Teaching Young Primary Children (ages 3-7) #TeachingPrimaryCFM


Lyndsey Jarman is a Kindergarten Teacher with a Masters Degree in Education and 11 years of teaching experience. She blogs with her mother (also an early childhood educator) at Kindergarten Kiosk about early childhood education and podcasts about teaching kindergarten here. This year she is posting ideas to help parents and primary teachers teach young children at Primary Plus. Lyndsey and her husband have three young children at home who serve as her Guinea pigs for all of her education related ideas.

In the TED Talk “What Do Babies Think?” Alison Gopnik, a child development psychologist, explores the relationship between the length of childhood and the development of the human brain. For example, she compares the development of a crow and a chicken, correlating the length of their childhood. The crow, who is a very intelligent bird has a childhood of one year, and a chicken, less than a month. She states, “The disparity in childhood (of these birds) is why the crow ends up on the cover of Science, and the chickens end up in a soup pot.”

Our long human childhoods are a gift for our development, and teachers who work with our youngest primary children (3-7) should first understand that they are undergoing important physical, social, and emotional development that should be as much a part of any lesson as spiritual development. With that in mind, here are some ideas to help you as you plan New Testament lessons for our very youngest Church members. 

Keep Lessons Active and Engaging

A child’s attention span is very short. To determine the average length of time that a child can attend, add 1 to their chronological age. That means if you are teaching a lesson to group of 3 year olds, the longest any portion of the lesson can be is 4 minutes. So, for a 20 minute lesson, you would break it up into 5 unique sections that will last about 4 minutes, or stop about every 4 minutes and change the method of the lesson delivery.

There are many ways that we process information: visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social, and solitary. If you have been delivering the lesson in a visual and aural method (speaking to the children with visual aids, for example) then change to a physical and social method (have the children act out a concept with a friend). This is important to remember because most children are physical learners, and if there is a way to reverently involve them physically in the lesson, it will improve their ability to absorb what you are teaching. The most powerful tool for learning at young ages is play. In fact, remember that rule about attention spans? It goes out the window when children play. Children are able to attend to new information for much longer periods if they are invested through play, so take advantage of this wherever you can. Bring in simple costumes and let the children act out the scripture stories as you read them. Let them build their own understanding and meaning as they engage with the scriptures in a way that is meaningful to them.

It’s Okay to Wait and It’s Not Okay to Wait

When asking children to respond to a question, wait as long as you think everyone needs, and then wait a little longer. It may be hard to sit in silence, but providing children opportunities to think about the questions you ask them will improve their ability to answer. Give them an opportunity to learn to listen to the Spirit, and give those who do not like to participate verbally a chance to teach themselves. At the same time, pay attention to the nonverbal signals that children give you during your lesson. Sometimes a lesson will not work the way you planned it, sometimes it will not work at all. If the mumbling and shuffling in the room seems to hint that the learning is not happening the way you planned, move on, throw things out, improvise. Don’t be afraid to change how you are presenting the lesson, mid lesson, if it is not doing the job it was supposed to do. The Spirit will help you as you make adjustments on the fly.

Use Novelty

Everyone is naturally attracted to newness and unknown, and young children are especially engaged by novelty. You can use this to your advantage. Start off the lesson with a wrapped box and tell the children that at the end of the lesson someone will get to open it and see what is inside. Then at the end of the lesson you can reveal a picture or object inside the box that relates to what you were teaching. Bring in an unusual object. Play a piece of music. Novelty not only helps with attention, it actually aids in memory retention.

Be Concrete

Young primary children will not be able to understand abstract concepts, so keep things tied to their real lives and experiences if possible. I just taught Lesson 2 to my own little children and the concept of immaculate conception was… interesting… to explain. Luckily, I have a friend who has a child because of embryo donation. By telling my children about my friend, and how she and her husband couldn’t have a baby, but how a doctor was able to put a donated embryo inside her so she could get pregnant, it made the idea of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother putting baby Jesus inside of Mary much more palatable (and understandable) for them.

Involve Everyone

As you conduct the lesson, keep in mind that if you are not asking all of the children to participate, you will lose the attention of the other children. For example, in a lesson where one child is asked to come to the front of the room and read a scripture and comment on it, only that child is going to attend to the lesson and the rest of the room will naturally disengage. Young children are not great at perspective taking or learning from peers. Try to think of ways to make sure that all of the children will be involved. In this example, you could tell the children that after the scripture is read, they will be able to whisper to their neighbor what they thought of it. This gives them something to think about and something to do. Or, for younger children, they could touch their heads every time they hear the word Jesus read in the scripture selection. If one child is asked to come to the front to place something on the board, all of the children can quietly point to where they think it should go. There are many ways to ask the rest of the class to remain engaged in the lesson, and it helps to think of these moments and plan them out beforehand. Better still, try not to include anything in the lesson that involves only one child. Find ways for every child to be engaged throughout the whole lesson.

