When my oldest niece was very small, I remember that she would take any objects (food, toys, rocks, whatever), find two big ones and one small one, and say, “This is the mommy, this is the daddy, and this is the baby!” The carrot stick or sippy cup family would then begin to walk and talk.
From a very young age, children spontaneously use their imagination. Although it is a natural faculty of our mind, imagination still needs to be encouraged and cultivated. Hence, experts urge parents to provide open-ended toys and unstructured play time to help their children’s imagination to flourish. They simultaneously warn against the pervasiveness of screens and the stifling effect they have on imagination and creativity.
Using their imagination while listening to, re-telling, or making up stories is the way children learn. Stories help them (and all of us!) explore the world, understand themselves, and develop empathy for others.
Is it any wonder that God uses stories to reveal Himself to us? The Bible is basically a Story. Even the parts that are instructional or for prayer are imparted in the context of salvation history—the story of God’s love for the human race.
Here are a few suggestions for tapping into children’s imagination, to make the stories of Scripture become more than just words on a page.
First of all, do read Scripture stories with your children. Depending on the age level, you can read them from the Bible itself or from Bible story books meant for children, of which there are many available. (Quick tip: When I’m not sure if a particular Bible story book is Catholic or not, I find the page on the Last Supper and see how the institution of the Eucharist is described.)
Read the Gospel for the upcoming Sunday ahead of time. This is a wonderful way for everyone to get more out of Sunday Mass. Find a time on Friday or Saturday to read the upcoming Gospel, or all the readings, together. (Quick tip: If you run into a Gospel that won’t work well with little kids, feel free to read something else!)
Ask questions about the Scripture to help your kids use their imagination. Ask them to imagine: what it would be like to be a certain character in the story, why a character acted a certain way, how Jesus might have felt in the situation, what they would have done if they had been there. For example, for the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10): “Why do you think Zacchaeus decided to give the money back?” “Why do you think Jesus decided to stay at Zacchaeus’ house?” “What would you have done if you were in the crowd that day?”
Ask your children to re-tell Scripture stories to you. They could tell them in their own words or act them out with toys/dolls/action figures. Having an older child read or tell the story to a younger child is also wonderful!
Do research about life and customs in biblical times. For example, understanding what tax collectors did and why everyone looked on them as sinners will help make the story of Zacchaeus more understandable. Knowing something about fishing, shepherding, harvesting, etc., will make more of the Bible come alive and make sense. (This was one of my main goals in writing my Gospel Time Trekkers series for kids!)
As your children become more familiar with the stories in Scripture, and use their imagination to deepen their understanding, it will come naturally to you and to them to make connections between the inspired word of God and their own lives.
Jesus Master, Way, Truth and Life,
form yourself in me,
that I may see with your eyes,
smile with your smile,
and love with your heart.
Mary, our Mother, Teacher, and Queen,
pray for us.
Sister Maria Grace Dateno, fsp, is an aunt to many nieces and nephews. She has an M.A. in theology and serves as an editor at Pauline Books and Media. Sister Maria Grace is the author of many children’s books, including the popular six-book “Gospel Time Trekkers series,” which follows three siblings as they time-travel into the time of Christ and begin to understand the Gospels and the Sacraments in a whole new way.