Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Infancy Narratives

Advent is the perfect time to introduce (or re-introduce) children to the person of Jesus.  In addition to geography works and prophecies, we spend a lot of time in Advent exploring the infancy narratives - the scripture that tells of the events surrounding Jesus' birth.  We aren't just telling cute baby stories or even just recalling historical events with the children. Instead we want to encourage the children to wonder at the mystery of incarnation - God loves humanity so much that God chose to become human and live as one of us. The infancy narratives teach us a lot about who Jesus is, and about how God works in the world.

Over the first three years in the Good Shepherd Atrium the children become familiar with the Angel Gabriel's visit to Mary to tell her she will be mother to Jesus, Mary's visit to Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus and the visit of the Shepherds, Jesus' presentation at the Temple when he meets Simeon and Anna, and the visit of the Wise Men. We have many beautiful materials to help even the youngest children extend their meditation on these rich narratives - each includes 3-D figures and a simple environment to explore.  Often an adult (or another child) will read the scripture while the child moves the figures.

This week in the True Vine Atrium we celebrated the coming of Christmas by looking at the infancy narratives as a whole.  It was a beautiful experience, as the children brought together all that they have learned over their years in the atrium, and meditated once again on these beloved stories. We focused on the theme of the light of Christ and noticed how it spread - first to Mary, then to Elizabeth and John, to the shepherds, and to even to the wise men who traveled from so far away. I was amazed at the children's ability to sit in quiet joy and contemplate scripture, particularly at this exciting time of year!

As we grow close to Christmas, I wish you joy in quiet moments with your family.  Be alert for the light of Christ as the news of Jesus' birth spreads to you and yours this holiday season!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Advent Prophecies in the Atrium

In Advent we spend time exploring prophecies from Hebrew Scripture. It seems quite appropriate as we prepare for Christmas to listen to the words that comforted and challenged those who watched and waited for the Messiah before Jesus was born.  In atrium we learn that prophets are those who listen very closely to God, and share God's plans with the people.  (It isn't too early to wonder if we might be prophets too!)  The prophecies are a marvelous way to discover more about Jesus.  The prophecy above is the first one that we learn, and it is always remembered and loved by the children.  The image of Jesus as the light is one that we hear often in the atrium, and one that resonates with the children.

There are five prophecies in all that we meditate upon in the Good Shepherd Atrium. In the True Vine Atrium we hear three more, and we spend time looking at the prophecies the children know from Level One as a whole. We wonder, what themes are woven through the prophecies? One of my favorites is the the theme of something great coming from something small: God coming to earth, not as a great warrior, but as a little baby. Tiny and unimportant Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus. A helpless baby named Everlasting Father and Mighty God!  This dichotomy of great and small is a delight to the children, and a concept we encounter throughout the year. God seems to love small things, perhaps small people most of all!

Children often extend their meditation by copying and illustrating the prophecies themselves. Older children like to find the prophecies in their Bibles.  

This Sunday is the third Sunday in Advent!  Light your pink candle and enjoy!

Saturday, December 4, 2010


Just before the season of Advent begins, we introduce geography works to the children in the Good Shepherd and the True Vine Atria. Through the geography works, we establish the foundational understanding that Jesus was a real person who lived in a specific place in the world. Our goal is not the accumulation of facts, but to help the children enjoy discovering the real places where Jesus was born, lived his ministry, died, and rose again.

Beginning with three year olds in the Good Shepherd Atrium, we locate the land of Israel on a globe and, using a raised surface map, focus on the three principle cities that were so important in the life of Jesus - Nazareth (where Mary lived, and where the Angel told her that she would be the mother of Jesus), Bethlehem (where Jesus was born) and Jerusalem (the city that Jesus loved, where he died and rose again). Later older children in the Good Shepherd Atrium work with a puzzle map of the regions and waterways of the land of Israel.

In the True Vine Atrium we begin to explore the land of Israel in depth with pin maps.  The regions, mountains, waterways, and cities that we learn about in the Christian Scriptures are located and marked.

Booklets extend this work, exploring the geographical features of the region and the cities in more detail, and include Bible references so the children can read more about the places they are discovering.

Not surprisingly, the maps become a reference point for many works in the room year round.  This begins in Advent, as children explore the scriptures that tell of the birth of Jesus.  We love our maps!

