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"The Middle "

Here are some ideas of activities to try with Sunday school groups and youth groups in the middle part of a session, after the opening circle.

I developed the following ideas for Sunday school session plans when I was at the interim religious educator at the Church of the Large Fellowship. Since then, I have revised it substantially, and added lots of new ideas for activities. Everything here is based on my own experiences working with children in Sunday school groups, so everything here has been field-tested.

Perhaps my ideas will spark some of your own ideas!

Always start out by reading the story that is at the heart of that week's session.

Make illustrations of the story

Go over the story again, and pick out 3 or more situations or incidents to draw or paint that illustrate key moments in the story (or pick out one situation per child).

Have each child (and each adult leader) draw a picture of one of the situations or incidents.

Write captions on each picture, and post them in sequential order where the rest of the congregation can enjoy them. Or at least, post them on a bulletin board in your regular meeting room so you can enjoy them next week.

If you use a published story book as the source for your story, it's OK to let the children copy the illustrations in the book (especially with younger children, or children who are less visually oriented).

For more on doing illustrations with children, see Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang (Seastar Books, 2000), available in school libraries or from online booksellers.

Discuss the story

Here's a three-step plan (What -- So what -- Now what) for leading a discussion of a story:

What -- What happens? Some questions to ask include:

So what -- So what makes that important? Some questions to ask include:

Now what -- Based on this story, how should we act? After you've discussed how you feel about the story, discuss how this story suggests we behave or act.

Act out the story

The simplest way to act out a story is as follows:

After reading the story through once out loud, decide who the major characters are.

Example: in the story of Moses crossing the Red Sea, major characters might be Moses, one or more Israelites, Pharaoh, one or more Egyptian soldiers, God -- you could even have one or more children act the part of the Red Sea.

Another example: in the story of Universalist minister John Murray coming to the New World, characters might include John, Eliza his wife and their baby (both of whom get to die), the captain of the ship John sails on, Thomas Potter, and people who come to hear John preach.

Each child gets to choose one or more characters to act out. Then you read the story again out loud. As you read, help the children act out the story. It's more fun if you can get hold of costumes, dress-up clothes, fun hats, or any way for the children to change their appearance. Note that you may have to read the story through more than once, so each child gets to act out a popular character (in the example above, usually lots of children want to be Moses, or God.

In a more advanced version of this activity for older children, the children would say or read the lines that their character says in the story. Some older children might want to turn the story into a script for a short play or skit, actually memorize lines and perform the play or skit.

For more ideas, see Theatre Games for the Classroom by Viola Spolin (Northwestern University Press, 1990), available in school libraries or from online booksellers.

Theatre games and improvisations based on a story

If you and the children are familiar with, and comfortable with, the "What -- So what -- Now what?" discussion technique, combine that with some improvisational acting. Instead of just discussing "What would you have done if you were one of the characters in the story?", act it out.

Or, in a similar vein, when you get to the "Now what?" stage, throw in a theatre game like "Freeze and Justify." Have two or three people begin acting out the story. At any time during the acting, another member of the group can say "Freeze!" at which point the actors all freeze; then she taps one of the actors on the shoulder, and takes his place in the story -- acting out her idea of what that character might do. Do this with an older group (junior high, hihg school) where the participants are already comfortable with one another -- it would help if you introduced improvisational theatre games ahead of time, so they had had some experience with this technique.

Make puppets for characters in the story

This activity is quite simply one of my favorite activities -- but I've found you can only use it about three times a year.

Figure out who the main characters in the story are. Draw each character on heavy paper or cardboard (I like to use the white cardstock designed for photocopiers). Have children cut out their character, and then use hot-melt glue to glue a popsicle stick (or "craft stick") to the back of the character so that the stick forms a handle at the bottom of the character.

If you can't get hot-melt glue, self-adhesive packing tape will work. Or use heavy wire (like the wire from coat hangers) instead of popsicle sticks, form the wire into a "U" shape at the upper end, and thread the "U" through holes strategically punched in the cardboard.

Once you have made the puppets, follow the instructions for acting out the story in the section

Write a sequel to the story, or rewrite the ending

Sometimes you and the children will want to imagine what happens after the story ends. What do the main characters do next? Or you might not like the ending of the story. How would you end the story?

Older children who are fluent writers can write sequels or new endings on their own. Give each child ten or more minutes to work, and then ask everyone to read their sequels or endings aloud.

