I am an avid podcast listener. I listen to talks on all sorts of topics: entertainment, food, pop culture, church culture, church leadership, Bible teaching, kids’ ministry, special needs ministry, and more.
Name a topic—I’m probably listening to a podcast on it.
Recently, I heard a great episode on The Lucky Few Podcast about teaching kids with Down Syndrome to read.
Mrs. Brown has had a great success rate using her techniques, approaches, and tools to instill a love of reading, writing, and math in kids who are differently abled.
(If you’re as intrigued as I was, check out sohappytolearn.com for more information on Terry Brown’s philosophy).
After I listened to this episode, I immediately thought about how we’re always looking for new approaches to do more to help kids who are differently abled (and I’m so glad that we do!) . . . but we don’t do that as often in the broader context of kids’ ministry.
What’s Your Teaching Style?
We generally expect typical kids to all learn the same way rather than approaching how we teach based on the ways they learn best.
This is the thing: whether typical or differently abled, every child is unique—and part of what makes them unique is their different learning styles.
Most of us tend to teach the way we learn . . . or the way we were taught. When I was growing up, I was mostly lectured to in church.
Once in a while, my teachers might use a visual or an object lesson to support their spoken words, but by and large we were simply told what to believe and how to express our beliefs.
When I think back on my childhood church experience, I realize that most of us were passive learners. I know I was.
And yeah, I picked up some information about the Bible, God, and Jesus . . . and thankfully some of that information stuck with me.
However, I was not led to make my own discoveries about Jesus and really experience relationship with Him.
When we encourage children to make those discoveries, they start to own their faith instead of borrowing their parents’ or grandparents’ faith.
And don’t we all want to help kids own what they know, believe in Jesus, and follow Him?
As children’s ministry leaders, we have loads of opportunities to get creative and teach kids the ways they learn best.
Varying Our Teaching Methods
Recently, Yale has released a study that the theory of learning styles is a myth.
However, this study still recognizes that there are different kinds of instructional methods that benefit students, and these methods can and should vary based on the content being taught.
I have visited and consulted with many churches over the years . . . and often times, I observe children sitting in school-style classroom settings, where they’re expected to sit quietly, answer questions when asked, and regurgitate a lot of information.
Of course, there are some leaders who bring in visual aids and play games to reach kids . . . but can we do more to help kids understand and own the truths they are learning?
Let me take you back to 2008. I had the privilege of subbing for a preschool group leader who had been out for couple months.
One of the preschoolers, Jeff, loved to read. He had read through his story Bible many times. He would always bring his Bible to church on Sundays.
Whenever we started storytelling, Jeff would ask where in his Bible he could find the story so he could follow along. He would know all the answers to the questions we asked about the day’s story.
But then when it was time to stand up to sing and dance for worship or play games, he totally checked out.
He would ask if he could sit in the corner and read his Bible (and, really, who wants to be the kids’ pastor who encourages a student to spend less time in God’s Word?).
Now let me introduce you to another preschooler in my class, Evan. Evan would learn all the lyrics and motions to a praise song after hearing it just twice.
Evan often corrected me because I didn’t do the motions quite right. However, when it was time for the Bible story, I couldn’t engage him. He would be on the floor rolling across the room.
Evan had very little interest in hearing the Bible story or learning the memory verse.
However, we eventually noticed that he learned the memory verse really quickly when we added motions to go with the verse. This got us thinking . . . what if we had the kids act out the Bible story every now and then?
This is when Evan joined in, had fun, and retained information. In addition, he was able to join in the application of our lessons.
How Their Stories Changed My Story
Even as three-year-old’s, I saw vast differences in the ways these two boys participated, learned, and retained information.
And we need all of our kids to participate, learn, and retain before we can get into life application and transformation.
Jeff and Evan taught me that I can teach the way kids learn so they stay engaged.
Most of us have an hour—or at most two hours—each weekend with children in our ministries (and that is if they come to church regularly).