Tomorrow is the second Sunday in Advent!  If you have an Advent wreath, you can light the second blue candle tomorrow!  Enjoy some quiet time with your family.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Celebrating Advent in the Atrium

Last Sunday (Nov.28th) was the beginning of the season of advent, the time the Church sets aside for us to prepare for the great feast of Christmas. Each season of the Church year is represented by a color, and the liturgical color for advent is blue. You will see blue in Church on Rev. Peter's chasuble, hanging from the pulpit and lectern, and behind the altar on the dossal curtain.

TRY THIS: This Sunday in Church, mention the change in liturgical color to your children and give them a chance to share what they know.  Notice the places where you see blue together, and take a look at our beautiful advent wreath.

In the atrium, we have a handful of seasonal celebrations throughout the year and we really enjoy them. Last Sunday in the two lower atria, we celebrated the beginning of advent with a procession and changed the cloth on our prayer tables from green to blue.  We also set up our advent wreaths and lit the first blue candle for the the first Sunday of advent.  Here are some pictures from the True Vine Atrium celebration for you to enjoy!

The procession. Each person carries something we will need for our celebration.

Placing the wreath.
Placing the candles into the wreath.
Each person adds some greenery to the wreath.
Adding the greenery.
Each week we sing a special advent song before lighting the candles.
Our first candle is lit!

Have you checked out our new Church webpage?  Click here to take a look!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Try This! Advent

Advent begins this Sunday!  Did you know that Advent is the beginning of our Church year?  If you aren't familiar with the seasons of the Church year I have to tell you, they have been a tremendous gift to me!  The seasons help us to live our entire year with Jesus, moving through the low and high points of his life, with plenty of time for preparation and reflection throughout.

This is what I like about Advent:  When everything around you is saying "Hurry up!" "Buy this!" "Make that!" the Church invites us to slow down, light a candle or two (or four!), and contemplate one of the great mysteries of our faith.  God loves us!  God loves us so much, in fact, that God was humble enough to become human!  In the next couple of weeks, I'll share some of the work we do with the children during the season of Advent.  But I wanted to take a few moments to encourage you to observe Advent at home.

There are many resources available for observing Advent, in stores and on the web.  If you haven't already, go to Church and check out the table in the Great Hall - there are some wonderful meditation and activity booklets for adults, children and families.  We also have frames and candles available so that you can create an Advent wreath for your home.

Our Advent wreath at Church.
In my house, we have observed Advent in many different ways. The one thing we always do (and usually the best thing, really!) is lighting our Advent wreath at dinner. Each evening we offer a special prayer (often from a booklet like the ones at Church). Sometimes we spend the first few minutes of dinner answering a simple question (such as "How did you share the light of Jesus with someone today?"). The wreath becomes a touchstone through our busy days to remind us that we are preparing our hearts and minds for the birth of Jesus.  

There are two handouts on the table at Church with suggestions and prayers for using an Advent wreath if you need some direction or inspiration.  Take a little time this Advent to think through your Christmas priorities - check out this thought provoking video from Advent Conspiracy.  Also, explore these great links from Sharon Ely Pearson, Christian Formation Specialist at Church Publishing Incorporated:  Resources for Advent and Christmas offers lots of of ideas for planning Advent at home and Online Advent Meditations lists great sites  to use for prayer during this Holy season.

Peace and blessings to you this Advent!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Essential Lessons

After my last post, I wanted to share something about the theology that the children have lifted up for us in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. There is so much that could be said!  But for now, I'll just say this:

It is so easy to underestimate children, expecting them to like the "cute" stories from the Bible, and wanting to make the stories "fun" to catch their interest.  For me, one of the most significant revelations from the children is their desire for the the most essential understandings of our Christian faith. Awe and wonder at God becoming a tiny baby, joy at the gift of the light of Christ given at Baptism, deep love for Jesus the Good Shepherd of the sheep, and gratefulness for the gift of Jesus in the bread and wine -- these are just a few of the central themes of the Christian message that catechists discovered over and over again in their observations of children.

As a result, in the Good Shepherd Atrium (for 3-6 year olds) we present the heart of our Christian theology to the children.  As they grow we have no need to "go deeper."  Instead we continually draw the circle wider to bring in more for the children to ponder.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Materials

In my last post, I talked about some of the ways that the atrium environment meets the developmental needs of the children, and fosters independence. Here, I want to look a bit more closely at the materials, and how they were chosen for inclusion in the atrium. I think this is one of the best things about the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd -- the materials at each level have essentially been chosen by the children themselves.  

