Nurturing Prayer with the Imagination
One foolproof way of engaging children in prayer is to pray from stories. You can use folk tales, children’s books, videos, and the Gospels. Most children identify readily with characters and situations. Here’s how you can bring stories, Jesus, and the children together.
Have the children go to a favorite place.
An easy way to engage their imaginations is to invite them to think of a place they like to be. It can be real or made-up, just as long as they like being there. Practice going to this favorite place regularly. If the children are accustomed to meeting Jesus in their favorite place, it’s very easy to guide their discussion with Jesus.
Invite Jesus to join them.
As the children sit with their eyes closed, each in his or her favorite place, begin a conversation, something like this:
“Jesus meets you in your favorite place. He looks at you just as he would look at a good friend, and he says, ‘How are you?’ Go ahead and answer him.”
“Then Jesus asks, ‘What story were you just reading?’ Tell him.”
Have Jesus talk with them about the story.
Continue having Jesus ask questions about the story, with plenty of silence between questions for the children to speak to him in their imaginations. If the story contains characters of differing values, ask which character they’d most want for a friend or which one they want to be like. Middle school and older children can be asked how they resemble each of the characters. Out of that comparison they might be guided to thank Jesus or to ask for his help.
Guiding their conversation with Jesus is like giving them a room and having them furnish it. They can carry on this imaginary discussion according to their developmental level, personality, and background. Craft your questions according to where they live—for example, in a big city or on a farm—and what they are likely to do, such as go for a hike, play on a beach, go to 4-H, or hang out in a mall. When possible, tie in something happening in the parish or something from the news.
Once the children have engaged in conversation with Jesus, perhaps revealing deeper parts of themselves to him, be cautious about any public discussion. In the enthusiasm (sometimes the distress) of the moment, children are quite likely to say more than is prudent. Protect them. See them privately if they indicate the need.
Among stories that establish a good foundation for prayer and are effective across grade levels are: Max Lucado’s You Are Special, Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, Leo Tolstoy’s Shoemaker Martin, Douglas Woods’s Old Turtle, and Hunt/Jonke’s The Tale of the Three Trees.
Sister Marlene Halpin, O.P., is a nationally recognized speaker and author on the topics of prayer and spirituality.