Learning God’s Word through Play: Strategies for Preschool Discipleship

I have a video of my son at two years old playing with a plastic storage tub.  In the video, we shake the tub back and forth.  He is inside the tub pretending to be asleep, complete with pretend snores.  He then stands up, shakes his tiny finger, and says in his most authoritative voice, “Be Quiet! Be still!” We stop shaking his storage tub boat and he goes back to his pretend sleep.  Perhaps you can guess his favorite Bible story at the time- Jesus Calms the Storm. 

This anecdote represents more than a cute story.  It is a perfect picture of how young children learn, using play to solidify their learning and explore abstract concepts.  Parents, ministers, and lay leaders are all anxious to provide preschoolers with a foundation of Biblical knowledge, but the question often comes down to the best way to teach these concepts to early learners.  While excellent preschool discipleship might look slightly different (and let’s be honest- a little more chaotic) than adult discipleship- many of the important factors remain the same.  Preschoolers learn best in settings with strong relationships, purposeful materials, intentionality, and flexibility. 

  • Preschool discipleship is relationship driven.  

If I could pick one truth that is most misunderstood in the area of preschool discipleship, it would be this one.  Often, the assumption is that as long as there are people in your preschool ministry in place to perform care routines and present the Bible story, your preschoolers’ needs are being met.  However, just like all of us, preschoolers learn best in the context of consistent relationships with both their adult teachers and their peers.  The concept of life groups is important for preschoolers as well!  Preschoolers thrive and learn best when they know they can count on a teacher or group of teachers to be there for them each week, along with a group of church friends they have gotten to know.  When our need for security is met, we are able to open our brain to higher level learning.  Preschoolers who feel comfortable in their space and in their relationships at church are much more likely to be seen in active play and actively participating in the curriculum activities. 

  • Preschool discipleship includes purposeful materials.  

Research has consistently shown us that young children learn best through play.  You will hear this referred to as play-based learning or active learning. Anytime we share the gospel with someone, we must share it in their language.  For young children, their primary language is play! Effective preschool ministry leaders find ways to teach the Bible story in the preschooler’s language- with lots of play and active learning.  

For parents and preschool ministry volunteers, this might take a little extra thinking on your part.  Before you present a lesson, think about ways you can make it more hands-on and playful for your learners.  Young children love to pretend.  An excellent way to review the Bible story and help them remember is bringing in some elements of the story to use in their play.  As a preschool minister, I purchased the little swimming pool rafts for all my preschool classrooms.  Since there are many stories of Jesus which involve being on a boat, these tiny boats made for excellent teaching materials in my classrooms during those teaching weeks.  The preschoolers delighted in using the boats to act out the stories with the assistance of their teachers.  

For teachers with limited budgets, be encouraged that most typical preschool classrooms have many materials that can be used to encourage preschoolers as they interact with the stories you are teaching.  Preschoolers delight in using blocks. A thoughtful teacher might encourage them to create the wall of Jericho and let it tumble down or to create an ark and add play animals to it as they retell the story of Noah.  Baby dolls are another great tool preschoolers use to interact with Bible stories.  A baby doll with a basket is all you need for your preschoolers to learn more about the story of baby Moses! 

  • Preschool discipleship is intentional and flexible. 

The best preschool teachers are both intentional and flexible.  Some of the best learning moments are unplanned.  Excellent preschool teachers are willing to observe play and use unplanned teachable moments to impart truths to their preschoolers.  But truly effective teaching also includes a well thought out plan.  Preschool teachers who are making the most progress in their goals of preschool discipleship are intentional with the materials they use and the lessons they present each week.  Our family ministry at Colonial Heights has created a Family Ministry Strategy that guides our decisions around curriculum and learning for our preschoolers.  This helpful plan outlines core truths about God, man, the Bible, the Church, and the world that we desire all of our preschoolers to understand before moving on to our children’s ministry.  The children’s ministry will then build on these truths.  Whether you are a family desiring to disciple your children or an entire ministry team, I would encourage you to spend time creating specific core truths you desire your preschoolers to understand.  This type of intentionality will pay dividends as you are always aware of the truths you are teaching as your preschooler goes throughout their daily life of play and routines.  Planning in advance allows for flexible, needs-based teaching in the future! If you desire to learn more about creating more intentionality in your preschool ministry, Lifeway provides an excellent resource in their Levels of Biblical Learning.

If your church or family has already created such an outline, I encourage teachers and leaders to refer back to it often and spend time with your curriculum before your teaching time.  Preschoolers are busy people! They often are not willing to wait for you to check back into your curriculum book.  When you are ready to go with an engaging story (think voices, giving them parts to act out or participate with you, and keeping it between 3 to 10 minutes) and a handful of ideas in how you can create playful opportunities for them to interact with that story in your classroom, you are setting the stage for a successful day of preschool ministry.  

Author: Christi Kelly is the Weekday Preschool Director at Colonial Heights Baptist Church in Ridgeland, MS.