I wrote an All-Age Lent course last year, and several churches were in the middle of trialling it when the pandemic hit. I’ve adapted it for Zoom and you can download it below.
A few notes – these are also included in the download:
Each week, there is storytelling, and then a choice of response activity. Each response activity will be in a different breakout room. Some of the response activities require having various resources – these have been chosen to be fairly cheap and easy to get. HOWEVER, in the introductory section of the course, there is an idea for an ALTERNATIVE for churches for whom making up resource packs every week for different activities would be asking too much.
You will need to be familiar enough with Zoom to be able to put people into breakout rooms manually and not just automatically, to be able to share a screen and share computer sound, to instruct people on Speaker vs. Gallery view, and to feel comfortable reading a book with pictures, using the webcam.
There are safeguarding issues around children being present on Zoom. A link is included in the document to the Church of England’s accessible and straightforward guidance on best practice. Please do read and follow it.
Now we’ve looked at the props that can be helpful, how do you set up and start doing online storytelling? Much of my approach is a similar ethos to Godly Play, and may be familiar to practitioners of it – however, a lot of what I do is adaptable for different styles of worship.
I’ve found my videos fall into two main categories – stories and discourses. For stories, you need a setting and characters and events. You’re basically creating a stage. For discourses (eg Matthew 25:31-46, the video for which can be seen here), you’re using images and symbols to illustrate words spoken by Jesus or a prophet. For these, you may just want a circle of fabric, and lay out different objects on it.
I’ve used different spaces around my flat and garden for filming. During Ordinary Time, I used a green tray to show the colour of the season (the removable top of an IKEA tray table, available here) but at other times, I’ve tried to replicate a landscape more realistically. For parables involving plants, I’ve sometimes gone out to my garden.
On Zoom, the storytelling space needs to be near where you’re sitting for the session, and you’re generally using a webcam instead of a camera to capture it. For this, I’ve set up a shoebox next to me on the table, and covered it with a white cloth. I’ve placed plain cardboard behind the shoebox, and held the cardboard in place with rocks behind it – basically, creating a mini stage. I’ve then brought a table lamp over beside it. Then, at story time, I’ve turned the camera and manipulated the figures on this stage.
With Zoom, you also have to be aware of interruptions. Having a different “storytelling stage” and encouraging participants to switch to speaker view and mute themselves until wondering time, can help reinforce the “set apart” nature of storytelling time and help them enter more fully into the story.
If you don’t live alone, you have more options, as long as one of your household members is willing to play production assistant and/or camera operator.
Consistency and familiarity are key here, for two reasons. One, children enjoy ritual and repetition, and it helps learning. Secondly, if I’m re-inventing the wheel every week, it’s more stressful for me.
I’ve structured my videos as follows:
I begin every story video by lighting a candle and saying “we begin by lighting our candle, to remember God’s light is with us, wherever we are.”
Then, if there’s any context needed for the story, I give it. This means reminding children where this story fits in the broader sweep of the Biblical narrative, or else introducing a new season of the church year and therefore a new focus of the stories. For example, the video from Advent 1)
Then I tell the story. I try to keep it simple, but without sacrificing richness.
We spend some time wondering about the story – this means the story can be interactive, even though it’s virtual, and children’s thoughts and reflections are valued.
Finish by blowing out the candle.
Depending on your skills and preferences, you may want to include movement, or singing, or something else, as part of your structure. And of course you can tweak it as you go. But I’ve found keeping a fairly consistent format works well – people know what to expect, it feels like church, and I don’t have to start from scratch every week.
I try to keep the story to four or five minutes and the wondering questions to around two minutes, so the videos are 6 – 7 minutes total. Assuming people are pausing the video to respond to the wondering questions, this means the story and reflections will take 10 – 15 minutes. This is designed to fit well within a half-hour family service, or a full all-age Eucharist.
Do you have any top tips, or experiences to share? Let me know in the comments!
I’ve spent the last ten months making weekly storytelling videos for YouTube (you can find them all here) and so I’m thinking I’ll do a few blog posts about things I’ve learned.
A few caveats –
First of all, the videos I’ve made have been pre-recorded. I’ve done a bit of live storytelling over Zoom with children present, but not a huge amount. Making something pre-recorded is different from doing it live.
