The transition from preschool to elementary is a BIG one—especially at church. And it can be easy as a small group leader to start leading them like they’ve been in the world for more than 5 years—as if they know things like how to read, write, or do simple math. The reality is: they are sweet, but they are illiterate. (PS- this is why you’ll see a lot of activities with play dough and coloring this year.)

On my first Sunday morning with my few, my expectations for my kindergarteners may have been a bit off.

One by one my brand new kindergartners came into the room and sat on our groups’ purple carpet circle. They were a little timid, but I could tell just being in this new room made them excited. I had a few talkers, a few observers, and a few that didn’t realize we stay seated during small group, assuming the stage was free reign. Eventually, it hit me.

Oh. They don’t know anything.

Ok, anything is a bit of a stretch (though the illiterate thing is for real.)

My adorable, sweet, brand new few had no idea what was going to happen in this room through the course of the next hour.

So I circled them all up on our rug and I quickly ran through the morning.

“Guys! I’m so excited that you’re here this morning! We are, seriously, going to have so much fun. Ok, let me tell you a few things. When you walk in the room you can always come straight to THIS rug- not that purple rug, or that purple rug, or that purple rug, but THIS one. And don’t worry, cause I’ll be sitting here so it’ll be easy to remember. And here’s another tip: when the lights dim, that means it’s time to go to large group, and when we go there we’ll hear a story and play a game and sing some songs. It’ll probably be darker and a little louder in there than when you were downstairs last week. You think that’ll be ok?”

A resounding “Yes!” Because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that when you make a major transition in childhood, boy, you are proud of it. Preschool is automatically “baby” stuff. Fifth grade was so lame. And middle school? Thank goodness that awkward phase is over.

Our first morning together was going so smoothly, I was beginning to think I was the best small group leader of all time. (Uh… yea… that escalated quickly.) I thought I should go on to write books about this—how to keep your few engaged, how to cut 8 pages at once, how to easily transition from one activity to the next—to name a few ideas.

And then the lights dimmed again. “Oh yea! And when the lights dim again, that means it’s time to stop whatever we’re doing and pray. Do you guys have anything you want to pray about?” I said.

The first week was pretty simple. We prayed for a great beginning of kindergarten, to help us be a good friend and make new friends, and probably somebody’s grandma (that’s a recurring prayer request, just usually a different grandma every week.) When all the prayer requests were in, I said, “Ok, let’s huddle up and pray.”

What I said was “let’s huddle up and pray.” Those were the words that I said.

What my kids heard was “let’s dog pile in the middle of the circle, maybe wrestle a minute and bonk our heads together, and have Afton pray for us.”

It all happened so fast. All of a sudden there was a pile of kindergarteners in front of me.

I know what I probably should’ve done.

I should’ve calmly asked everyone to sit back on their bottoms (which, by the way, would’ve taken another 15 minutes to finally get everybody back to their spots at this point), to fold their hands together on their lap, close their eyes, and pray.

You know, like adults pray. Or maybe just Norman Rockwell paintings of adults praying…

But I didn’t. I didn’t correct them at all.

I found it all pretty funny, so it would’ve been tough for me to actually act like I wanted them to go back to sit around the circle. So I laughed quietly for a second, looked around at the other small group leaders to make sure no one else was watching, and started to pray as close to the pile as I could get.

There were giggles, and smiles, and a shoe might’ve come off in the middle. But they actually stayed pretty quiet, and weirdly enough, when I said “amen,” they all went back to their spots, and we finished our last activity like nothing out of the ordinary had happened whatsoever.

And I have to admit something: It’s a year and a half later, I’m with my same group in 1st grade now, and we still dog pile pray.

The lights dim. My group climbs on top of each other. And I pray.

Now, before you call the staff of my church to have me fired, consider this one thing:

What if what it looks like for a first grader to pray looks different than what it looks like for you and me to pray? (Or how Norman Rockwell painted it?)

What if it’s actually more helpful to teach our little few that you can pray however you want? As long as we take time to pray?

Maybe you’ll feel silly when praying, or you might feel comfortable. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s hard. But the most important part is that we talk to Him.

And I’m willing to bet they remember what we pray for. I think a lot of times when we don’t think our few are listening because they seem checked out, they really are remembering this stuff. Ask their parents.

And if nothing else, remember that YOU are modeling—YOU are setting the example—to your few of what it looks like to set aside time to pray. And who really knows—this could be the only time in their week when they see someone pray.

So, when it feels like your few aren’t paying any attention and you’re wasting your breath, remember that you’re setting a foundation for a spiritual habit they’ll need all their lives.

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Afton Phillips

Afton is on the Orange staff as the Lead Small director, but more importantly leads a small group of 2nd graders every Sunday. She was on church staff for three years before that in the Elementary world, and graduated with a degree in Children's Ministry. If you want to be her best friend, all you have to do is buy her a black coffee and let her wear a tiara all day. She strongly believes tulle skirts are every day wear and her favorite place is any giant used book store.

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