25 Ways for Children to Participate in Worship

25 Ways for Children to Participate in Worship

Children play an important role in the life of the church. And while I don't think every aspect of the worship service needs to be tailored to children, I do think it's important to create a welcoming and inviting space and plan experiences that include them. And I'm not talking worship bulletins and coloring pages.

I'm talking about real, tangible ways for children to actively participate in worship, as leaders. Here are four reasons why I believe this is an important ministry for the church:

Inviting. Welcoming children (and their parents) into the church and into worship is one of the greatest, most sincere ways to create a warm, inviting atmosphere.

Inclusive. Creating a place for children in worship and giving them opportunities to participate offers a message of inclusivity and acceptance and gives children responsibility, ownership, and a renewed sense of belonging. 

Intergenerational. Inviting children to participate in worship gives them a unique opportunity to serve alongside older teens, young adults, middle age members, and seniors, creating a new sense of community for all.

Inspiring. Watching children lead worship - through song, word, and action - is inspiring to all involved. Everyone benefits.

Child's Play

It was gorgeous here on Saturday.  Too gorgeous to sit inside all day.  So, I took my notes, my current summer reading material, and my new pair of sunglasses and packed up for an afternoon of studying in the park.

A few people passed by on their way to the bus stop, the coffee shop, or the parking garage and didn't take much notice of me on my bench.  A middle-aged woman and two young children crossed the street and sat on the bench to wait for the bus.  The children - two girls, the oldest was maybe seven and her sister either four or five - immediately began exploring the park.

Instantly, they were in play.

"Hi!" the oldest said to me as she rounded the curve where I was sitting.  "Hi!" I said back, smiling.  She continued on her way, with her sister following close behind, imitating her every step.  "This is the path to the princess," the older one said.  I pretended to read my notes as I watched them play.  They were skipping around the same section of the park - an oblong circle - but every time they rounded the corner, it was as if it was brand new territory to explore.

"Y'all get down from there!" a voice said from behind me.  "You're going to fall!"

The girls returned quickly to where their "Nana" was waiting but within a minute or two, they were back on their quest for the missing princess.  "For real, for real, this is the way to the princess," the older one said as they made their way around the circle again.  "Princess!" the younger one called out.  Within minutes, they went from searching for the princess to chasing the princess through the magical forest.  They changed direction and circled round the same section of the park as if it were brand new.

"Y'all stop that!  Come over and sit on this bench.  You're going to miss the bus!" the voice said again.

The girls again paused their game of play and sat for a moment but just as before, they were quickly on their feet again.  Now, the game was Hide and Seek.  The older one ran across the little park to a new section (yet to be explored) and the younger one soon followed.  As they chased each other around the flower bed in the middle of the park, they saw a bright orange butterfly.  They both froze in an instant, mesmerized.  The older one quickly gave instructions to her sister - "Wait here, I'll get it," she said as she tiptoed closer and closer.  As she reached her hand out slowly, the butterfly flew up into the air suddenly, causing both little girls to jump back and squeal.  Now, the game was "chase the butterfly."  A man blowing leaves off the park benches jumped into the game for a minute when he reached his hands up as the butterfly flew overhead.  The girls giggled.

Within the span of twenty minutes or so, these girls moved seamlessly from one idea to another without discussion (i.e. "now what should we do" or "how about we play this?") and without explanation (i.e. "so, there's this princess in a magical forest and we're going to go find her").  They were in almost constant play the entire time (except for those intervening moments where an adult told them to STOP playing and wait for the bus).  I was struck by their uninhibited creativity, their level of imagination, and the quick change of pace.

This is play.

Do we remember what it feels like?  How did we forget?  Do we encourage it when we see it or do we tell children to stop playing so they can do something boring and adult like sit on a bench waiting for the bus?

Maybe play is more important than sitting and waiting.  Maybe play is more important than watching TV all afternoon.  Maybe real play is more important than playing games on a handheld device.  Play is how we learn, how we grow, and how we develop creativity.  Play is how we learn to interact with others.  Play is how we learn to dream, discover, and explore.  Have you searched for the lost princess lately?  For real, for real, this is the way.

Image Credit: my iPhone

Matthew's Lesson

Every Monday night at 6:30 p.m., seven-year-old Matthew comes for a piano lesson.  Some days, these lessons are 80% discipline and 20% playing but this week’s lesson was an exceptional contrast. In preparation for our lecture recital, Steve and I had moved the piano from it’s usual front right position to front and center (and rotated 180-degrees).  This change to our normal lesson scene made an immediate difference with Matthew.  The curly-headed, wiggly child sat right down and flipped his book open to our newest page.  “Are we starting with this piece?” I asked, pointing to the first of the two.  Without a word, he brought his hands up to the keyboard and began to play.  He meant business!  I sat to the side and observed until the end of the piece.  Matthew has an excellent sense of rhythm so generally it’s just fingering and tonal patterns that we need to review.  This performance, however, required no review!  He played the song in it’s entirety while chanting the text.  I was impressed!

We moved on to the second piece on the page by reviewing the rhythm/text.  After tapping and chanting, I asked him to find his hand position.  Again, he played straight through, while chanting the text with no issues!

Normally, by this point in the lesson, I would be kindly asking him to take his feet off the pedals, sit still, play with only fingers 2 and 3, etc.  Since he was so focused and playing so well, I encouraged him to explore the change in sound when adding a little pedal.  He played very gently – adding about half of the sustain pedal throughout.

