Creating Curriculum: How to “Hold it Lightly”

Niki Hodson, Children’s Ministry
BA (English & Drama) UCT, BA Hons (Psychology) (Cornerstone)

Recently, I went on a mission trip with students to Lesotho. We had three days’ worth of lessons with the children in the villages, and we needed to make sure that they were going to hear and understand the gospel. Most of the churches in these rural villages do not even own Bibles, and so the children had very little context with which to receive the message. On top of that, none of the children speak English, and we had to use local teachers to help us translate, some of whom could only speak broken English. This meant we were extremely limited in spoken word as a means of communication, and it meant that our curriculum would have to contain clear, simple statements with lots of repetition and visuals. With some help, I set out to write a curriculum that would cover three days of foundational ideas – Jesus as King, Jesus as Shepherd and Jesus as Friend. I chose these themes because I wanted the children to walk away knowing that Jesus is real as well as personal and relevant to each one of them, and because of their immediate context:

  • Jesus as King because Lesotho is a monarchy and the children would already understand the concept of King
  • Jesus as Shepherd, because rural Lesotho is a subsistence farming community, and from age eight the children train to be shepherds
  • Jesus as Friend, because many of the children in Lesotho are orphans and have no real sense of belonging

I included activities, props and creative storytelling within the curriculum, and a craft of making a sheep mask from a hollowed-out paper plate with cardboard ears and cotton wool as decoration (much to the chagrin of the students who spent the better part of their ‘rest day’ putting these together – we had lost a prep day because the elders of the villages wanted us to come straight after we had our first night at Ramabanta, the base camp). I particularly wanted the children to have something tangible they could use as a reminder of the lessons, and with the paper plate mask, the kids could put their faces through it to remind themselves that they are the sheep who are loved and who have been saved by Jesus their King, Shepherd and Friend. It wasn’t easy for the students to carry the extra load of the masks (some teams had upwards of 100 kids and had to hike for eight hours to get to their villages) but in the end, seeing the joy and delight over the masks made the memory of the burden fade away. This joy was especially evident being within a context that has very little material resources – some of the schools don’t own maps or pictures or even the stationery ‘extras’ that we take for granted.

Through all of this, one thing was striking to me – you can prepare for a context all you want with the information that you have been given (setting, resources, age of children, level of education, exposure to the gospel) BUT, until you have arrived on the scene, you cannot fully know the best curriculum to use. We had to drastically simplify the curriculum upon arrival once we realized that the translators were not fluent, and many of the more elaborate items (as simple as they originally were!) had to be reduced or cut out as the children were not used to a mixed-method way of teaching. It reminded me not to be ‘precious’ about the work I’d poured into the curriculum – that it was not about me or the students, and it didn’t matter if most of it was not used – the point was to get enough of the understanding of Jesus as a real and personal saviour across to them.

It also highlighted the most important element that cannot be written into a curriculum – the simple act of sharing time with the children i.e. playing games, sharing smiles, giving them genuine attention and responses of affection – all things which can cross any language barrier. A prized moment was when the children gestured for myself and a couple of team members to sit on the ground, after which they began singing and dancing around us in a circle, with specific movements that I later learned were part of a traditional cultural enacted song. I knew that a bond had been forged after this, and it happened without a stitch of common language between us! If a child bonds with you, you have won their heart, and then the truth of what you are teaching them has a place to land in their minds.

So what is the take-away in terms of writing your own curriculum? Know that you have to hold it lightly. You can prepare it with absolute diligence and commitment, and then end up throwing most of it away! Even when you know a context fairly well or have been briefed on it to the utmost degree, the unexpected can happen. It is wise to keep in your mind what the most important thing is – helping the children get to know God better and to develop a genuine relationship with Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, whatever that process may look like.

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