The Important First 3 Years of Life
How Nursery Age Kids Learn and Why
by Nicole McAninch / October 9, 2017
Of all the stages of childhood I have worked with, ministered to, and taught about, few are as fascinating to me as the first three years of life. Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are in a season of life that contains so many of what we call in the field of child development “sensitive periods”—times of life when we are most ready and able to learn new things. I am convinced that we set the stage for most of our faith development during these first three years, so it is important for us as ministers to know how children learn during these stages and what they need to learn in these important years of life.
Setting the stage for learning. In order to learn in the unique way that God created them, children in the first three years of life have to feel safe in your care—which means we have to create spaces for them that enhance learning by helping them feel secure. Oftentimes we focus on the layout and design of the room to encourage learning. While these are important elements of learning, helping children feel safe is more about our response to them than room design. Following the principles of “consistency, predictability, and sensitivity” in our ministry help create environments that encourage children to learn.
- Consistency. Having a familiar face in the room each week is one of the most important elements of creating a feeling of safety and security for children (and their parents!). While encouraging a healthy flow of volunteers in the ministry is important, try to balance this with consistent ministers from week to week.
- Predictability. Develop a typical rhythm for the time the children are in your care. Set a flexible schedule and stick to it as much as possible. Children respond best when they know what to expect.
- Sensitivity. Staff your ministry with people who are well trained and respectful of children’s needs. Maintain low minister-to-child ratios as an important element in your ability to be aware of and responsive to their needs.
YOU are the infants’ primary curriculum. Infants are uniquely designed to learn through their senses—what they can experience by seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, and tasting. The first year of life, this tends to center on their interactions with the person taking care of them. They do not need an abundance of toys and manipulatives during this stage. Infants respond and learn best through human interaction. Staff your infant ministry with people who are willing to minister to infants through:
- singing and talking to them
- meeting their physical needs (diaper changes, feedings)
- responding to their emotional needs (soothing, encouraging)
- celebrating new skills (laughing, cooing, crawling, creeping, walking, etc.)
- praying a blessing over them each week.
Through these learning opportunities, we are teaching infants they are a valuable and important part of our faith family. By providing a safe and responsive environment, we plant seeds of faith as they learn how to trust us and, by extension, their heavenly Father.
Their WORLD is the toddlers’ and preschoolers’ primary curriculum. In addition to using their senses to experience new things, toddlers and preschoolers add perpetual motion and exploration to their learning process. As ministers, we want to encourage their sometimes paradoxical need to learn through structure and exploration by providing:
- Repetition. Build a routine of activities, with rituals around words, songs, and stories. Consider beginning and/or ending each service with a particular song, incorporating transitional songs or phrases between activities, and other experiences. This provides children with a solid base of the familiar that encourages creative exploration.
- Responsibility. As a general rule, children of this age are eager helpers. Encourage their desire to help by identifying important “roles” in the classroom (song leader, line leader, prayer warrior, cleaning crew, etc.) and letting children fill them.
- Variety. Give toddlers and preschoolers many opportunities to explore new ideas through music, art, stories, sensory play, and pretend play. Just as older children and adults enjoy different activities, children in this stage appreciate novelty. Some will enjoy certain activities more than others.
- Conversation. Through their play, toddlers and preschoolers discuss their thoughts out loud. Encourage this by interacting with them as they play. Ask them open-ended questions, and answer their questions thoughtfully (even the ubiquitous “why” questions). At this stage of life, we want to encourage their sense of freedom to talk to and about God.
By providing the foundation of repetition, you provide a safe and secure environment for children to experience God. Through variety and conversation in your ministry, you teach children that God made us all uniquely and that He wants them to have the freedom to experience Him. The grounding influence of responsibility encourages children to know they have a vital role in serving their faith family, and you give them the opportunity to explore their unique giftings at an early age.
Your ministry to infants, toddlers, and preschoolers provides a unique opportunity to set the foundation for their life’s faith journey as you create environments that teach them that they are important to their faith family, they are important to their heavenly Father, and they have an important and unique role to play.
Developmental concepts adapted from The Young Child: Development from Prebirth Through Age Eight (6th edition) textbook by Wittmer, Petersen, & Puckett.