Remember The Power of Stories

One of the reasons the scriptures are so powerful is because of the stories they contain. Not surprisingly, when Jesus came to Earth, He chose to teach us through stories. As adults, we are so used to these stories that we sometimes have trouble looking at them with fresh perspectives. We have already decided what they mean, why they mean it, and what we are supposed to learn from them. Young children don’t come to these stories with this bias and we should let them enjoy the stories from the scriptures first and foremost for what they are: great stories. Furthermore, we should value the different questions and interpretations they bring to the stories—no matter how wild and wacky they might be. Theologian James Fowler said when describing the development of faith in children. “parents and teachers should create an atmosphere in which the child can freely express, verbally and non-verbally, the images she or he is forming” (Fowler, 132-133).

Last year, before my primary son had his lesson on Jonah, we read the wonderful translation of the story by Matt Mikalatos titled “Jonah: A Comedy.” My son absolutely loved the story and giggled aloud at the phrases describing a ship thinking about breaking to pieces, or a fish being pregnant with a prophet. After his primary lesson I asked him, “Did you talk about how funny the story of Jonah is?” He said, “It’s not funny the way they tell it.” Sometimes I think we take the fun out of the stories (as well as the thinking) by telling the children what they are supposed to take away from them. Instead of telling them that story A means X and story B means Z we should let them do the work of engaging with the story. When telling the story of the rich man who was commanded to sell everything we might ask, “What do you think Jesus was trying to teach? Why did the rich man have to sell everything? Why was he sad about it? Why did Jesus then immediately make His disciples question if they were getting into Heaven even though they had already done what He asked the rich man to do?” After reading the story of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids we could ask, “Was what the wise virgins did nice or mean? Were they actually wise? Should they have shared the oil and taken the chance of missing the party? Should the bridegroom have let the foolish virgins in?” Our job as primary teachers shouldn’t necessarily be to prescribe all the right answers to the children, but to facilitate questions that help them engage with the stories of the Gospel.

Set Boundaries

Children feel love and safety when adults set boundaries for them and explicitly state their expectations. Set high expectations for the children in your Primary and they will not disappoint you! Always make sure these expectations are clearly explained and consistently enforced. Whenever my husband teaches a primary class, he always spends the very first class explaining his expectations (which match the age group’s developmental needs). He then explains that he will always have candy with him (unless it’s Fast Sunday) and every child who follows the expectations will get a piece at the end of class. He then places a piece of candy on the table and if the children are not following the set guidelines, he slowly starts sliding the candy away from the child, if they return to following expectations, the candy starts to slide back. Now, as an early childhood educator, I’m a little hesitant to suggest a method that encourages extrinsic, instead of intrinsic motivation, but the point is that he sets his expectations, is consistent with them, and makes expectations visual and immediate for the children. Consistency is key when setting boundaries like this. You have to consistently reinforce your expectations, or children will figure out that, regardless of what you said, there really is no boundary. The nice thing is that young children are very driven by pleasing adults, so boundary guidelines can be as simple. For example, “Tim, you cannot sit on your chair like that. It’s dangerous. If you keep doing it you will have to stand instead of sit,” or “Sue, remember I said that if you were noisy with your paper I would have to keep it until class was over. Now I need your paper.” The main point here is the be clear at the outset of what you want to see, and then to be consistent in every lesson going forward.

Remember Children’s Basic Needs

Children want to follow the expectations set for them, but sometimes they cannot. Every human has basic needs: physiological needs like food and sleep, the need of security and safety, the need to be loved, the need to be respected by themselves and others, the need to feel control, creativity, agency, and fun. These are real and pressing needs that everyone has and a child physically cannot attend to learning if they are not met. A sleepy 3 year old is going to have trouble attending no matter what the leader does. A 5 year old who is not feeling loved may act out because even negative attention is better than no attention. You may not have much control over meeting all of these basic needs for the children in your Primary, but it is still important to keep in mind, especially when there are needs that you can meet, such as the feeling of love and safety that you can bring to every lesson you teach.

Get A Good Translation

Finally, the best thing that I have done for my teaching in primary is to get a translation of the New Testament that my children can understand and read. I highly recommend grabbing Thomas A. Wayment’s translation for Latter-day Saints. Having the ability to actually read the words of scripture to my children, without having to also teach them to read a foreign language, has been a huge benefit to our family and Primary lessons.

