esteem issues rise sharply at this age, which means a tween will likely need time to talk and process things (whether he/she wants to or not) as well as help in figuring out how to deal with these situations.
Spiritual Characteristics: This age group has moved beyond the need for simplistic Bible stories and songs. They’re dealing with real-life drama and struggles, and they need that reflected in their spiritual lives. With all the self-doubt and appraisal that goes on at this age, helping a tween ground himself/herself in the truth of what God says about him/her is crucial. Build with them a firm foundation of God’s love and grace and bring God into the tough conversations. Take time to pray with your tween about it all. Help him/her to see the bigger picture and understand how his/her decisions can impact his/her world for better or for worse.