At the end, I asked, “How did that change the sound?”  He had an immediate response.  “It stays,” he said simply.  “Yes!” I replied enthusiastically.  “It makes the sound last longer, doesn’t it?”  “Yes, and if I were just playing notes like this-” he stopped to demonstrate a pattern of steps “then I wouldn’t need the pedal.  But if I were playing here [high register] and then I wanted to go down here [moving to the mid-low register] then I would need the pedal.”  What an insightful response!  It became clear to me that Matthew not only recognized the sound difference but knew how he would use it in the future as a way of connecting patterns in different registers!

Having recently learned about 2nds, playing on white keys (this book starts on the black keys), and dotted half notes, I asked Matthew to improvise a piece that incorporated all three things.  He thought for a minute before beginning.  Thoughtfully, he played a stepwise melody with a repeated rhythmic motive.  He used both hands and a wide range of keys.  The piece ended rather abruptly but from the look on his face, this was intentional.

“That was beautiful, Matthew!”  I said.  “What’s the name of that piece?”  “I haven’t decided yet,” he said in a matter-of-fact way.  “Let’s ask your grandma what she thought,” I suggested.  “I thought it sounded whimsical,” she said.  Seeing the perplexed look on Matthew’s face (“What the heck does that mean?!”) she quickly added, “Like playing with toys.”  “Hmm, what do you think, Matthew?” I asked.  “Toy Days,” he stated.  And “Toy Days” it was.

We moved back in the book to review his recital pieces – “Inchworm” and “Playing Frisbee.”  We work on text from the very beginning of learning a new piece but in preparation for the recital, I’ve been working on having Matthew think the words internally instead of speaking them out loud.  We reviewed this for both pieces and as I joined him on the bench to add the duet part, I reminded him about bringing our hands up to the keyboard at the same time and lifting our hands off the keys and back to our laps at the end of the piece.  His grandmother was very impressed.

I had one more piece to review – “Merrily We Roll Along.”  This is a great example of knowing/singing a song one way and reading it another.  This elementary piano book carefully presents this song within a 3-note range for each hand and with only basic rhythms (for instance, no dotted rhythms).  I believe that reading is important, but I also know that Matthew knows this song with a different rhythm.  I’m not going to correct him with the simplified version when he can hear and play the more complicated version.  All I had to do was turn to the page and he began to play.

I had turned for just a minute to make a comment to his grandmother about practicing but I could hear him working out this song by ear.  He was looking at the book but we both knew he wasn’t really reading it.  He was singing to himself and when he played a wrong note, he would say to himself, “Wait!” and then begin the phrase again and again until he figured it out.  He didn’t stop until he could play all the way to the end.  I thought this was excellent and praised him for using his ear to self-correct.  I played my accompaniment for him and we sang the melody together (with the familiar dotted rhythm).  After that, it was much easier to play both parts because he already had an idea of how the two parts fit together.

We ended our lesson time with a few preparation steps for a new song – reading the text in rhythm and tapping while chanting.  We discussed the implications of the title (“Parade”).  “Have you ever marched in a parade?”  I asked.  “No, but I’ve seen a parade before,” he answered.  “Well, what do you think would happen if you were marching in a parade and suddenly, you decided to stop?”  “You would get run over!” he replied with big eyes.  “Probably so!”  I said.  “That’s what this song means when it says, ‘Keep the step!’”

Lessons like these remind me why I love teaching.  The creativity, the innocence, the playfulness, and the imagination make music so much more fun!  Can we all be a little more like seven-year-olds sometimes?

Boys Will Be Boys

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I am learning so much about the nature of boys from my piano lessons with seven-year-old Matthew. 

At first, it may seem to an observer that Matthew is easily distracted, often outspoken, and possibly disinterested in piano. However, after several weeks of lessons, I see the situation a little differently.

Tonight, I introduced the slur (Unit 3 of Time to Begin from the Music Tree Series).

“Do you know what this curved line means?” I asked.

“No!” said Matthew, boldly.

“It means to play things smoothly – like this,” I said as I demonstrated a connected melody.

Wiggling on the bench next to me, Matthew instantly began playing loudly in the bass register of the piano, cutting off my more delicate melody.  Instead of stopping him or suggesting that his playing was loud or interruptive, I let him play. 

I recognized after just a second of hearing him play that he was experiencing this new concept of smooth playing.  He heard me define and demonstrate it – now he needed to experience it.  Imagine the learning that would not have taken place had I cut him off abruptly!

“Can you demonstrate something that is not smooth and connected?” I prodded.

Relating a new concept to what it is not is always helpful in the learning process.  Instantly, Matthew began playing – with both hands.

“What do you call that?” I asked.

I wanted to encourage him to name this opposite style himself rather than me enforcing a foreign name such as “staccato.”

“Crime,” he said with big eyes.

“I guess it might sound like crime,” I responded.  You can never expect the path that true imagination takes!

“We could call it disconnected or – popcorn!” I said, catching myself introducing a foreign word.

Seven-year-olds can relate to popcorn, though this analogy still required a demonstration before he agreed.  Once Matthew understood the concept of the slur and experienced what it felt like to play in a smooth and connected style, the next few pieces came easily.

I have also learned that Matthew loves rhythm and it comes very naturally to him.  To encourage rhythm study in lessons, I created a series of rhythm pattern cards in triple and duple meter.  I let Matthew choose 8-12 cards each week to arrange in any order. 

Tonight, he was confident enough in his rhythm reading that he performed a series of four patterns while I read a contrasting series of four patterns.  This is his favorite way to end our lessons each week!