So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ
After working decades with small children, I have come to believe babies understand a lot more than they let on. When my twins were very tiny, I began spelling words in front of them. Words like n-a-p and b-a-t-h. Because, impossible as it may have seemed, I was certain those babies were on to me.
I’m not alone in this thinking. As I’ve traveled to nurseries in churches and child care centers, I have heard more than one infant’s caregiver exclaim, “It’s as though she understands what I’m saying!”
Babies learn faith concepts (really!)
Recent scientific studies conducted at the University of Pennsylvania by Elika Bergelson and Daniel Swingley suggest that children as young as 6 months can distinguish not just sounds and tone, but specific words in their native language. Turns out our suspicions were correct! Small children truly understand FAR more than they get credit for.
As church nursery caregivers, we are working to switch our mindset away from asking “Can babies REALLY learn faith concepts?” to “WHICH faith concepts can babies really learn?” Answering this modified question requires studying the Bible to discover which concepts are most important. And, it requires science-based research to understand what is developmentally realistic.
Biblically, we know that faith itself is a high priority. In fact, scripture tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God. Faith is an important key concept developmentally, too. For babies to be able to grow in every area (emotionally, socially, physically, and spiritually), they have to become familiar with the ideas of trust and faith. Two BIG foundational constructs.
Caregivers can reinforce these foundational experiences and help babies learn faith concepts with two simple practices:
Being faithful with our words
Romans 10:17 proclaims that “faith comes from what is heard”and that “what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” Simply put, this means that the seeds of faith are planted through hearing scripture. With this in mind, it becomes our job as caregivers to make sure children hear God’s word.
What does that look like in the nursery? In addition to talking about the Bible, we can also let them hear scripture and faith concepts in the form of song. Music reaches a part of our brain not accessible from simple spoken words. The right side of the brain processes music and helps cement concepts and phrases we might otherwise forget. (Need proof? How many of us have to sing the ABC song just to alphabetize something?)
Practice the simple act of singing songs like “Jesus Loves Me” to an infant while rocking him or her to sleep. Or “Arky, Arky” while changing a diaper. These simple actions not only help babies learn faith concepts of love and giving glory to God. They can help those concepts to become deeply rooted. As children grow, singing songs that quote Bible passages directly can be a fantastic way to grow faith.
Being faithful with our care
Perhaps the most effective way to lay the foundations for children to learn about faith is for them to be in the presence of adults who are faithful. For infants and toddlers, our goal should be simple. Helping them understand “I can have faith in the people who take care of me” is the first step in preparing their hearts to learn “I can have faith in a God who will take care of me.”
To that end, the people who care for children in a church nursery should, as much as is possible, be the same people week after week. Separation anxiety (for parents and children!) at this age is already a challenge. When caregivers are inconsistent, this causes even more angst as the child and their parents struggle to know who to trust.
Every time an infant cries and receives what he needs, he learns to trust that his needs will be met. When a toddler reaches her hands up and is held and comforted, she learns that she can have faith in her caregivers. This critical lesson lays the very groundwork for these little ones to someday understand what it means to have faith in the scripture that promises “My God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus”(Philippians 4:19).
Keep doing important work
Of all the important concepts in the Bible, Christ singled out faith, hope, and love. As we teach faith with our words and our actions, we are offering a key to our babies that will help them form their testimonies throughout their lifetimes.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll explore the idea of teaching about hope. And in the final we will address communicating the greatest of these… love. We’ll look at ways to prepare our own hearts as well as explore practical, developmentally appropriate ways to help build these concepts in the classroom each week.
When we’re finished, you’ll not only have a better answer for “Can they learn?” My hope is you’ll have a renewed sense of the importance of your role in the testimonies of each baby you get the honor of caring for.