The sweet smiles of two- and three-year-olds … a catchy song written for preschoolers that I still sing to myself decades later … the feel of a tiny hand in mine, clutching a fat glue stick with intense focus … the shining eyes and serious faces of little ones as they hear parts of God’s great story for the first time …
In his wisdom and grace, God gives us people, situations, and experiences that we often don’t recognize as priceless gifts at the time. Some of those gifts were given to me 20 years ago, and it’s only recently that I’ve begun to truly appreciate those busy days of teaching, corralling, discipling, and loving the lively and earnest little children that were entrusted to my care every Sunday morning.
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Back in the early 2000s, after I’d been a Christian for a few years, I served as the Sunday school coordinator in a new church plant that met in a public elementary school. I also taught the toddler class, something I had done in our previous church and wanted to continue, because I loved them so. (And also because it turned out that very few people wanted to teach toddlers. I later found that the same was true of high schoolers, my other favorite age to teach.) Class was in the school cafeteria, sharing space with the four- and five-year-olds. Every Sunday, we arranged the folding cafeteria tables into tall partitions to form the perimeter of my classroom. A quilt for the floor, another table for coloring and crafts, and we were good to go.
For about forty minutes each week, with the support of an abundantly helpful curriculum, I told stories, shared props and things to touch from home, supervised coloring and crafts, helped with gluing and cutting, distributed dress-ups for role play, and came up with something every week to get little legs moving for some purpose related to the lesson. As well as: kept children from eating crayons, tied or located shoes, wiped noses, made trips to the bathroom, and encouraged sitting quietly and paying attention for increasingly longer periods of time.
And then, as the completed crafts were placed into labeled bags soon to be lost in various places around the school, lo and behold, the music teacher would arrive. Both classes would excitedly head to the two rows of little chairs that faced Mrs. K and her trusty autoharp. The twos and threes now had the “big kids” as role models: the fours and fives had much longer attention spans, knew all the right hand motions, and could remember all the words. It was a little awesome for my toddlers to be in their presence, actually.
Mrs. K was a master at her craft. She could effortlessly manage the children, her playlist, all the words and hand motions, and her autoharp every single Sunday. I was an adult-convert Christian who’d never heard any of these songs until a couple of years before at our previous church. So she was teaching the songs to me, too.
If you haven’t been around toddlers and preschoolers for a while, let me remind you that their attention spans range from short to extremely short, so the songs move quickly and there’s something for everyone. “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” is just the tip of the repertoire. Every Sunday, requests were taken and the children practically fell over each other in trying to make sure their favorite song was played—while at the same time adhering to Mrs. K’s rules of proper conduct. Is there anything cuter than a three- or four-year old straining to raise their hand higher than their neighbor’s, keep their bottom in the chair, and clamp their lips firmly together, in hopes of being called on? All while wearing a little church dress and fancy shoes or a little sweater vest over a tiny button-down shirt?
Knowing small children as she did, Mrs. K somehow met the needs of the can’t-sit-still and the high-volume kids as well as the needs of the overwhelmed and the too-shy-to-participate kids. There were the Stand-Up-and-Move songs, like “I’m in the Lord’s Army,” and “Horse and Rider,” (which has wildly anachronistic movements that make it look more like song about cowboys than a song about Pharoah’s army). There were the Sit-Down-and-Move songs, like “Fishers of Men,” “Be Careful Little Eyes,” and the crowd favorite (due to ending with a surprisingly loud last line and rapid arm movements), “It’s Bubbling.” There were even a few Sit-Down-and-Don’t-Move songs, like “Trust and Obey,” and the granddaddy of all Sit-Down-and-Don’t-Move songs, the “Books of the Bible.”
About that Books of the Bible song: thank you, Wee Sing, for this magnificent earworm that does its job in such an efficient, never-to-be-forgotten manner. The link above is nostalgically fun to watch. It’s the closest to what we sang, and includes both Old and New Testaments. I can’t think of a more thoroughly useful song for a child or a new Christian to learn. It’s catchy, it’s absolutely unforgettable, and it’s so practical. Even today, when someone says, “turn to Galatians (or 2 Kings, or Nahum, or 1 Thessalonians, or any of the other books I have trouble locating with quick precision), I’m singing in my head the five or six books that precede the one I’m looking for. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve sung parts of that song to myself, I’d be a rich woman today. And I fully intend to keep on singing bits and pieces of it, when needed, until I’m no longer physically able to turn the pages of my Bible.
I don’t think I’ll ever teach toddlers again (except for my own grandchildren, Lord willing). For one thing, I’m past the point where I’m eager (or even able, with the ease of 20 years ago) to get up and down, up and down off the floor, or chase small humans who’ve escaped down the hall. God is leading me in new directions in my church, and things are just as they should be, I believe.
But no teaching experience has ever returned to me void. Every single opportunity that God has set in front of me has brought rewards I often don’t appreciate until years later. Those toddlers I taught are in high school and college now, and it’s likely they don’t remember much about Sunday mornings when they were two or three years old. But oh, the joy we shared, the treasures we made together, the stories and music that we learned from. When I’m old and gray, and remember clearly (and perhaps only) the things that God has imprinted on my heart, I will recall those times when we were all much younger, singing together the books of the Bible and knowing that Jesus loves us because the Bible tells us so.