As you’ve likely noticed, preschool-aged children are active learners. That means they learn more when they’re on their feet than when they’re in a seat—they’re rarely still. That’s because they experience the world through their senses. At this point in development, they can really understand only what they can experience—what they can see/hear/taste/smell/touch.
Creating sensory experiences in our children’s ministry classrooms cultivates optimal conditions for learning that lasts. In short, if you want your lessons to stick, find ways that they can see/hear/taste/touch/smell as they learn. Combine the use of two or three senses at the same time for even more benefit!
There are two wonderful ways to approach sensory-rich learning in early childhood ministry. You may want to utilize one or the other or a combination throughout your day:
- Providing non-specific sensory experiences through learning centers:
Sensory activities are available to children to participate in, even if they don’t directly attach to the current lesson plan. For example, you may set up a sand table, playdough area, music listening station, or cozy corner. Though the centers may not overtly link to the Bible story of the day, these centers have intrinsic benefits. They can help calm overstimulated kiddos, focus brains in preparation for learning, and provide an enjoyable experience that the children will attach to coming to church. Perhaps the biggest benefit comes when adults come alongside the children as their senses are engaged and dialogue with children. This is where relationships are built, social skills are nurtured, and language development happens.
- Providing lesson-specific sensory experiences through your curriculum:
Sensory activities are planned to match with and enhance the Bible lesson. What can you add to engage students? When talking about sheep, could each child hold a little piece of soft wool as you share the account? If telling about fishes and loaves, can children eat some bread? Visuals (like puppets or posters or books) to see, fancy oils to smell, fabrics to feel, instruments to hear, and foods to taste—all of these help the children make connections between what they know to be real and the accounts they are hearing about from the Bible.
Note: Not all children find every sensory activity a positive experience. Because of this, always make sensory experiences optional. Make spaces where children can safely go if it gets to be too much. Have alternate activities or modifications available for children who can’t want to touch the gritty sand (perhaps some tools so they don’t have to use their hands? Gloves?) or gooey slime, or who can’t tolerate the idea of tasting olives. If a child is overwhelmed by sound, offer noise-dulling headphones or a quieter place to sit. A cozy area without too much visual stimulation can be a blessing.