Kate and Noah Mitchell both work at Christchurch in Ilkley where they share the youth, children and families work. As a family the Mitchells enjoy spending time outdoors (as long as it’s not snowing… in March… grr!) and playing games (as long as the youngest isn’t trying to eat the pieces). Kate leads a small group in exploration of different aspects of contemplative prayer and finds peaceful time with God very valuable, especially in the midst of busy family life.
Sometimes, praying with small children can feel a bit like a losing battle. I’ve tried numerous ways of getting my two engaged, and whilst many things work for a while, they usually seem to lose their appeal after some time.
But I’m here to say, don’t give up!
My four year old has at different times enjoyed several prayer activities (which I will detail below in case anyone wants to try them). Just recently though we haven’t been doing any regular prayer as a family. It’s something I will come back to, because I think a regular family prayer time is a valuable thing, but as my he is in a phase of rebelling against nearly anything I suggest, we didn’t want to force it.
Instead, I try to talk to my children about prayer as part of everyday life. The four year old enjoys visiting old churches and seems to catch something of the calm, prayerful atmosphere. He understands that when I go running I spend time with God in the open air; I show him relevant pages in my journaling Bible; and if I feel cross during the day (which can happen a lot!) I sometimes say that I just need a moment to ask God to help me be calm. Whilst he struggles to apply this to his own feelings of frustration, my son is quick to remind me when he has done something provoking that I need to ask God to help me not to feel cross!
For a long time I wondered if any of this was really getting through. Then a few weeks ago I had a lovely glimpse into my son’s spiritual life. Grandma was helping with the one year old whilst I put the big one to bed. We heard baby sister crying, and big brother asked me why God couldn’t get her to sleep. I asked what he meant. “He could rock her in his hands.” I wondered aloud what that might feel like. “We feel it inside us. In our hearts.” I asked my son if he would like God to rock him. There was a long pause, then a huge and beautiful smile and the response, “I think he is rocking me now!”
This last exchange is what tells me that it’s best not to try and force prayer to happen with children. It’s important to talk about our own prayer lives, and to offer opportunities for a real connection with God, but by far the most important thing is to look out for when those Holy Spirit moments occur naturally in your child’s life and be very open to listening to what your child has to say at these times. When appropriate we can also gently offer the language to help children talk about their spiritual experiences and realise that these special moments are times of connection with God. Advice we might also take with regard to our own prayer lives – for didn’t Jesus say that unless we become like little children, we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven?
Examples of some prayer activities to try with children
Collect some stones from a beach or river. Write on each one the name of a family member. Each day, pick one stone out of the bag and pray for that person. Make the chosen stones into a little pile so that everyone gets prayed for before starting again.
Use lollipop sticks to write two or three simple prayer points on (get your child to help you think of these). Put them in a pot or box (or for fun, stick them into a polystyrene ball!) then pray about these things each day. Keep each stick until the prayer point feels like it is resolved.
Light a real candle. Turn over a gel timer (try to find one that is calming to watch and lasts around 30 seconds) and have everybody be silent (or close to silent for very little ones) until the timer has dripped through. This worked particularly well for us during Advent as we lit the Advent candle at the dinner table every day and had a very short moment of silence before we started eating.
My children had made paper flowers which they wanted to display. I got them to paint a big box green, then cut it in a zigzag to look like blades of grass. On each blade we wrote one thing we felt thankful for, then we put the grass and flowers together to make a display on the kitchen wall. Of course it wouldn’t have to be blades of grass – a sunshine with sunbeams or individual raindrops would work well, as would anything else you think would grab your children’s attention!
Fill a big glass or plastic bowl with water. Use pipettes or squeezy bottles to drip a tiny drop of food colouring or watercolour paint into the bowl for each person’s prayer and watch the colour disperse.
Go outside with a pot of bubble mixture. Think together of some things you would like to say to God. Think about each thing and blow bubbles, and quietly watch them float away into the sky.
If you like these ideas, I can recommend the Flame Creative website for many more like them!