Overview: The "Tween" Problem
Sunday School ministries experience a significant attendance drop in Grades 4-6, with some students returning later for confirmation or youth ministry programs. Many curricula don't treat preteens differently, even though kids this age are going through puberty, developing abstract thinking skills, and spending more time with peers. We also saw a trend in churches starting tween-specific programs.
What would it look like to design a curriculum with the particular needs of preteens in mind?
That's what I set out to do for sparkhouse.
We identified four key audiences who would use this curriculum:
“I’ve heard these stories a bunch, but I’m starting to have a lot more questions about them.”
“Were David and Jesus cousins?”
“If one of the commandments says we shouldn’t kill, why is it ok when the Israelites kill people in war?”
“I’m not a little kid anymore, so why are we learning the same stuff as my 2nd grade brother?”
Children's Ministry Directors
“I don’t know what to do with the preteen class. The regular curriculum isn’t working anymore, but I can’t find much out there.”
“The kids are starting to doubt and ask tough questions about whether these stories are true. What do I do with that?”
“I wish there were something that would make our 5th and 6th graders actually want to come to Sunday school.”
Preteen Ministry Directors
“I love this age group, but I usually create my own resources because the published stuff is too childish or too serious.”
“I just got this group of 5th and 6th graders, but they’re not ready for some of the topics we cover in youth group.”
“The kids in my youth group don’t know how to use their Bibles or how the stories fit together.”
“I was doing regular youth group stuff starting with preteens, but then they’re sick of it and leave when they get to 10th grade.”
We developed a series of questions or provocations to drive a core set of values throughout the design and development process.
What if we could build something that…
helps preteens construct a biblical-theological “backbone” by exploring stories and their greater context and meaning?
offers the full sweep of the Bible story?
asks, “What is God’s project in the world? What is God doing?”
uses media and hands-on projects to bridge abstract biblical and theological concepts?
successfully transitions preteens from children’s ministry to youth ministry without losing them along the way?
Previous research showed that preteens were most engaged by a charismatic leader, but many adult volunteers don’t have a background in theology or working with preteens. Or they were intimidated by the possibility of getting questions they couldn’t answer. On top of that, Sunday school leaders often spent less than 20 minutes preparing to teach.
To address this dynamic, we envisioned a 4-part curriculum system. Quirky videos presented the lesson theme in an age-appropriate, theologically-grounded way (without the leader needing to be an expert). A leader guide provided brief, digestible Bible backgrounds and information about preteen development, followed by tactical instruction for how to facilitate each lesson. Learner sheets built on an icon that represented the lesson theme, and typically required only readily-available office supplies to complete. And a Connect Bible offered specific content and activities tied to the lesson Bible texts, a Bible timeline foldout, and other content to help preteens see connections in Scripture on their own.
SCOPE & SEQUENCE
We designed the 2-year curriculum to span the entire biblical narrative over the course of 10 units. Each unit revolved around a theme and consisted of five lessons and a “rewind” session to reinforce learning before exploring a new theme and set of stories.
We held a "Creative Jam" to rapidly prototype a lesson for proof of concept and initial testing. At the end of two days, the team of seven had identified a unifying visual aesthetic, written a rough video script, brainstormed ideas for a learner activity sheet that would transform into a three-dimensional project, and concepted supplemental sidebar content and activities for a Bible.
PROTOTYPING & TESTING
After producing a prototype for one lesson, we asked a dozen churches to test it during a regular session with 5th and 6th graders. Each test site had volunteer leaders complete a brief survey, which was submitted along with feedback from the church staff person. The sparkhouse team integrated this test feedback into the lesson and made some small modifications to the product design before embarking on full production.
While later Connect lessons were not fully tested before release, three external reviewers evaluated manuscripts for each session to make sure the content was theologically sound, age-appropriate, and inclusive.
The Final Product
A Bible overview for grades 5-6 that engages preteens in God's big story through videos, Bible exploration, and hands-on projects.
Spanning 10 units (with six lessons per unit), tweens journey through the Old and New Testaments and discover themes that run throughout Scripture. Every Connect lesson includes three sections: See, Explore, and Make. During each lesson, preteens discover a theme through watching a witty video, explore up to four biblical texts, and create projects that range from games to art and more.
Connect was initially released by unit throughout 2012-2013. Now Connect may be purchased as a print product by unit, a la carte as individual downloadable lessons, or through a sparkhouse Online subscription site that also offers web-exclusive features such as Learner Sheet Tutorial Videos, preteen retreats, and film festivals.
To spread the word about Connect, the team developed two overview videos. In addition to reviewing the scripts, another product designer and I served as on-screen talent to provide background on the product system.
The DVD for the Connect curriculum for some reason presents the story in a way that cracks up our students. And holds their interest! One thing I haven’t heard from the kids this year is a whiningly spoken, “We learned about that already!”
- Pastor Tom Teichmann, Messiah Lutheran, Amherst, NH
We think [Connect] is fabulous! The kids really like the video, which has proven to be a great lesson opener because it is so relatable. It really seems to engage them in the story, prompting some really awesome discussions before, during, and after they have opened their Bibles.
- Laurie, Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes, MN
The thing that resonated most with the tweens is the video. It is very innovative and forward thinking since it resembles the cartoons and movies that are geared toward the tweens. It is great to see them giggle and laugh and it has been really positive for them.”
- Suzanne, St. Michaels and All Angels Episcopal Church, Dallas, TX
We started using Connect in Sunday school this past fall in an effort to rejuvenate the participation of our 5th and 6th grade kids. Because of Connect, we have consistently seen an increase in attendance. They love having their own preteen curriculum!
- Janel, Calvary Lutheran Church, Willmar, MN
I didn’t really learn anything except that God is still creating today.
- Student, Connect field test