What your children’s ministry can learn from Vygotsky

Image: What your children’s ministry can learn from Vygotsky

Tim Beilharz

One of the great joys I have is seeing the beautiful community of boys at church on a Sunday morning. Aged from about three to 10 years, there is a strong cohort of young brothers in Christ who know, love and look after each other.

The other morning, while the eight and nine-year-olds jostled for Lego pieces from the tub, a much younger boy sat on the side. Nervous about joining the fray, he inched closer, seeking to participate in what was obviously the choice chill time activity.

Some of the older boys became aware of the younger boy’s presence. With barely a word said, the older boys shuffled around, creating a gap around the tub into which the younger child was welcomed.

As I watched this happen from across the room I couldn’t help but smile. Here was joy, patience, gentleness, and selfless love being displayed. Here was childhood faith being expressed and shared in the ordinariness of the children’s lives.

Helping faith grow

Within the world of child developmental psychology, there are two heavy hitters; Jean Piaget and Lev Vygostky. Both theorists focus on different aspects of a child’s developmental life.

Piaget focuses particularly on the cognitive development of the child; what they can understand at what age and how they can best express those ideas through language.

Vygotsky focuses on the social context of the child; the environment they are developing in and how outside, cultural and communal forces shape a child’s development.

When it comes to children’s ministry, many of our programming decisions are unconsciously shaped by Piaget. We think in ages and stages, working hard to present our songs, games, activities, and Bible teaching in language that these children can understand. This is why we tend to remove children from the “adult” service or sermon, and provide age-specific small groups and learning experiences.

This approach has many strengths, and much excellent Scripture teaching to and comprehension by children is the fruit of this important effort. However, while not disregarding the wisdom of age and stage, it is also important to pay attention to the cultural aspects of a child’s development and glean what we can from our other child psychologist friend, Mr Vygotsky.

There are a number of important elements of Vygotsky’s understanding of child development which can help influence our children’s ministry and, unsurprisingly, what we find in Vygotsky’s secular wisdom is echoes of biblical truth that God has revealed in the pages of Scripture.

1. Relationships matter

According to Vygotsky, we are not only the product of our own thinking and learning, but also the environment and relationships in which we did this learning. In technical jargon, “the formation of the mind or cognition is dependent on the social context in which an individual lives.” [1]

So, the father figure in Proverbs reminds his son that he has led him in the way of righteousness and to “not set foot on the path of the wicked” (Prov 4:11, 14). Likewise, Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to remove the immoral person from their congregation, since their bad influence can affect the entire church just as “a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough” (1 Cor. 5:6). The relationships and the environment in which we gather shapes our own spiritual and moral formation.

When it comes to our children’s ministry, we want to work hard at creating a positive and faith formative environment for the children who gather with us:

  • Is the children’s ministry a warm and welcoming space?
  • Are you and your leadership team setting a positive standard of behaviour?
  • Are you modelling to the children what “walking in step with the Spirit” looks like?
  • Are you affirming and encouraging the children when you see them express the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23)?

2. Teachers matter

Another of Vygotsky’s encouragements is that mentors matters. While we naturally think of the main leader in the room as fulfilling this role, Vygotsky points out that anyone further along in their development than the learner can play this role—including any older or more developed children, teenagers and adults.

As we think about adopting Vygotsky’s insights for faith development, it is essential that the children in our group have relationships with others who are further along in their faith than they are. So, while age and stage groups may be great for cognitively understanding a passage, faith development is more likely to occur when children are able to see faith modelled to them by older and more spiritually mature children, teenagers and adults. Once again, we see in Vygotsky’s psychologically informed wisdom, echoes of centuries-old divine wisdom revealed in God’s Word.

As Paul encourages Timothy and Titus in their ministry roles he makes a number of requests about those who are older or more mature mentoring those who are younger in the faith. From the selection of elders and deacons (1 Tim 3:1-13) to generational mentorship (Titus 2:1-8) and the minister’s own conduct (1 Tim 4:12-16; Titus 2:7-8), Paul is concerned with the passing on and formation of the faith from the mature believer to the less mature (2 Tim. 2:2).

In our children’s ministry therefore, we want to be providing opportunities for the children to be learning and growing in their faith through the interaction with more mature members of the church:

  • Are you and your leadership team teaching from the Scriptures what faithful life looks like?
  • Are you and your leadership team modelling mature faith?
  • Do younger children have the opportunity to witness and learn from the (relatively) more mature faith of older children and teenagers?
  • Are the older children and teenagers encouraged and have opportunity to share their faith with their younger brothers and sisters?

What I witnessed between the boys at church that morning was one small example of child-to-child faith formation. The older boys—shaped by regular Scripture exhortation, brought to fruition by the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives—were able to model mature faith to their younger brother. As this younger boy continues to see faith lived out by his older peers, he will continue to grow in his own understanding and expression of what a faithful Christian life looks like.

My encouragement is for you to continue to look for ways to create environments where these types of interactions might happen, and to look for and celebrate them when they do occur.


[1] James Estep, ‘Spiritual Formation As Social: Towards A Vygotskian Developmental Perspective’. Religious Education, 97, No. 1, Winter 2002, p.145.

Read more about: