Love, Developmental Science, and Preschoolers

Feb 9, 2021 9:00:00 AM / by Amber Lappin

If you are blessed with the opportunity to care for preschoolers right now—this is a wonderful time of year to do some important work! Traditionally, February is a time when the world is all about chocolate hearts and valentines and love. For brain science/early education/human development ministry types like me, this is the perfect setup to highlight God’s BIG LOVE for our preschoolers!

The concept of love is critical because, without an understanding of what love looks like, it’s impossible to know God (1 John 4:7). So, it stands to reason that we should spend as much effort as we can to help our children get the concept. Two quick things to keep in mind:

  • Children ages 3-5 are developing the feelings part of their brains (before that, they’ve been focusing mainly on getting the physical and sensory parts of their brains coordinated, and next they’ll be growing the learning parts of their brains for things like reading and problem solving) and so for them, they are really starting to understand this idea of what it feels like to love and be loved.
  • Children at this age are also in what Jean Piaget called the preoperational stage. Because of this, they can be very egocentric (meaning they are most interested in what effects them) and are just learning to connect language with symbols and objects. Preschoolers will likely have noticed the candy hearts and extra talk of love in the world around them and are starting to connect the feelings they’ve experienced with the words and symbols around them. This leads to a lot of imaginary play.

Why all the developmental science talk? Because we can use these discoveries to inform our practice in children’s ministry. With the knowledge that children are big on feelings and symbolic thought and pretend play, we can develop our classroom activities to incorporate what we know about how kids this age grow. For instance, we can do puppet shows and encourage doll or dress up play where kids can act out examples of love. They can practice saying kind words, giving gifts, caregiving, hugging, and other loving acts. If you’re meeting in person, you can even supply empty candy heart boxes (watch for nut allergies!) or paper and envelopes to pretend to hand out valentines. If you’re meeting virtually, have children bring a favorite stuffed animal to do a pretend TV show about love.

While the children are learning through play, we can support and enhance these experiences by asking questions and offering language to connect the actions with the feelings. “I see that you gave that dolly a big kiss on the cheek. You must love him very much.” “Oh, your puppet was helping her friend! That was a loving thing to do!” “You invited your friend to play with you, and look at his smile! I bet he feels loved!” This kind of guidance (called scaffolding) is a way to support learning in a way that demonstrates love in itself. As children grow in their understanding of love with one another, we can also point out about God’s love for us. “I felt so happy when I saw all the ways you were loving in the puppet show today. The Bible tells us that God is happy when we love the people God loves. And do you know who God loves?” Each child can point to themselves, and then to the others. “ALL OF US!”

Topics: Early Childhood Ministry, Valentines Day, love

Amber Lappin

Written by Amber Lappin

Amber Lappin, M.Ed., is a speaker and writer with three decades of experience in early childhood development and children’s ministry. She works as a professor in the School of Education & Teacher Prep at Riverside City College. Amber enjoys her small farm in Southern California with her husband of 30 years, Jason. They have three adult children and an ever-growing assortment of weirdo animals.


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