Getting Practical to Get to the Spiritual
Spiritual experiences can happen to us anytime and any place. However, we are more likely be to aware of them when we are not feeling rushed and disorganized. An organized classroom and program is also one that may help young children become more aware of their spirituality too. Here are practical ways to help yourself and your children to have an experience more ‘susceptible’ to the Holy Spirit!

Pick one:
A) You can start the school year by rushing into the classroom five minutes before the children arrive. Frantically reading over a lesson plan, you search for the crayons with one hand and the juice pitcher with the other, wishing you had some way of knowing each child’s name in group time.
B) You can make a few plans and take some notes for the upcoming year during the generous month of July. This will allow you to enter that first day of class with a sense of delight in the children, a welcoming classroom, and a lack of panic—and begin a school year that is beneficial for everyone.
If you go with Plan A, I suggest you ask your guardian angel to be at your side! For Plan B, get a notebook and pen, and read on. (Angels are always welcome, however!)

Goals and plans: This will be more enjoyable that the title suggests, so relax! Ask yourself: why do I want to teach? Look into your heart for the answer. This will lead you to recognize what you truly want to give to the children. Is it that you want them to begin thinking of Jesus as a loving and ever-present friend? To explore scripture stories with them? To celebrate the liturgical seasons? To help the children become aware of others as their sisters and brothers in Christ?
Establish your goals and write them down in the first page of your notebook.

Creating routines: Whether you are new to teaching or a veteran, you know you will need routines during class. Preschoolers need them to feel comfortable and confident. You need routines to keep the noise to a dull roar! Think carefully about the time you will have with the children, be it a day or an hour. For example, how long will story time last? Where will that take place? Is there snack time? How do you engage early arrivals and late leavers? How will you transition from one time to another? Do you want to have a ‘time to clean up’ song? Once you’ve answered your questions, create the routines you will need for these transitions and activities. Write this down on another page in your notebook. Having this plan will make the first day go much smoother.

Creating rituals: Like routine, a ritual is something you will do regularly with the children, but it speaks to their souls, not their actions. How can you best bring out a child’s sense of the spiritual? Using spontaneous or traditional prayer is a given, but what gestures will you use? How will you involve the children’s senses? Will you use candles, statues, music, color? Will you introduce a prayer ritual that a child can lead as the year progresses?  Create the rituals, writing down what you will say, do and need. Be ready to implement the ritual on the first day. This will create a calming time for the shy children and establish the tone for the year for all the children.

The learning environment: If you are so blessed that you have your own room for teaching, think about how it looks. (If you are especially blessed, you might even get into the room in the day before classes start, but don’t expect miracles!) Is this space inviting to young children? Are the colors cheerful but not overwhelming? What will you bring into it so it will be obvious that they will learn about Jesus here.

Preschoolers learn by doing. Are there areas that invite children to touch, create, explore, and pretend? Rocking and bathing a Baby Jesus doll may be more spiritual to a four-year-old than any verbal instructions. Some teachers find that a child left alone at an easel creates amazingly spiritual paintings.

If you share a teaching space with another program, consider how you can make the kind of classroom you want that can easily be set up, taken down and stored. Cloths for a prayer table, a blanket for the floor to gather on for prayer, or a bedspread hung on a length of clothesline can quickly change a space.

Tri-fold display boards offer ways to allow for posters, photographs and children’s artwork to be in the classroom. One display board could be designated just for the liturgical seasons. You can make these boards during the summer, enlisting older children to help if desired. Use the boards to create new spaces, too. A disadvantage of these boards is that they topple easily, so think about what they can be placed near (such as a bookcase) to prevent this.

Get your creative juices flowing, and put your ideas into the notebook.

Details: Doing this task now will save you time and exasperation later! Look over your goals, your textbook, and your ideas. Then make lists of materials you will need that your parish will provide. Submit a list to the person in charge of purchasing—do this soon, but keep a copy! Make a list of books, blankets, dolls, etc. you may need to provide yourself and designate a box  to collect, transport and store these items. Get this organized by the end of the month and you won’t have to fret over trying to remember the details.
Put your notebook in a safe place and tell someone with a good memory where your safe place is!

Ready your teacher’s heart: Now comes the best part! Do a little reading on the amazing spiritual depths of children. Try The Kindness of Children by Vivian Gussin Paley, The Spirit of the Child by David Hay with Rebecca Nye, or The Spiritual Life of Children by Robert Coles.
Savor and enjoy these books. And look forward to a year of being awed by your little ones!