Where Would Jesus Go?

Someone told me once that if Jesus were to walk into your Church building, where would He go first? The answer is obvious. He would go to the Primary room to sing songs, to dance, to play, and to tell stories. It may seem overwhelming to try to teach the New Testament to small children, but by thinking of their developmental, social, emotional, and spiritual needs, it’s a task that is not only doable, but is highly enjoyable.

[This was the first in a series of #TeachingPrimaryCFM posts intended to help provide tools for Primary teachers. You can read more about the project here, and if you have experience and training teaching Primary-aged children, and would be interested in sharing that knowledge, feel free to volunteer here!]

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash



  1. Thanks you so much for this, Lyndsey! This is some great advice on how to teach younger children!

  2. greendavis2016 says:

    Wonderful! There was a line in the sharing time outline: “what will the children DO to learn and how can I help them FEEL the Spirit?” It became a guiding principle for me as Primary leader and teacher and your post gives many concrete examples of how to implement. Thank you!

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Outstanding! Thanks for the excellent guidance.

  4. Kristin Brown says:

    Excellent. The post adds in self-evaluating and readjusting lessons as needed. A great foundation for planning lessons. Thank you!

  5. Bro. Jones says:

    Thanks, this is great.

  6. Question… I teach slightly older kids (10 y/o) and one of my challenges is that brain speeds of the kids. Two of the girls read and process information super fast, so any time I ask a question or give them an assignment, those two are bouncing in their seats, hands raised to the ceiling within moments in their eagerness to give me the answer. I love the idea of leaving the room silent for a moment for the rest of the kids to have a chance too. But when I tried asking them to wait last week, it didn’t work particularly well. I ended up with two bouncing kids and the rest of the kids just looking to those two to provide quick answers rather than the other kids even trying. Any suggestions on slowing my two eager-beavers down or suggestions on teaching a behavior on how to wait patiently once they have an answer?

  7. God bless all of you for SENDING HELP to the Primary teachers. This Primary teacher certainly appreciates it!

    Most interesting to me was the part about how EVERYONE needs to be engaging all the time. Taking turns means the collective is checking out for most of the exercise. It all makes sense now.

  8. ReTx, that’s a great question. I would love to hear Lyndsey’s thoughts, if she’s up for answering. We also have a couple other people who have already volunteered to write posts in this series. I don’t yet have—but hope to get—some teachers of slightly older kids, who might give suggestions that are more directly applicable to your class (and if you are a 4th or 5th grade teacher who would be willing to do a guest post, please let me know!) (and also if you’re a kindergarten or preschool or 3rd grade teacher or whatever; Lyndsey’s post is incredibly good, and I’d love to hear others with other experience).

  9. Also, I’d love to hear in the comments from people who try these things in their classes—what worked well? what was hard? what surprised you? Thanks everyone!

  10. ReTx, one thing that you might try is to have the children write their thoughts down, that way the girls can start furiously scribbling their ideas while the other kids have time to process. You could also have them share their notes with each other before they present them to you. That way the children who aren’t sure about their thoughts will have even more time to process their ideas, as well as a chance to talk through their ideas in the more comfortable setting of a peer to peer conversation.

  11. Kristin V Brown says:

    ReTx, I have given each child in my class a certain amount of tokens, such as 2 pennies, clothes pins etc. If the tokens become a distraction the children can keep them under their chair. To answer a question a child gives you a token. When their tokens are gone, they must wait until the other children use their tokens before answering again. Just an idea.

  12. At a Primary event the other day I observed the exact interaction ReTx mentions. It was obvious that the fastest children were training the adults not to listen to the other children, and it’s a serious disservice to everyone, not just to those who are not quite as fast but have thoughtful and important things to say. That’s a brilliant way to alter the dynamic, Kristin.

    Although just barely old enough to remember the change to Sunday Primary in 1980, I do remember a leader telling us that now we would have no more fun, but would have to sit reverently and walk silently through the building. Could developmentally-inappropriate instruction be a reason why so many youth seem to have weaker ties to the Church than in previous generations? More so than blah-blah-attention span-blah-blah-cell phone-blah-blah-Millennials? If so, these conversations with instruction from wise and trained teachers like Lyndsey could be of serious benefit to the Church, especially if widely implemented.

