A New Year, A New Heart
A new year is upon us, but this fact may be lost on preschoolers. After all, the natural season doesn’t change and winter may go on for a couple of more months. It is not the beginning of a school year. So other than seeing that there is a new number on the calendar, or that a new calendar is needed, it is not obvious to young children that there is anything new about this time of year.

In fact, your class may be experiencing the winter doldrums. Here are some suggestions for helping children start anew:

Explain that it is a new year, and this new year should be started in a clean classroom. Preschoolers love to play at cleaning and it is a physical way to understand the symbolism of life anew. Give them cleaning supplies so they can wash dolls or toys, scrub tables and shelves, dust books, sweep the floor, etc. Depending on your time and situation, children can also help you take down any ‘old’ artwork or bulletin board displays and replace them with new ones.

If possible, bring in a bouquet of flowers after the cleaning is finished.

When everything is clean and fresh, have a talk about other ways to start a new year. Discuss what it means to have a clean and new heart. If necessary, help children understand you are not referring to their physical hearts, but mean experiencing new feelings and trying new actions. Suggest three ways they can ‘start clean and new’, such as telling someone they are sorry, saying a new prayer the child composes, making a new friend, helping someone who needs help, looking at a book never ‘read’ before, etc.

Have a simple chart ready: divide a large piece of paper into three equal parts. In each part, draw a symbol for each of the ways your class will be ‘starting clean and new’, such as two stick people holding hands, for ‘making a new friend.’

Each time you meet for the next few days or during the month, look at the chart together and ask if anyone has done one of the ‘starting fresh and new’ activities.. Let them put a ‘new heart’ sticker on the chart for what they have done.

This ‘new, clean heart’ activity will be a logical lead-in to loving each other for Valentine’s Day in February!

You will need:
  • Cleaning supplies:
  • Squirt bottles (with water only)
  • Sponges or damp cloths
  • Dusting cloths
  • Child –sized broom

Doll or toy cleaning supplies:
  • Small basin and water
  • Wash cloths
  • Towels
  • Dolls and toys that can get wet

Chart:
  • Large piece of paper
  • Marker
  • Ruler
  • Heart-shaped stickers

Optional:
  • Fresh flowers and a vase of water
If redoing bulletin boards, have what you want to put up ready for hanging.

Growing up, a little bit
Parents and teachers often comment on how suddenly, almost overnight, a child seems to mature. They notice an increase in vocabulary and sentence structure, and improvement in skills of drawing, cutting, etc. The child may even seem to be inch taller.

As a preschool teacher, I often felt that after Christmas vacation, the class as a whole seemed older. They settled more quickly into the routine of class time, the topics we discussed were a little more challenging, etc. This is not surprising, given that now the children had experienced about four months of the school year.

This maturing, coming at the turn of the year, offers a teacher an opportunity to show children that January can be a fresh start.

At group time, show children the calendar, explaining that while the school year is not new, our calendar year is. Tell them you feel that they are ready for something new too. Let them know that you have seen how grown-up they have become since September, and how proud you are of them.  Then introduce some new routines, responsibilities and projects.

For new routines or responsibilities, create a chart that children can easily follow, even without being able to read anything but their names. For example, if you serve snack or lunch, on a Monday, write a child’s name and draw a simple cup, which indicates that child will help set the table by placing cups in front of each child.

Some suggestions of responsibilities you may want to add:
  • If you have plants in your classroom, place them where a child can water them. Place saucers with small stones under the plant to avoid a mess and an over-watered plant from a zealous gardener.
  • A child can be in charge of turning off unused lights (he or she should ask you first before turning them off.)
  • A child can be in charge of standing at the doorway to give notes, newsletter, etc. to parents at the end of the class time.
  • If you have visitors, have hospitality jobs, such as making sure they have places to sit, have a snack, etc. Similarly, if a new child joins the class, have several children welcome the child by offering to sit next to the new child at circle time, be partners at gym time, etc.
  • Add individual tasks to clean-up: after clean-up of toys, have two children assigned to go around the room to make certain everything is put away; two children can wipe off the tables after snack;  a child can keep the ‘library’ tidy by straightening book shelves, stacking floor pillows, etc.
  • Have children take turns leading the snack or lunchtime prayer. They may use a memorized one or say a spontaneous one.
In short, assign jobs that help children feel that now they are capable of greater contributions to their class.