Rather than ask younger children to work on the story by themselves, you can work together (you and the children) to write a sequel, or to rewrite the ending of the story. Have the children decide together what they want to say, and then you write it down. I like to write down what the children say on a big sheet of paper (perhaps a flip pad on an easel) so they can watch me write down their words.

When you've finished, read aloud what you've written down. You could even act out your version of the story, if you have time!

Write a song or a rap that tells the story

If you're musical, bring along your musical instrument (guitar? ukulele? piano?). Start off having the children tell the beginning of the story. Ask them to chant the beginning of the story. Is a tune emerging? Record it (or remember it if you can). Now come up with more verses to tell the rest of the story. Take your time working on your new song -- you might want to finish up one or two verses, and sing them through, before moving on to the next verse. Write down each verse as you go, and when you get done, sing the whole song through together.the children to write a song, words and tune, that tell the story.

If you're not musical yourself, you can still try this activity. You could do a rap, which won't require you to play a musical insturment. Or pick a well-known song with a simple tune, such as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Then write new words to the tune, words that tell the story, or that express the feelings that the story evokes. Here are some simple songs that you might want to try:

In his book Sing and Shine On: The Teacher's guide to Multicultural Song Leading, Unitarian Universalist choarl leader Nick Page describes how he writes songs with children. One such song is available on his CD, The Nick Page Songbook. Book and CD are available in school libraries or from Nick's Web site.

Write a poem that expresses the story

This approach probably works best with older children, say 9 and up. Here are two techniques:


Traditional haiku are short 3-line poems in Japanese, with a certain number of syllables in each line. Probably the easiest way to do haiku with children is to write three-line poems with seven syllables in the first line, nine syllables in the second line, and seven syllables in the third line; or you can use five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. Haiku usually contain one strong image or one main thought. You might want to write one haiku to express the feelings of one main scene in a story, or string together two or more haiku to tell the story line. Here's an example based on the story of Prometheus:

Brave Prometheus
stole fire for human beings.
The gods grew angry.

Zeus said, Punish him!
Chain him to a rock! At last
Hercules freed him.

Acrostic poems

In an acrostic poem, you take the name of the main character. Then write a poem where each short, irregular line of the poem begins with successive letters of the main character's name. Here's an example based on the story of Noah:

No one knew why Noah began building a boat. Then,
Out of nowhere, dark clouds came. Noah finished his
Ark, and got two of every animal on board -- just as
Hard rains covered the whole world with water

Dance and creative movement

Creative movement is particularly effective with younger children (alas, as they get older, boys become increasingly reluctant to do creative movement). The best resource for using creative movement in Sunday school classes if a booklet that was included in the old "Haunting House" curriculum published by the Unitarian Unviersalist Association in 1974.

Models and dioramas

Models and dioramas were a staple of Sunday school classes two decades ago. They fell out of fashion, but they're still effective. Here's one process for creating a model, based on a three-session curriculum unit I have used:

Tell the story of how Henry Thoreau went to Walden Pond. I drew on the book Down to Earth at Walden, by Marilynne K. Roach, now out of print but available in public libraries. (Ahead of time, create a scale-model of Henry Thoreau's cabin out of corrugated cardboard that you build using hot-melt glue and a glue gun -- include a door that can open, windows, chimney and fireplace, etc.) After you read the story, bring out the cardboard model of his cabin and have the children decide how to make it come alive.

In my Sunday school class, we cut pieces of white paper to fit the inside walls, and some children decorated those. Other children carefully colored in the roof and the outside walls using crayons. Other children made paper furniture, and still others made animals and even Henry Thoreau himself.

It took three weeks to finish decorating this house. The children got fully drawn in to the fantasy of living at Walden Pond (we even had them go outside and sit quietly in Nature, just as Henry did). Each week, we heard another little story about Henry Thoreau's stay at Walden.

Another example: Build a model of the Temple at Jerusalem, as it looked in Jesus's day. Again, build it out of corrugated cardboard and hot-melt glue. Find a floor plan of the Temple in any good Bible atlas, or check out this cool drawing of the Temple. (If you have access to the Web in your classroom, you might show the children these stills from real-time visual simulation model of the Temple -- pretty cool!) Then have the children decorate the Temple, and even make little paper characters (Roman soldiers, money-changers, Jesus and his followers, priests, etc.) which they can place in the Temple.

Models and dioramas can be combined with the puppet idea above.

Learn a spiritual practice related to the story

If you read a story about Buddha, wouldn't it make sense to teach the children a simple meditation techniqe?

If you tell the story of Jesus teaching people how to pray, wouldn't it make sense to teach the children the "Lord's prayer"?