Planning a Welcome
For some preschoolers, their first experience of school is a religious education setting.  They may enter with curiosity and check out every corner. Others may hang back shyly, and those suffering the most from separation anxieties may cling to their trusted adult. Occasionally, one will set up a howl. At the same time, you will have children who are accustomed to a group setting. They may come in cheerfully and calmly and begin to socialize right away. And then you will have a few ‘movers and shakers’, the children with boundless energy. These children can be quiet people, but more often, their natural enthusiasm brings its own noise!

And they all need to be welcomed by you!

Putting a little time now into planning for this welcome will save you from dealing with unnecessary details. This will free you up to enjoy meeting the children, and be relaxed enough to truly welcome them.

Letters of welcome: While e-mail and text messaging are common, young children still love to get mail addressed to them in the post mail. A letter to welcome them before the school year begins will make the first day of class something to look forward to.

If possible, obtain an address list of the children who will be in your class this fall. Write a letter on colorful stationery, telling them your name, that you look forward to meeting them, and hint at two or three activities they will do in class.

Then tell them that they are children of God. God loves them very much! Ask that they would draw a self portrait, with an adult write the words, “(name), a Child of God” on the drawing. Request that they bring these self-portraits on the first day of class. Mail the letters so they arrive just a day or two before the first class date.

(Remember, on that first day, have a place where children can display their self-portraits, so they may feel part of the class right away; equally important, have paper and crayons ready children who don’t bring in a self-portrait and someone to help them hang these too.)

Consider children’s needs as you set up your space and actvities:
  • For the anxious child, invite the parent to explore the room with the child. Suggest they look around and choose what activity the child will do after the parent leaves. Perhaps they could begin a drawing that can be finished only after the parent leaves so the finished product will be a surprise for the parent.
  • If a child really clings and the tears are about to fall, ask the parent and child to go to the doll corner, where there are dolls and teddies that need comforting. Encourage the child to care for the doll or stuffed animal, all during class if necessary.
NOTE:  Some teachers have a policy of letting parents of very anxious children stay (if possible) for the class time. Other teachers take the ‘rip the bandage off fast’ approach and ask parents to leave quickly. Both methods work some of the time! If you choose to have parents leave quickly, it would be very helpful if you have another adult or a teen helper to attend to a crying child.
  • Drawing and coloring are soothing activities for some children. Steer the shyer children there first. They will drift onto other activities as they become comfortable. Have plenty of crayons or markers and paper so this ‘station’ looks inviting.
  • Puzzles, books, and imaginary playthings (e.g. the doll corner) offer plenty for the confident children.
  • Remember active children love big actions, but encouraging jumping or running as class is beginning will make it very hard for them to settle down. Instead, set out a length of newsprint paper on the floor along with big crayons. Challenge them to make a giant picture. If you have a chalkboard, sidewalk chalk may lead them to making big motion with their arms to make large drawings. Playing with large trucks and hauling blocks, is big play too. (If your class time lasts longer than an hour, provide some movement activities for the whole class. Act out a story that requires jumping up, lying down, and waving arms, sing action songs, or find a secluded hallway where you can lead them in jumping, hopping, skipping, etc.)
  • Hide and Seek Name Tags: Make name tags for each child. “Hide” them around the classroom in places children will easily find. On the first day, invite the children and their parents into the room to find the correct name tags. This will help shy children become familiar with the room while still with their parents.

Gathering the Group: Know how and when class will officially start once all the children have arrived. If you begin with a group time, have any remaining parents join the group with their shy children so the children join the group. Separate the active children from each other.
  • Start with a song that is familiar to most children
  • Have children fold their hands as you pray, “Dear Jesus, our friend, please be with all the children here today and every time we come together. Amen.
  • Look into each of those little faces. Over the course of the year, you will be privy to the wonder, creativity and spirituality of these children. Consider yourself blessed.

Host a Birthday Party: Most children are familiar with birthday parties. Host one on the first day which communicates to children and their families that this class is a fun place, but one with a specific spiritual focus: celebrate the birthday of Mary, Jesus’ mother. The actual feast day is September 8th, so the beginning of the school year is a good time for this party. Have a Mary statue on a table, along with fresh flowers. A ‘happy birthday’ balloon or banner will add a festive feeling. Talk about Mary, sing the birthday song to her, and enjoy a simple treat. If possible, give each child a holy card or other image of Mary.

And always remember: the Holy Spirit is just a prayer away!