Some suggestions for projects:
  • If your parish has a group of adults who send out get well cards to shut-in or hospitalized parishioners, start a project where once every two weeks your class draws pictures to be included in these cards. Have one child check the calendar to see when the drawing day is coming up and announce that to the class. Another child can be in charge of setting out the supplies, and another can collect the pictures and place them in a large envelope. If your school and parish office are connected, perhaps a child could deliver the drawings to that office.
  • If you celebrate birthdays or saints’ feast days, create a table setting committee and a table decorating committee (provide this group with silk flowers and vases, paper placemats, saint statues, etc). Assign a birthday crown-maker, and other to make a poster (“Happy Birthday Kayla!). Include one child who can write in this group, but the others need only decorate with crayons. (See A Circle of Saints)
Then enjoy watching your ‘grown-up’ kids rising to the challenges.

The Grace We Receive
When we see our preschoolers dressed as angels for a Christmas play, we smile and feel a little tug at our hearts. They are so cute! But is that all we are reacting to? Could it be that we see something in those little earth angels that remind us of what children reveal to us every month of the year?

Sometimes we notice a young child’s eyes shining with delight, or filled with much concern for another, or sparkling with mischief and laughter. What we are seeing is God’s presence in the world. When we feel that tenderness in our hearts towards these little ones who are so sweet and dear, we are responding to their complete openness to God.

They are a living reminder that God’s grace is freely given and poured upon us each day.

Parents and teachers of young children are privileged to meet God this way more often than other adults. Here is a gift for the new year, quotes from wise adults who also felt God’s grace through children:
I love little children, and it is not a slight thing when they, who are fresh from God, love us.
Charles Dickens
God's most beautiful thoughts bloom into children.
Carl Sandburg
Grown men may learn from very little children, for the hearts of little children are pure, and therefore, the Great Spirit may show to them many things which older people miss.
Black Elk
Children are naturally spiritual. Children are naïve mystics.
John Bradshaw
Every child begins the world again.
Henry David Thoreau
If you have children…see the Light of God in them. He has united you in this relationship, not merely for an outer bond but to see and serve God in them.
Sant Kirpal Singh
Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.
Rabindranath Tagore
I must take issue with the term "a mere child," for it has been my invariable experience that the company of a mere child is infinitely preferable to that of a mere adult.
Fran Lebowitz
A baby is a flower sent from heaven to blossom here.
Carl Sandburg
Heaven lies all about us in our infancy.
William Wordsworth

A Hopeful People
Preschool children are among the most hopeful people in a society. Perhaps it is an unconscious understanding that they have all of life and its possibilities before them, or perhaps it is that they tend to find hope and pleasure in small things, which happen frequently. Children are intuitive, and it with intuition that they understand hope. This may be because they “are so fresh from God”, as Charles Dickens put it!

A New Testament story that young children can identify with is that of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). For adults, it is about a man seeking forgiveness and a fresh start, a good story for starting a new year. For young children, though, it is a story about someone short like themselves, who, in his excitement, runs and climbs a tree, hoping to see Jesus. It is hope that is emphasized in the version of the story below. Read it to children. If you have a picture bible, show them an illustration of Zacchaeus as you read this story.

Hoping to See Jesus
One day, Jesus was in a city called Jericho. Many, many people there hoped to see Jesus. Crowds lined up where they knew he would soon come.

One of these people was a man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus hoped very much to see Jesus, for he had been selfish. He wanted to tell Jesus he was going to change his ways. Maybe he was hoping to have a chance to talk with Jesus, or even to have dinner with him.

People kept coming. Zacchaeus realized he could never see Jesus in the crowd, for he was very short. All around him were taller people. So, quickly he ran down the road and climbed a sycamore tree. There he sat high up on a branch, hoping he would see Jesus.

Soon, Jesus arrived. When Jesus and the crowd of people reached the sycamore tree, Jesus looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

Zacchaeus climbed down from the tree as fast as he could. He was filled with joy!

Activity: Discuss ‘hope’ with the children after reading the story:
  • Do you ever hope you will get a treat at the grocery store?
  • Do you ever hope you can have a friend come over to play
  • Zacchaeus was hoping he would see Jesus. Let’s paint pictures about Zacceaus’ hope.
Provide various colors of paint, brushes, and large sheets of paper for each child. If paints are not available, provide many colors of markers, but paint will allow children to best express themselves. Stand back and allow children and their intuition to create works of art! Display these with the title “Zaccheaus’ Hope” where parishioners will see them.