  13. Amy I’ve seen what you describe in your second paragraph, both when we changed in 1980 when I was a young adult, and now. I think people are eager to signal their obedience and their allegiance to leadership making the changes, so they demonstrate those qualities with greater gestures than before. And it seems those gestures usually equate to becoming more serious. I’ve heard so many people in my ward proclaim that ministering is a higher law than HT/VT and thus requires even a greater and more focused effort than before, and proclaim that home study of the gospel is now of such import that we must create a school of the prophets in our homes. It’s not that I disagree completely with the general ideas expressed but people’s descriptions of how they will accomplish those ideas sound dreary in the extreme. The message really feels like, “no more fun now, it’s time to get SERIOUS.”

  14. This is really great. I don’t teach primary, but I’m finding all kinds of helpful advice here for teaching my own kids.

  15. This was good and I appreciate it. It will also help as we try to do more teaching at home with two-hour church.

    But one plea: Please do not encourage using candy as an incentive at church. In our home, we are forced into a constant war against candy. The kids get a literal *bag* of it from their teachers at church, on top of getting tons at birthday parties, school, etc. We buy it from them after Halloween and at other occasions to reduce the supply, and yet there is still enough for them to eat 2-4 pieces *every day of the year.* I am not exaggerating. It’s common for them to come home from church and decline lunch because they’re not hungry–from candy.

    Kid love stickers. Give them those. But please **no more candy.** (And I include candy-like fruit snacks here too.)

  16. This is amazing, thank you!! I wish I’d had this last time I taught Primary (and need to bookmark it for the next time I have to).

    Re the power of stories and being concrete: the last time I subbed in Primary, in Sunbeams, it was kind of a mess (see also, needed this post) but the one successful part of the class, in the sense that all the kids were really interested in it, was the story of baby Moses being put in a basket and the basket put in the river. They were so interested I had to include a disclaimer that they should Not do this with their own baby siblings :)

  17. Sidebottom says:

    I’m with you on everything except boundaries and consistent discipline – it’s an attractive ideal but it can’t absolve us from understanding each child’s specific needs.. To a personal example, my (now adult) daughter sits on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. This whole “slide away the candy” business would have driven her nuts and reinforced bad behavior. We fought with educators for years over this and – lo, and behold – once they stopped providing immediate, visual, and consistent response to bad behavior the behavior improved.

  18. Sidebottom, I don’t read Lyndsey as suggesting that consistency would absolve us of understanding each child’s individual needs. She wrote the first of what I hope will be a series of guest posts by different educators, providing different ideas and angles.

    And honestly, I’m hoping some of those posts will come from people with expertise in teaching children with special needs and people with experience teaching classrooms where special needs children have been integrated. (If anybody reading this is that person, drop me a note!)

  19. These ideas are great! Thanks for putting in time to write it up.

  20. Thanks so much for the ideas. Having the kids write down their answers to give everyone time and space works perfectly with my overall teaching strategy. And using tokens of some sort for who gets to go first in sharing their answers is perfect too. I will totally implement both this Sunday. I’m so glad I asked and I look forward to continued discussions here and forthcoming articles in this series.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    Many years ago I took part in a meeting around a table up on the stage. I want to say there were a dozen people present. The point of the meeting was for a family with several special needs children to teach us how to better interact with the kids. I don’t recall why I was present. But a lot of the ideas in my memory seemed to resonate with this thread.

  22. Sidebottom says:

    @Sam Brunson – I don’t either, but the example of the candy horrifies me. Even among children without named disabilities “boundaries” and “consistent discipline” are problematic concepts. They are kind of like minimum sentencing laws for kids.

  23. I want to say thanks and offer my agreement to the suggestions in the post. I have worked as a speech-language pathologist for 18 years in the schools with some master special education teachers. Children need routine and clear expectations especially special needs children. It gives them trust in their environment. With new kids, the new program, and new time that is what my husband and I are trying to figure out how to set up in our primary classroom. What will our classroom routine look like? What are the needs of the kids? What motivates them? Etc. An hour before was too long, but right now 20 minutes seems to short.

  24. This information is phenomenal–thank you Lyndsey. I’ve been in and out of primary/nursery for years, and after nursery last Sunday, it was obvious that so much of the developmental inappropriateness of 2-hour primary was resolved by cutting it down to 1 hour. My own kids came home happy and full of energy.

    Angelo JO–you should write a post for BCC! (I’m an occupational therapist and would love to hear your thoughts.) I think one of the most important thing that leaders/teachers can do for children with special needs is talk with the child’s parents–also go to their home and see/get to know the child in his/her own environment. Parents are the experts on what works best for their child. It seems like such a simple thing, but in my experience at church, there is often too little communication that occurs between parent-leader/teacher for special needs kiddos and in establishing the strategies that will work at church.

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