"Chapel time supports the children as they discover for themselves the art of faith language to help them express what is already happening in their lives."
Many churches share space with preschools during the week yet, as faith formation leaders, our relationship with preschool families can differ wildly. Some churches rent property to outside schools; some churches are fully immersed in their preschool culture; and many churches are somewhere in between. How do you develop a relationship with your preschool if you are somewhere in between?
A Language of Ritual for Children of All Faiths
At our church, we have a positive relationship with our preschool, but the school is not a parochial one; Peter Pan Preschool has families of many faith traditions and cultural differences. When I first met with our preschool director about creating a chapel program, we wanted to respect these differences but also acknowledge that they are attending a preschool in an Episcopal church. Our overall theme for the year would be very simple: God loves you. I carry this theme through in each story that I share.
Keep It Simple. Keep Repeating
Every month I follow the same ritual, so the kids become very familiar with what chapel time looks like. There are only a few essential components:
- I lead them from their classroom to the doors of the church while we sing “This is the way we go to chapel” to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus." At the church doors, we stop and talk about what will happen when we go inside, like a Godly Play classroom. I want them to be comfortable in the church, but also to understand that this is a special place.
- We walk towards the altar and line up single file. Each child stops at a small altar and picks a candle to light. They share with me something they were thankful about that day. Their answers often touch my heart, this is probably my most favorite part of chapel! I have heard children tell me they are thankful for everything from mermaids to chocolate to their new baby brother to warthogs. This is a chance for them to spend a little one-on-one time with me before they join the rest of the group for the story. I want them to know that this church is a place where adults will listen to them.
- We gather in front of the altar where I tell a story. I use anything that keeps the kids’ attention and tells them of God’s love for them. We sit in a half-circle and I use Godly Play stories, book stories, puppet stories, or felt board stories. At the end of the story, I ask them about their favorite part with a simple Godly Play-style question.
- We finish our time with sharing a prayer that we do together with hand signals. The same prayer is said the entire year so that the kids get very familiar with saying it – and hopefully can carry it home. I use:
God made the Sun (raise your arms above your head)
And God made the Seas, (put your hands in front of you and roll them up and down like the waves)
God Made the fishes, (put your hands together and move them back and forth like a fish swimming)
And God made Me. (Point to yourself)
Thank you, God for the Sun, (repeat from above)
Thank you, God for the Seas, (repeat from above)
Thank you, God, for the fishes, (repeat from above)
And thank you God for me. (repeat from above)
- At the end of chapel, we walk back to the classroom singing “This is the way we go to school,” using "school" in the place of "chapel." I say goodbye to each student and they return to their classroom.
On their day of chapel, each child takes home a chapel sheet that lets their families know what story we read, what we talked about, and what prayer we shared. I always emphasize that the stories and prayers we share tell the kids that God loves them. That is the simple lesson I hope they take with them into elementary school and beyond.
Fine Tuning Keeps Ritual Fresh
Now in my fourth year with this chapel program, I have fine-tuned stories, but the essential structure remains the same. The children begin the year rather timid but once they adjust to the ritual and understand the routine, chapel becomes a treasured part of their preschool week. Children are not required to attend chapel, but even those who don’t choose to attend at the beginning of the year, eventually join us because they don’t want to miss out. Going to the “Big Church” seems too cool to miss.
Whitney Wilson has been telling stories to children and youth about God's love since she was in high school. She received her Masters of Theological Studies from The Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) in 2014 and had been on the staff at Church of the Resurrection as the Children and Family Minister for the past few years. She lives in Walnut Creek, CA with her husband Scott, their three teenagers Andrew, Ben, and Katie and their wildly enthusiastic puppy Lucy.