Just like Dr. Montessori, we catechists are scientists at heart and we are charged with the job of observation. Each week, we make an effort to sit and watch the children as they interact with the materials and each other. Our desire is to learn about their spiritual lives. We watch to see which materials children are repeatedly drawn to and which materials bring them joy. We listen carefully to their comments and questions and prayers, and we study their drawings for insight.  

This practice has been in use by catechists for over fifty years!  Our founders, Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi, and their colleagues began by making materials - small figures for meditating upon scripture passages, model altars and altar pieces, maps of the land of Israel -- all for 3-6 year olds. Then they carefully observed the children's responses. Pieces that the children were drawn to again and again found a permanent place on the shelves.  Materials that appeared in drawings and brought the children contentment were kept.  But legend tells of many amazing materials - beautifully handcrafted items that catechists LOVED - that were put away because they just didn't speak to the children.  Some of our presentations were actually developed by the children themselves, when they brought together materials and concepts in their meditation and catechists observed their connections!

Over many years, patterns began to emerge. Specific presentations were treasured by the children at specific ages, and the decisions about what materials would be presented, when, and to whom, were made.   This process of observation and refinement has been practiced with all three levels of the Catechesis, and is still at work in atria around the world today.

This is the thing that I love -- the materials really do speak to the developmental needs and spiritual yearnings of the children.  And I am so grateful to the wise and faithful children and catechists, across continents and years, who have made it so.

    Tuesday, November 9, 2010

    The Atrium Environment

    In one of my first posts, I promised to write about the way that the atrium environment supports the independence of the children. The atrium is a prepared space – meaning that adults carefully put each room together according to the children’s needs. 
    • Everything in the space is scaled to the children who use it.  The furnishings and the materials were all chosen to allow them to be used successfully and independently by the children.  For example, the chairs in each atrium are always small enough for children to carry on their own, everything is within reach on the shelves, trays of materials are light enough to be carefully carried to tables etc.
    • We strive to have every part of every work ready and available for use in the atrium.  This way, children can use the materials freely without having to look for missing pieces or ask for adult help.  (I’ll admit it - this is the reason Catechists sometimes get grumpy when other people innocently rifle through the shelves!)
    • We have all the necessary cleaning supplies and replacement pieces available in the atrium, so that the children can clean spills and dirty items, replace used items, and always return the materials to the shelves ready for use by the next person.

    All of these factors make it possible for children to follow their own interests and the promptings of the Holy Spirit during the two hour work period in the atrium, often with little help from the catechists. 

    Check back soon to learn how the materials themselves meet the vital needs of the children…

      Saturday, October 30, 2010

      Making Connections: The Bible

      I've already written about a great moment in the True Vine Atrium last Sunday.  Things were just clicking in there!  Another surprising moment for me came when one of the boys was looking at the book we have placed on the lectern.

      "Hey, this is only the New Testament." he said.

      "That's true," I replied.  We talked about how the real lectionary has readings from the Old Testament as well as the New Testament in it, and that we always hear both in Church.

      As he flipped through the book he noticed Hebrews.  "Hebrews -- That must be one of the letters!" he said.  He put the book down and walked over to the nearby Bible Box (which is a material with wooden "books" inside for every book of the Bible).  He quickly pulled out the book for Paul's letters, ran his finger down the list, and said with joy, "Yep-here it is!  It's a letter!"

      Lately the Bible Box has been a great point of reference for the children. This is the second time in two weeks that a child has spontaneously gone to the Bible Box to understand something about the Bible!  I think that is really exciting!

      Wednesday, October 27, 2010

      Making Connections: Baptism

      Last Sunday was one of those great days in the True Vine Atrium when the children were making connections. In preparation for a baptism, several of us were sitting together making cards for the baby. When the children want to make baptismal cards we set out all of the card materials for them to contemplate, copy and trace.

      One six year old who hasn't yet seen all of the baptism materials was tracing a picture of the priest with his hand extended over the baptismal font.  "What's the priest doing?" she asked.

      I looked at her drawing.  "Oh-- we've seen that gesture before, haven't we?" I asked.

