Summer Sunday school: Blob Tag and Jataka tales

August 19 entry from Dan Harper’s teaching diary; as usual, children’s names are fictitious.

We’ve been getting 8 to 12 children in grades K-6 in our summer Sunday school class — a nice group size that allows children of different ages to get to know each other. Such a small group size makes it easy to change your plans at the last minute, too. At 9:25, five minutes before heading in to the worship service, Edie, my co-teacher, and I revised our plan. We were supposed to take a walk to the nearby city park, but neither one of us felt like dealing with the hassle of getting permission slips signed.

“Let’s stay here,” said Edie. “We can play giant Jenga.” Last winter, the middle school group had made a game based on Jenga (a trademarked game invented by Leslie Scott), using two-by-fours for the blocks. The middle school kids had played this game on the patio during social hour, and the younger kids were fascinated by it.

“Do you want a story?” I said. I had just gotten an old story book, More Jataka Tales by Ellen C. Babbit (1923), and there was one story I wanted to tell to children.

“OK,” said Edie. “And we better have an active game, because I saw Fred walk in.” Fred is an active 8 year old boy, and he needs to move.

That doesn’t sound like much planning, but we were working in a larger framework. We knew we would do the usual Sunday school opening rituals, which would take ten minutes, and we knew that summer Sunday school was driven by one main educational goal: to have fun and build community. This was going to be a great opportunity to build community before regular Sunday school classes begin.

Edie and I scurried around to get things set up. As we did so, we noticed more and more children arriving. By the time the kids came out of the service to Sunday school, there were 20 of them in our class ranging in age from 5 to 12, and another half dozen younger kids in child care. We got the kids to help bring over more chairs so we could all have a place to sit. We had a couple of new children, so Hong, the Religious Education Assistant, ran off to get stick-on name tags.

The first thing we did was to go around the circle and everyone said their name, so the children who didn’t know each other could at least hear each other’s names. While that was going on, I watched the children looking around the circle for kids of about their own age, and kids they think they might like.

When we had gone over names and all had nametags, I read the story “How the Monkey Saved His Troop,” Babbit’s retelling of Jataka tale no. 407. As usual, the children were quiet and attentive while the story was going on. I stopped the story just as the King was about to order his archers to fire up into the mango-tree and kill the monkeys, just before the Chief of the monkeys figured out how to save his troop. “How do you think the chief monkey will save the other monkeys?” I asked. The children came up with six or eight ideas, all of which were good ideas, and I told them that. I said, “Let’s see what he actually did.” A couple of the children had hit on the right answer, and they were pleased, but mostly the children wanted to hear the end of the story.

After the story was over, I asked if anyone had any questions or thoughts about the story. A couple of children asked some clarifying questions, which I answered. Then a child said, “But what’s the point of the story?”

“What a great question,” I asked. I told them this was a Buddhist story, and explained how the Buddhists believed that the Buddha had had many previous lives, and this was one of the stories about a previous life. In each of these stories, one of the characters was the wise and good Buddha.

I asked them which character they thought was the Buddha in this story. “The Monkey Chief!” “No, the King!” “No, the Monkey Chief was better!” I had to admit that I didn’t know, and that I would find out and get back to them with the answer. [It was, of course, the Monkey Chief, who saves the lives of all the other monkeys.]

“Now it’s time to play a game,” I said.

Jenny (age 8) raised her hand and said, “Aren’t we going to get to say what happened to us this week?”

“Oh, you mean aren’t we going to say a good thing and a bad thing that happened in the past week?” I said. I had deliberately left that out of the opening ritual because we had so many kids. “Sure, we can do that. Since there’s so many of us, this week we’ll just say one thing that happened, it can be good or bad.”

The regulars asked a couple of questions like, “Could it be something that’s both good and bad?” and once we had the rules clarified, we began. Most of the children talked about how they had just begun school, or were about to start school. Jenny and her sister had something interesting to say, and one of the adults had had a beloved cat die, and the children expressed their sorrow at that news.

Now it was time to go play the game. I explained that we would go to the front play area, which meant we would have to walk right by the sanctuary where the service was going on, so we would have to be very quiet. Most of the children knew the drill, and knew how to be quiet. I asked the oldest kid, a 12 year old, to lead everyone to the play area.

When we got there, I explained how to play Blob Tag: one person it It to begin, and whens/he tags someone, that person becomes part of the Blob, so they hold hands. “Don’t they link arms?” asked Emily, who had played the game that way. “Yes, sometimes people play it that way when you’re playing really hard, but we’re only going to need to hold hands because we’re not going to play as hard,” I said.

Of course we did play very hard, and sometimes the Blob came apart, and we probably should have use the linked arms rule. Emily turned out to be a very good Blob Tag player, and was one of the children who had not been caught when time ran out.

“OK, time for a second game,” said Edie. “This time we’ll have two Blobs, me and Nathan [another adult we had with us].” This game was even more fun. But by the time it was over, it was time to head back to play Giant Jenga.

When we got back to our classroom, the first thing we did was to have water and one lollipop each. Some churches have no-candy rules, but not us — very few children have allergies to lollipops, the lollipops we use are tiny, and the kids love them. I have no compunctions about giving children candy so they like coming to church.

When it was time to play giant Jenga, some of the younger children didn’t want to play, so they drifted out to the play area where the preschoolers were being watched by the paid child care workers. But most of the older kids stayed. Our 12 year old had been part of the class which had created giant Jenga, so she set it up and helped run it. The tower became three feet tall, then four feet tall, and Nathan and I served as spotters so the blocks wouldn’t fall on a child; the 12 year old helped younger children who wanted help.

At last parents started drifting in; clearly the service was over by now. I told the children that if it looked too hard, they could choose to pull a block that would topple the tower, and that’s finally how the game ended — the child whose turn it was gleefully pulled out one of the bottom blocks, the the whole tower fell over (away from that child, Nathan and I made sure of that) with an enormous crash.

Later, Edie and I processed how the session had gone. We both agreed that it was more fun than our initial plan of walking to the park. We both agreed that it was a lot of fun — we liked having that many children. And we talked about why it went so well. Edie pointed out that it was good to play Blob Tag in the front play area which is fenced in so the game doesn’t get completely out of hand. I pointed out that we have a bunch of little rituals that the children know and like (and when we skip rituals, like the one-good-thing-one-bad-thing ritual, they want to do hem), and the children know how things operate (they know how to get to the front play quietly, they know giant Jenga). And I pointed out that Edie should take some of the credit — she has been leading summer Sunday school for the past two months, and has built up a real community feeling in the kids, even with the irregular summer attendance.

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