The summer months may give you the opportunity to reflect on how best to pass on a knowledge of Catholic symbols, vocabulary and stories. The following articles give you a variety of ways to touch the hearts and spirits of your little ones, and they may do the same for you too!

Introducing Feasts and Seasons the Easy Way
It is wonderful to introduce preschoolers to the many symbols and colors of our Catholic feasts. However, limited prep and classroom time may keep you from emphasizing this as much as you’d like.

One remedy is to have a ‘tree of feasts and seasons.’ Set up a small, bare branch (like an Easter egg tree) in your classroom. Before school starts, create a supply of simple symbols and gather other symbols. Put these into large envelops or zippered bags, and place all in a box. You will have everything you need at your fingertips to decorate for an upcoming feast! You can decorate for one feast (e.g. guardian angels day) or for a month of feasts (e.g. for October: St. Therese, guardians angels, St. Francis, Halloween)

Suggestions for the Symbol Box
To make: Make very simple felt symbols by drawing a shape on felt, cutting out two of this shape, placing stuffing between the two shapes, and sewing around the edges. Create a ‘hanger’ by drawing thread through the top of the symbol and creating a loop, or use paper clips for hangers.

Materials needed:
  • Felt in various colors
  • Pencil
  • Needle
  • Thread or embroidery floss
  • Fabric scissors
  • Stuffing (quilt fiber or cotton balls)
  • Glue

If you wish to embellish these:
  • Glitter
  • Glitter glue
  • Fabric markers
  • Beads
  • Yarn
  • Ribbon
  • Chenille craft sticks (pipe cleaners)
  • Wood craft sticks

Symbols easily made from felt:
  • Fish
  • Angel
  • Star
  • Dove
  • Cross
  • Empty tomb
  • Candles
  • Water
  • Trees
  • Chalice
  • Triangle (Trinity)
  • Butterfly
  • Boat
  • Rainbow
  • Hearts
  • Sun
  • Moon
  • Flame

To gather: Many symbols can be purchased inexpensively in craft supply stores, fabric stores, and religious stores. (After Christmas and Easter, seek out sales on decorations that are religious). Ask friends who sew or craft for scraps or check out yard sales, too.
  • Ribbons in liturgical colors
  • Garlands of stars (angels, Mary, Christmas, Epiphany)
  • Angels (archangels, guardian angels, Advent, Christmas)
  • Heart garland (St. Valentine, Sacred Heart)
  • Tiny baskets (1-2”) (Lent for almsgiving, Easter, new life)
  • Small silk flowers
  • Bag of pretzels (Lent)
  • Tiny crosses
  • Finger rosaries
  • Candy canes (Good Shepherd, St. Nicholas)
  • Small plastic skeletons (Days of the Dead)
  • Picture holy cards of saints (punch a hole in the top and thread with narrow ribbon)
  • Very small stuffed animals (St. Francis, St. Martin de Porres, animals associated with Jesus, new life)

Check out A Circle of Saints for many more ideas.

Summer Reading
1) Saints for—and of-- all ages and interests
An important part of our Catholic heritage, for adults as well as children, is stories of saints. Put saint books on your summer reading list for a variety of reasons.

Reading about the lives of saints can give inspiration, challenge, or comfort, depending on which saint you read about as well as your circumstances at the time. Jesuit Father James Martin has written a book on how certain saints influenced him at different times of his life. Reading My Life with the Saints (Loyola Press) may cause you to become curious about how saints affect you.

Familiarizing yourself with saints’ lives will give you something to draw on when you are in need. You probably know which saint is called upon when something is lost, but you may have other concerns! For example, Saints Cajetan and Joseph may give comfort to job seekers. If you are particularly worried about a child, turn to two very diverse saints: Monica and John Bosco. Why these saints? Read some good books on saints and find out!

If you read regularly, you may have certain topics that interest you and likely there are  saints for those too. Love to learn about recent history? Read about the lives of holy people who experienced World War II: Josephine Bakhita, Edith Stein, Dorothy Day, Maximillian Kolbe, John the XXIII and Thomas Merton. Fascinated by Christian mysticism? Try Clare of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, and Julian of Norwich—to name a few.

Consider saints associated with your hobbies: there are thirteen patron saints for gardeners, at least two for athletes, eight for bakers, three for motorcyclists, another three for cabinetmakers, beekeepers and musicians, as well as twelve for people who brew beer!

As you read, keep in mind that when you are back in the classroom with young children, you can easily tell them about saints. If you have some anecdotes handy to share, you will be enriching your lessons as well as contributing to students’ Catholic heritage. Which saints were your favorites when you were a child? Look for saints who have attributes you would like to discuss, such as kindness and sharing. Preschoolers love animals and there are numerous tales about saints and animals. Saint Camillus de Lellis is a good example of someone who could be very crabby, but nice too. What preschooler could not identify with him? A saint who was silly was Phillip Neri. Particularly active kids enjoy hearing about people’s adventures. How about saints who were shipwrecked? Which saint could walk a tightrope (hint: he is mentioned already in this article!)

To get you started on your search for saints that inspire, challenge or comfort you, here is a different kind of challenge: research to find the patron saint of people who procrastinate. You will find his name is a pun. Don’t put this off!