      An older girl leaned across to see.  "That's the same gesture the priest makes over the bread and wine!"

      "And what's the priest asking for at that moment?" I asked.

      Several children tried to answer at once.  "He's asking God to make Jesus a part of the bread and wine for us so Jesus will be in us," the older girl answered.

      "I wonder what Rev. Peter might be praying when he has his arm extended over the baptismal font?" I said.

      An eight year old boy answered. "He's asking God to send Jesus in the water so Jesus will be in the baby. Hey-- The priest is making that gesture on my card too!"  Everyone crowded in to see what the priest was up to now!  "He has his hand out over the baby, the family, and everybody in the Church," the boy told us.

      "What do you think is happening here?" I asked.

      "He's asking God to send Jesus to be inside all of us!" he said. The children continued to talk happily about the sign of the cross Rev. Peter makes over the congregation as he blesses us each week.

      Such beautiful connections!

      Friday, October 22, 2010

      Tour of the Atrium: Liturgy

      As the blog unfolds, I would like to help you become familiar with our atria, beginning with the Good Shepherd Atrium for 3-6 year olds.  In this post, I'll show some of the works in the Good Shepherd Atrium that help us to meditate with the children upon the liturgy (the worship) of the Church. I hope to share more information about individual works as the blog posts roll along, but for now I'll just give you a quick look.

      Generally speaking, these works help the youngest children to connect with the sights and sounds (and even the smells!) of Church.  The liturgical materials we have gathered allow the children to prayerfully set the altar, mediate with their bodies while making the gestures that they see in worship, and identify the season of the Church year just by taking a quick peek up front! We don't expect young children to be attentive to the entire service. Instead, through our liturgical works, we hope to help them "tune in" to the most essential moments of our worship and to participate more deeply.

      Our beautiful model altar, lectern, sacristy cabinet, and 
      baptismal font were handmade for us by parishioner Charlie Buss.

      At the model altar we learn the names of the objects we see in Church, and lift up some of the key moments of Holy Communion through the gestures that accompany them.  Our altar work focuses on the great gift of receiving Jesus' presence in the bread and wine each week.


      Here we discover the joy and significance of baptism.  The children explore the gifts of baptism (water, the light, oil) and the gestures that are a part of the sacrament.


      With the liturgical color works we explore the seasons of the Church year. In worship the color of the hangings around the altar and the vestments Rev. Peter wears give us a visual awareness of the season of the Church year.


      In truth, everything in the atrium is preparation for prayer.  But the prayer table is a special place where we gather each week to pray as a community. Making silence together at the prayer table is one way that we learn to make our bodies and minds peaceful and ready for worship.

      Friday, October 15, 2010

      Try This! The Altar

      In my last post, I talked about the Altar I presentation the children see, beginning at age three.  Knowing more about the presentations we show the children can help you bring your child's atrium experience into Church! One of my goals for the blog is to highlight things that you can do to support your child's work in the atrium.  I'm going to use the heading "Try This" on posts that have suggestions for parents, so you know just what I am up to!  :-)

      You can easily incorporate this altar work into conversations with your children.  When my children were little, I often leaned over during worship to whisper a comment or question in their ear. (Actually I still do - it just sounds a little different with my teenagers!)  Try something like this:
      • "Look, Rev. Peter is lifting up the chalice."
      • "There is the paten.  Can you see the bread on it?"
      • "Can you see the cross?  The cross always reminds me of Jesus."
      • "Aren't the candles beautiful today?"
      • "It's almost time for us to go and have the bread and wine!  That makes me feel so close to Jesus."
      With this, the goal is not to test the child's knowledge, but to give you and your child the chance to talk about things already learned. Offer help as you go along. For example, if you mention the chalice Rev. Peter is holding, and your child looks at you blankly, say something like, "Yes, there is the chalice - the special cup that holds the wine."
        My feeling is you don't want to overdo this. Badgering you child with questions and comments will become irritating!  Several well placed comments a service seems about right. But small moments like these help children to make connections between atrium and Church, and will make their worship experience more meaningful!

        Be sure to use the Church Search I flyer (which is available with the children's activities in the back of the Church). It has pictures of the objects on the altar, and invites the children to check them off when they see them during worship.

        What ideas do you have for sharing Altar I with your child?  Try something, then come back and comment to let us know how it went!