Rather than managing behavior, don’t we want to maximize our time, so kids are actively learning the lessons?
And who in children’s ministry hasn’t struggled with managing behavioral issues at church on the weekends?
Dr. Gardner’s Theory
My desire to maximize the time my team and I have with kids each weekend led me to study Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.
While not everyone agrees with Gardner’s theory, I have come to see the value in it and apply this theory in my ministry.
According to Dr. Gardner, traditional education and culture focus on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence.
Those who do not fit into this traditional model are often labeled as learning disabled, poor students, or underachievers.
However, the Theory of Multiple Intelligences challenges the conventional idea of teaching and suggests that we present the material in the way that allows for effective learning by each student.
One by one, schools around the country are adopting this mode l . . . but what about churches—and children’s ministries in particular?
Are we still stuck teaching through lectures, pictures, and worksheets to communicate the exciting stories and truths in the Bible?
I know it sounds like a lot. But I’ve been amazed by how much more time we get to focus on teaching kids than managing behaviors when we implemented the Theory of Multiple Intelligences in my kids’ ministry.
It starts with the understanding the strengths of the eight intelligences. You can definitely do a deeper dive into Dr. Gardner’s theory if you’re interested.
But I’ve also highlighted the eight intelligences below and in this video (for all of you who are Word Smart!).
1. Linguistic Intelligence—Word Smart
These learners have highly developed auditory skills and are generally elegant speakers. They think in words rather than pictures. They learn by listening, speaking, writing, discussing, and debating.
Word Smart kids can connect with Jesus by praying out loud, engaging in discussions, journaling, telling and/or reading Bible stories.
Kids who are Word Smart often grow up to be writers, lawyers, philosophers, journalists, politicians, poets, or teachers.
2. Logical-Mathematical Intelligence—Number/Reasoning Smart
People with Logical-Mathematical Intelligence have the ability to use reason, logic, and numbers to make connections between pieces of information.
They learn by detecting patterns, problem solving, and working with abstract concepts to figure out relationships between given information.
Number/Reasoning Smart kids can connect to Jesus by analyzing and interpreting Bible stories, asking probing questions, exploring Bible truths step-by-step, and solving Bible questions/problems together.
Bible timelines can be useful tools for these learners so they can see how Bible events relate to other historical events.
Kids who are Number/Reasoning Smart often grow up to be scientists, mathematicians, accountants, engineers, researchers, or economists.
3. Spatial Intelligence—Picture Smart
People with strong Spatial Intelligence tend to think in pictures. They have the ability to vividly see things in three-dimensions and notice patterns easily.
They learn by sculpting, drawing, constructing, creating visual images, and looking at maps and charts.
Picture Smart kids can connect to Jesus through drawing Bible stories, creating arts/crafts that relate to the Bible, using illustrations, and through visual aids.
Kids who are Picture Smart often grow up to be artists, architects, sculptors, interior designers, or painters.
4. Musical Intelligence—Music Smart
These learners are musically inclined and tend to think in sounds, rhythm, and pattern. They often have the ability to perform, compose sounds, and appreciate musical patterns.
They learn by singing, playing instruments, creating songs, and learning rhymes.
Music Smart kids often relate to Jesus through writing and singing songs that are based on Scripture or Bible stories and learning to write lyrics.
Kids who are Music Smart often grow up to be instrumentalists, singers, conductors, disc jockeys, writers, or composers.
5. Intrapersonal Intelligence—Self Smart
These learners are able to self-reflect and understand their feelings, relationships with others, and their own strengths and weaknesses. People with Intrapersonal Intelligence tend to prefer to work alone.
They learn by reflecting, self-analyzing, and sharing their feelings with others.
Self Smart kids connect to Jesus through reflection, prayer, and debriefing. Kids who are Self Smart often grow up to be philosophers, psychologists, theologians, or writers.
6. Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence—Body Smart
People with high Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence express themselves through movement. They learn by using their bodies, interacting with the spaces around them, and playing physical games.
