As a current teacher of the Sunbeams, the class in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for 3-year-old children, I was curious about the new Primary manuals for the new year, which are meant to supplement the churchwide home-study program of “Come, Follow Me.” So I went to the meeting we were asked to attend for our ward, part of the regular “teaching training” sessions that are held once a month.
I was . . . “disappointed” might be the kindest way to put it. No wonder so few of the Primary teachers ever attend these meetings. No one seems to have any interest in the needs of young children. All of the suggestions for teaching were for adults and youth.
I brought up my concerns with our Primary president, who assured me that once I had the manual in hand, I’d see how to use it.
Well, that wasn’t what happened. When I saw the manual, I was even more confused. We’re moving from 40-minute lessons to 20-minute lessons each week, yet the manuals have a LOT more material to cover, especially doctrinal material. I like the focus on Christ rather than faith-promoting stories about the pioneers, but I also felt a bit like someone read through the scriptures to find pat answers to particular questions about Mormonism instead of reading to see what the scriptures actually had to say for themselves.
It seemed clear to me that no one is thinking about 3-year-olds. These lessons are so far over their heads, it’s silly. The sad thing for me is that the old lesson manual (“Primary 1”) was absolutely spot on for this age group. I suspect I won’t be the only teacher looking back to those pages for help. Yes, I recognize that the beginning of the “Come, Follow Me” manual tells teachers to pray and feel inspired about what to teach their children specifically. But I just don’t know if there’s anything I can use for these little kids who are often:
- Not verbal. As in, they may not speak at all. Or if they do, they don’t speak in full sentences.
- Unable to read. Any activity that requires reading of any kind does not work for this age. Many of these children don’t even know what letters are, and that is perfectly age appropriate.
- Struggling to understand what chairs are, or how to sit still for more than two minutes.
- In need of treats/snacks.
- Unable to understand the difference between pretend and real, or between Santa and Jesus (as I discovered when I tried to do a Christmas-centered lesson at the end of the year).
- Unsure about abstract concepts.
- Not yet able to count or understand numbers.
I want to emphasize that I love teaching these children. But I think sometimes people in church imagine that teaching children by rote is what we’re supposed to be doing. One lesson even suggests that I have children repeat the phrase “Jesus Christ is the son of God.” This idea makes me squirm a little. When I was in high school, one of my friends taught her 2-year-old sister to repeat the quadratic formula. It was a great party trick, but this 2-year-old didn’t understand the complicated math behind her recitation. She had no advantage over children who hadn’t learned this formula. And using children as puppets to make me feel good as a teacher or to make the parents feel good seems contrary to teaching the gospel of Christ.
Let’s go to the lessons, starting with the first one that teachers are supposed to use this weekend. There are two main teaching points.
• Jesus Christ wants me to follow him.
• The scriptures are true.
One of the first suggestions is, “Read the Savior’s invitation ‘Come follow me,’ found in Luke 18:22.” As I said before, reading isn’t a great idea for children this age. Since they don’t understand what letters or words are, and the words are often over their head, teachers are going to have to do a lot of work to make sense of this for 3-year-olds. (And here’s another place for me to complain that church manuals are still using the extremely outdated language of the King James Version of the Bible, which is difficult for everyone, but especially children.)
The next suggestion is “Play a game where one child does an action and then tells the other children, ‘Come, follow me.’” This could be fun, but my question is—are you really teaching a concept of following to these children or just playing a game? And if you’re just playing a game, maybe a better game could be suited to age-appropriate learning? (I often play a game of matching animal cards, with mother and child animal pairs that my kids love).
Next is the suggestion, “You can also show the video ‘Light the World’ (LDS.org). Let the children identify how the people are following the Savior.” Really? Using a video? I’m sorry, but I always think it’s an abdication of your teaching responsibility to show a video, but especially in the case of young children. They’re often getting too much screen time already. Aren’t we at church to have real, human interactions?
Then comes the suggestion, “Show pictures of people following the Savior in different ways.” This is the best suggestion here. Children love to look at pictures and find details.
But then comes, “Help the children think of things they are doing to follow the Savior.” I worry that the focus here is on training 3-year-olds to know what the “Sunday School answers” are. What are 3-year-olds doing to follow Jesus? If it’s just being nice and not stealing toys, why not just focus on those lessons instead?
Finally, we are told to try singing “Seek the Lord Early” from the Primary “Children’s Songbook.” Singing is a great idea for Sunbeams, but this is an extremely abstract song for this age. Honestly, I tend to focus on “Popcorn Popping” and “Once There Was a Snowman,” with actions so they can get out of their seats. Also, I try to sing the same songs throughout the year so they’re familiar and inviting. Learning a new song just for one lesson is a tough sell for kids who can’t read the words or understand them in a simple way.
Then, we get, “Let them draw pictures of themselves doing these things [following Jesus].” Seriously? Sunbeams can’t draw a human figure doing anything. Many of them can’t hold a crayon or do anything with it other than put it in their mouths. Something far more simple is required here.
Ultimately, my main goals with Sunbeams are 1) to make sure that they think church is fun/interesting, and 2) that they feel safe and loved. These lessons aren’t helping much in those goals.
Compare this with the lessons for Sunbeams in “Primary 1”:
• I Am a Child of God.
• Heavenly Father has a body.
• Heavenly Father’s plan for us.
These Primary lessons were concrete and simple. They were specifically designed for young children. I didn’t always follow them precisely, but it felt like someone who had met a Sunbeam had written them. Even better are the later lessons:
• I am thankful for birds and insects.
• I am thankful for fish.
• I am thankful for trees and plants.
• I am thankful for my hands.
I can’t tell you how much fun I had with my 3-year-olds when I designed a lesson about insects. We looked at detailed images of insects, pointed out the different parts, and then colored in pictures. We also often went outside to spy out insects in the wild.
Sunbeams understand insects. And fish. And trees. These are things they see and can touch. I always reminded them that these are gifts from Heavenly Father, but if that part is over their head, they enjoyed the lesson anyway.
I suspect that people at church headquarters already know that there’s a problem with these lesson manuals for Sunbeams. I suspect they are already at work on better material for this age group. But in the rush to get the new curriculum done quickly for 2019, the Sunbeams have been forgotten.
Editor’s note • The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.