2) Saints and Animals
There are many opportunities in our liturgical year for teachers to help preschoolers develop a Catholic identity. However, over these summer months of Ordinary Time, there are fewer significant feasts. Take advantage of this ‘quieter’ time to tell saint stories. For some children, this may be the beginning of a life-long interest in and devotion to certain saints.

Keep in mind that some saint stories would be confusing or even frightening for young children. Try using a topic commonly of interest to preschoolers: animals. There are delightful stories of saints who befriended or were helped by animals. These are certain to catch the attention and imaginations of very young Catholics!

You will have no difficulty finding picture books and other renditions of St. Francis of Assisi with a wolf, fish, a rabbit and a variety of birds such as a peregrine falcon and doves. For three stories, see www.americancatholic.org/features/francis/stories.asp. Also search online for images of St. Francis with animals.

Another saint with an abundance of wonderful animal stories is St. Martin de Porres, who set the broken leg of a turkey, calmed a frightened and frightening bull who got loose in the streets of Lima, and cared for many a sick dog or cat. He and his sister, though very poor, started what amounted to an animal hospital in her home. The most beloved animal story involving Martin is his compassion for the mice that over ran the infirmary where he worked. There are many pictures books of Martin, and this particular story is likely to be in most of them.

St. John Bosco is contemporary enough (1815-1888) that his stories are considered fact, not legend as that of earlier saints. In telling children this story, keep in mind the fact that there is violence behind it. John was often threatened by other people who disliked his work with homeless youth. One day, a huge, rather ugly dog showed up at John’s residence. No one recognized it or knew where it came from, but Grigio, as the dog was soon called, seemed to appoint himself John’s body guard. Numerous times he sensed danger before John did, and kept John from it, and at least once, Grigio let a would-be mugger know on no uncertain terms to leave John alone. As time passed, others began to see the merit in John’s work so the threats against him eased. One night, Grigio arrived as usual, but this time, he rubbed his head against John, lifted a tentative paw in farewell, and left, never to be seen again.

There are other stories, with less detail. You can use these ‘story bits’ to introduce children to other aspects of a saint’s life. For example, St. Philip Neri sometimes said Mass with a chipmunk sitting on his shoulder; St. Sergius, a monk who lived in a wilderness area of Russia, befriended many forest creatures, and he shared his bread at dinner each night with a companionable bear; Kieran of Ireland also hung out with a bear, as well as a fox and wolf; St. Cuthbert spent a cold night by the sea, praising God when two little sea otters came from the water and warmed his feet. An eagle also fished for Cuthbert and the two shared the meal.

Enjoy sharing these stories with your little friends as they learn of some of God’s holy ones—animals as well as people!

3) Picture Books for the Silly and the Soulful
Being a good preschool teacher is something akin to being a magician—you have to have a few tricks up your sleeve to keep kids engaged, to present material in different ways,  and sometimes just to kill time until all the children are called for at the end of class.

Good picture books can be a very good ‘trick’ for your teachers. This summer take a little time to research titles of books that could be helpful next year. With just a little effort, you can be ready with a list or even a pile of books for teachers when the next school year starts.

The next time you are in a library or book store, look around at children’s books and ask staff members for suggestions. Be specific in what you are looking for, and they will most likely do their best to help.

If you have a budget for new books, go to a good children’s book store and look over their religious books section. There you will find picture bibles for preschoolers and individual stories from the bible. In a Catholic book store you will also find a selection of saint stories for children.

Look a book over by reading a few pages. Is the text short enough and the vocabulary correct for preschoolers? Are the pictures large enough for use in a group? Are the pictures pleasing? Book illustrations can have a big impact on children, so avoid dated artwork, too many dark colors, and frightening-looking characters. Some will have cartoon-like illustrations and others will be more artistic. Which you prefer is a matter of personal taste. Just be certain that the characters, particularly Jesus, look friendly and approachable.

If your budget doesn’t stretch to new books, many wonderful books can be obtained at used books stores or online. Just keep in mind the above criteria for choosing books.

Don’t have any money for books, new or used? Check out libraries. There are selections of religious books at public libraries. Look them over and jot down titles.

In the church bulletin, ask if there are parish families whose children are older now who may be willing to donate or loan their books. If your parish has a school, look through the library there. Any retired educators in your parish? They may be interested in contributing to the education of the parish children through book giving.

As you look for books, keep in mind that stories teachers can use don’t always need to be obviously religious. Many children’s books deal with topics that are about Christ’s teachings in symbolic ways. Books about a parent’s unconditional love also teach Gods’ unconditional love. A classic on this theme for the very youngest children is The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. There are numerous books on sharing, which echo the early Christian communities in the Acts of the Apostles.  The same is true with caring for others and accepting people. Books on nature can always be presented as talking about God’s creation.

And always look for the tried and true authors, such as Tomie de Paola. His books, many on religious subjects such as saints, Easter, bible stories, etc., are readily available at all the places mentioned above.

Then pour yourself a glass of iced tea or lemonade, sit down with a pile of books and read. Perhaps it will lead to your own prayerful meditations as you relax this summer.