Body Smart kids connect to Jesus through role-play, “playing around” with objects while learning, building models, and dancing.
Kids who are Body Smart often grow up to be athletes, dancers, musicians, actors, surgeons, doctors, builders, firefighters, or soldiers.
7. Interpersonal Intelligence—People Smart
These learners have the ability to relate to and understand others. They are able to sense intentions and motivations of others. They learn by listening, interacting with others, and participating in interactive games.
People Smart kids connect to Jesus through service projects, interaction with others, and working in groups.
Kids who are People Smart often grow up to be salespeople, politicians, counselors, managers, teachers, or social workers.
8. Naturalist Intelligence—Nature Smart
People with strong Naturalist Intelligence are able to recognize, categorize, and draw upon certain features of the environment.
They learn by studying environments, being outdoors, and working with animals.
Body Smart kids love to use nature to enhance Bible lessons, connect to Jesus by going on walks, and study in natural settings. Even comparing what plants need to grow and what we need to grow in faith is a way to cater to this learning style.
Kids who are Nature Smart often grow up to be naturalists, farmers, zookeepers, or gardeners.
Teaching God’s Truth to Multiple Intelligences
We see lots of examples of how Jesus catered to different learning styles when He taught.
Jesus told stories, asked thought-provoking questions, used visuals or life-examples such as parables, allowed time for reflection, had people actively experience His power, and even used nature to teach some of His lessons.
This insight has revolutionized the way we do children’s ministry. We intentionally select praise songs, games, crafts, and other activities to hit as many “smarts” as possible.
We no longer use activities like coloring pages or puzzles just to “fill” time, but everything we do emphasizes the Bible lesson over and over and over again by accommodating different learning styles.
This concept may seem obvious, but it’s amazing how easy it is to fall into a pattern of doing a craft for the sake of having something to send home, or playing a game with the kids just to get them to burn off some of their crazy energy.
Instead, why not use these activities to intentionally connect with different learning styles and further instill the week’s Bible lesson into their minds and hearts?
How This Might Look in Kidmin
For example, if we were to teach a lesson on Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4:35-41), we might structure our time like this:
- The kids act out the story (Body Smart)
- Spray water outside (Nature Smart)
- Write and discuss our own worries (Self Smart, Word Smart, Logic Smart)
- Create storms by making clouds with strips of blue ribbon as kids discuss their fears (Picture Smart, People Smart)
- Sing a rhyme that reinforces the story (Music Smart)
- End with prayer (Word Smart, Self Smart)
We may not hit all eight learning styles every Sunday, but we definitely do our best to present the Bible truths in many different ways to reach as many children as possible with different learning styles.
Teaching Mixed-Age Groups
Using various learning styles has also made it easier to have multi-aged groups. Studies show that many children benefit from mixed-age interaction.
Because children are divided by age or grade-level in schools, we automatically do the same in our churches.
But biblical literacy and spiritual growth are not linear. Age doesn’t dictate how much a child knows about the Bible or the depth of their personal relationship with Jesus.
Using mixed-age groups often allows more opportunities for an older or more spiritually mature child to help younger or less spiritually mature children.
We’ve found that structuring our groups so kids interact with others who have different abilities and intelligences also eliminates competition and increases cooperation among our kids.
Kids are more likely to learn from each other and build confidence and practice sharing God stories with one another. Utilizing different learning styles to teach children keeps kids of all ages engaged.
With mixed-age groups especially, I’ve found that it helps to cater to Picture Smart intelligences.
Using Picture Smart adaptations tends to allow more kids—even pre- and early-readers—to join in . . . and often times, older kids will help younger kids. This lends itself to cooperative learning and team unity.
Our mission is to teach with the end goal of life transformation rather than simply downloading information.
My desire is to maximize the time we have with the kids who are entrusted to us each week so they can see, hear, and experience the excitement of the truths that are in the Bible and ultimately grow in their relationships with our Lord and Savior!