        Monday, October 11, 2010

        The Altar

        I've put this photo on the blog before but I have to admit, it's my favorite! That beautiful little girl is my daughter, many years ago!  I love this photo too, because it conveys the sense of peace I often notice children experiencing at the model altar.  The very first altar presentation is given to children at age three, and it is usually the first presentation that they see in the atrium (after practical life).  They love the model altar and return to it again and again.

        The Altar I presentation teaches the children the names of the objects they see at communion and invites them to set the altar themselves.  A catechist lights the candles and sits and enjoys the beauty of the altar with the child, often singing a song or reading from a little book of prayers at the child's request.  When the child is ready, he or she extinguishes the candles and puts all of the altar pieces away in the Sacristy Cabinet (the white cabinet to the right in the picture above.  It is named after the Sacristy - the room where all the altar pieces are kept).  

        If you don't know the names of the altar pieces you are not alone -- keep reading! For the altar presentations, we use child-sized pieces like the ones you see in the photo above.  For the blog, I thought it would be helpful to see the actual items we use in Church.

        We begin the presentation gathered around the model altar.  We talk with the children about their table at home.  What do they do there?  They often tell us about family dinners!
        The Altar is a table where we share a meal with our Church family.  This beautiful table belongs to Jesus.  Just as you decorate your table at home for a special occasion, there are objects that we use at Church to make our meal at the altar special.

        The fair linen is the beautiful white cloth that covers the altar.  

        The paten is the special plate that holds the bread.

        The chalice is the beautiful cup that holds the wine for communion.

        Now the meal is ready.  Who invites us to this table?  It is Jesus.  

        The cross reminds us that Jesus died.

        The candles remind us that Jesus rose again, and that Jesus is the light of the world.
        ~  ~
        Over time, I will share other altar presentations with you, and also tell you about some of the moments in the service that we present to the children for their meditation. 

        Tuesday, October 5, 2010

        The Lord's Prayer, Part Two!

        I received a great question on Facebook in response to my last post on The Lord's Prayer!   Toni wanted to know what work the children did when they were younger to prepare them for this one. I thought I would respond to her question on the blog for you to hear as well!

        We have many works that are indirect preparation for understanding the Lord's Prayer. For example, starting at age 3 we spend a lot of time meditating on the kingdom parables.  What is the kingdom like? It's like a tiny mustard seed that grows and grows, and is a shelter for the birds.  It's like a precious pearl that the merchant sold everything to have, and so on. So when we look at "your kingdom come" the children already know a lot about the kingdom and they desire it! 

        Also in the 3-6 year old atrium the children have come to know the Good Shepherd parable.  While working on the Lord's Prayer, I can ask "Does anything here remind you of the Good Shepherd?"  The children themselves are able to lift up the love and care of a Father as being like the Good Shepherd, and "daily bread" as being everything the sheep need to live, even the Good Shepherd himself given in the bread and wine. 

        When we talk about sin and forgiveness in the Lord's Prayer, the children can remember their work at Level Two with the True Vine parable.  They understand that sin is something that blocks the sap which runs through the vine to the branches, and that forgiveness opens us up to God again. 

        There are other amazing connections the children make, but you get the picture! Thanks for the great question Toni!

        Sunday, October 3, 2010

        The Lord's Prayer

        Today in the True Vine Atrium (for first, second, and third graders) we meditated upon the Lord's Prayer. We used a material that breaks the prayer down line by line, so that the children can manipulate it like a puzzle. Walking through the Lord's Prayer with the children reminded me once again that the works we do in the atrium draw children into the most essential dimensions of the Christian faith.  The children were able to connect with Jesus' prayer in a significant way because of all the works they have encountered before.  It is truly amazing!

        Children spent some time in atrium decorating their own copy of the prayer to take home. If you have a first, second or third grader, take a moment to pray this prayer with him or her during the week! If your child was absent today, you can find the Lord's Prayer as we use it in Church in the Book of Common Prayer on pg. 364 or you can look it up in the Bible (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:1-4). Help your child to hang the prayer up, and encourage him or her to pray it silently if so moved. Try praying the Lord's Prayer together before you head out in the morning or last thing before your child goes to bed.  It is also a wonderful prayer to offer when you are worried about someone or something, as the children suggested in our conversation today. Enjoy the beauty of the Lord's Prayer yourself this week!