How Children Make Meaning of God

Five Ways Children Learn, with Three Ideas for Worship

When my nephew was a young child, he came home from church one Sunday and then, for the rest of the afternoon, he played and recreated a worship service. He directed the imaginary choir as he sat at the organ, which in reality was his toy box placed under a windowsill. Then he put on his bathrobe, held his children’s Bible, and started “preaching.” In his “sermon,” he recited various parts of the liturgy, then shared some words from the Bible, mixing it with the announcement for the upcoming potluck supper. After he put his Bible down, he gathered juice in a sippy cup and grabbed a smooshed cracker, handing it to each adult while he splashed water and made the sign of the cross over his brother’s head. He was charming to watch, but he was also accomplishing a very important task. As a young child, he was making meaning of what he experienced in church.

Meaning-making is a normal process for all of us. Each of us tries to make sense of our world and our experiences. As we encounter new things, we integrate what we are learning with what we already know. Children are no different. In fact, meaning-making for children is serious work.

Children learn through everything they do. It is a holistic experience for them. Along with their brains and cognitive abilities, children use their senses, their physical action, and their social relationships to learn and make meaning of what they encounter. As children participate in church activities, the worship service becomes an important place for meaning-making. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom and David D. Bjorlin explain in their book Incorporating Children in Worship: Mark of the Kingdom (Cascade Books, 2014), “Children may not grasp the fullness of every symbol and act of worship, but those symbols and structures of worship create the constructs from which children understand themselves, their world, and their God. Worship is the place for faith in the making” (33).

John Westerhoff, in his seminal book Will Our Children Have Faith? (revised edition, Morehouse Publishing, 2012), highlights how a child’s faith is formed. He describes specific ways children make meaning of their faith, including exploration, imagination, observation, and experiences.

Children make meaning through exploration. If you spend any time with children—especially young children—you will know that they are great explorers. Children ask questions. They wonder and try new things. Children want to touch and discover the space around them. In Chicago, the wonderful Museum of Science and Industry is designed with this kind of exploration and discovery in mind. Children are encouraged to touch things, turn levers, and push buttons to see what might happen. This exploration is a child’s process for making meaning.

In worship, when children ask questions, want to hold the hymnal, touch the communion cup, or look behind the altar to see what might be there, they are trying to make meaning of their experience. As children explore and discover new things, they begin to learn how the church and its act of worship work.

A child’s imagination and creativity contribute to meaning-making. Imagination is one of the greatest gifts children have, and they can explode with creativity if we encourage it. Providing art supplies, and a space for imaginative play are simple ways to support a child’s ability to make meaning. As children draw pictures or create something with play clay, they are expressing their understanding of what they hear. By creatively retelling a story through dress-up and play, children reinterpret what they have heard and find their own place within that story.

How can we encourage these playful acts in a sacred way so that children have the opportunity to make meaning in worship? We can encourage them to respond to worship by drawing pictures or creating something with play clay. Maybe we can follow the example of churches in Scotland who created toy worship wardrobes, encouraging children to make meaning of their worship experience by providing clothes for dress-up and selected toys to play with.

Children make meaning by observing something and then copying what they observed. When I hire a plumber to fix something in my house, I want one who has apprenticed well under a master plumber. We value this apprenticeship—the observation and copying of a master who knows more than a novice does. So how can we apprentice children in worship?

When children observe our actions and mimic what they see, they are making meaning. This is a critical way they learn the behavior and actions of their community. Whenever a child observes and copies someone raising their hands in praise, putting money in the offering plate, or bowing their head in prayer, children are processing what they observed and internalizing this information. In worship, we can encourage children to observe and copy our actions in how we worship, serve, and lead.

Experiences and personal reactions encourage a child’s ability to make meaning. As children engage in the world—the experiences and actions, the words spoken, the reactions expressed, and the emotions felt—all of this prompts meaning-making. When this is experienced within a church or religious setting, it is foundational to a child’s faith. As Westerhoff explains, “It is not so much the words we hear spoken that matter most, but the experiences we have which are connected to those words” (92).

It is helpful sometimes to imagine what a worship experience might be for a child. Are they able to hear and see what is going on? How do we, as adults, respond to a child in the worship service? Imagine if every time you had a question or reaction you were told to be quiet. What does that experience convey to a child?

Every church I know values the children in their congregation and wants to support their faith formation. So how can a church create an environment that supports a child’s theological meaning-making? Here are three simple ideas.

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First, when encouraging children to make meaning in the church, it is important that they experience a hospitable atmosphere. How can we welcome children so that they feel they belong to the worshiping community? When their childlike ways of meaning-making are valued and encouraged, children feel comfortable enough to explore and gain new understanding. Do we have patience to accept a child’s loudly whispered questions, their wiggles when they cannot see, or their need to explore and try new things?

Theological meaning-making is also a collaborative process and involves the entire worshiping community. Children learn about God through their relationships with the people around them—by asking questions, engaging in conversations, participating in corporate actions, and reflecting on the experiences they have with their faith community. What are the ways we model worship so that our children observe and copy that behavior? How can we encourage children to reflect on what they experience? Are we listening to children’s questions? How can we explore these questions together?

Lastly, theological meaning-making is an active experience for the child. Children’s learning is holistic. It involves all of them: their senses, their physical movement, their cognitive ability, and their social interactions. To encourage a child’s ability to make meaning of God in worship, it is helpful to create space for children to authentically express themselves. What are some ways in which we can mentor and coach children to be active participants in worship? How can we come alongside them—sharing the leadership for Bible reading or community prayer, perhaps—so that children can observe and copy what we do? Maybe we can apprentice them so that they might eventually lead these activities for the faith community.

The process of meaning-making for children is serious work. By being hospitable to children and collaborating with them so that worship is an active experience, children will be able to make meaning of their faith, hopefully drawing into a deeper relationship with God.

Dr. Mimi L. Larson is the children’s ministry catalyzer with Faith Formation Ministries, a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. She is also an assistant professor of educational studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.

Reformed Worship 144 © June 2022, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.