Secondly, I’m fairly comfortable with the writing/language part of it – sometimes I use a script (we have the Beulah Land and Godly Play scripts and I can send these to you if you’re in the Diocese), and sometimes I’ll use the text from a children’s Bible, but in general I’m happy reading a Bible passage, making a few notes, and then improvising turning the text into a story that’s accessible to children, trusting that I can make the language and the story arc work. If that’s something you struggle with, and you have big questions on “how do I even connect with children,” that’s a bigger post that I haven’t quite got planned yet.
But the first thing – and the subject of this post – is, what do you need?
There are lots of Bible storytelling videos out there that use Lego, so if you have a lot of Lego, that’s a good starting point. But I found myself stuck at home last March, suddenly having to use only what I had to hand. Here are the things I’ve used over and over, which form a good basis for most stories. I store them all in a basket under my desk, so I can just get them all out at once and put them all back easily when I’m done.
A fairly neutral olive wood Nativity set. I use one of the Kings for Jesus, the Mary figure is many female characters, the other Kings, shepherds, and Joseph take on other roles, and also “the crowd” as needed. If you have a second, smaller set (I happen to have one), it’s very useful for providing “children.” The sheep, cow, and donkey provide generic animals for stories and backgrounds. A more realistic Nativity would be recognisably, and specifically, those characters. A neutral wood or stone one provides more flexibility.
Plain fabric for creating backgrounds and landscapes. White, blue, green, and brown. I use a blue shawl which is dip-dyed and therefore has shifting blue on it, which makes lovely water. The white can be ripped up to make tablecloths and, for the Lazarus/Easter story, gravebands. You can spread them across tables to create the ground or hang them from walls/over radiators to create sky. My living room was already painted blue, which was lucky, so I can use my wall as the sky.
Wooden blocks. For building houses, walls, and tables.
Play-doh or Plasticine. For making small versions of things like food.
A small plant in a pot. Again, for landscapes – lots of stories have trees in them. Wrap fabric around the pot to blend it into the landscape.
A collection of rocks and shells. It’s astonishing, when you start looking at it, how many stories have references to stones in them. They also create landscape detail, and you can use them to mark out roads and paths for your characters to travel – the Nativity story, the Prodigal Son, etc.
A bird. I use a dove Christmas tree ornament. Useful for stories where the Spirit appears, but also as a symbol to add to a layout when Jesus is talking about peace.
Generic-looking coins. Useful for a lot of parables.
A candle. Again, useful for stories where the Spirit shows up as fire, but also to light and extinguish to mark the beginning and end of a story or session.
A sense of humour. My cats have wandered into the shot sometimes and I’ve kept going, or they’ve started yowling and I say “I think he has something to say about the story!” I’ve knocked figures over, set fabric on fire, and made my phone shut down due to overheating by holding it over a candle while filming.
A moveable light. Helpful for obvious reasons.
A phone stand. I’ve been holding the phone with one hand and moving figures with the other for ten months, and it’s ridiculous. I’m going to buy one of these, which I should have done ages ago.
With this fairly basic set of props, you’ve got the building blocks of most stories. Yes, you’ll occasionally find yourself having to track down “something to symbolise ‘I was a prisoner and you set me free'” (I used keys), but this is the “capsule wardrobe” of your storytelling kit.
This is a topic I got asked about a lot, even before coronavirus.
So many Bible stories touch on topics of illness and death, injustice, violence, and loss. How do we address these topics with children? And now, when illness and death, injustice, loss, disappointment, uncertainty, anxiety, and so much more have become more a part of our children’s daily lives than we wished, what do we do, as church leaders?
It feels false simply to cheerlead them through sessions about how happy we are because God loves us. In normal times, many children’s lives are not simple, straightforward, and happy, but now even the safest and most secure child is dealing with a world that may seem scary and chaotic. So we can’t just pretend everything is okay. But we don’t want to make things worse, or offer just doom and gloom. And of course it’s all harder in that much of this is happening over Zoom, instead of in person.
Here are a few tips from my own experiences. Please do add your own thoughts in the comments.
Create space for conversation. Don’t fill the whole session with activities – allow room for discussion. Children will be bringing things to your session; experiences, questions, thoughts, and so on. Make room for that.
Make the conversation open-ended and safe. Establish ground rules – “everyone’s ideas are okay.” This may mean you create a system for taking turns on Zoom (raising hands, reaction buttons) and you can make it routine that you mute yourself if you aren’t speaking. Use “I wonder …” questions. (“I wonder what your favourite part of the story was” / “I wonder what the most important part of the story was” / “I wonder what part of the story is for you” / “I wonder what Jesus’s friends felt when that happened” etc.)
Use story. Often, people of all ages find it easier to talk about their own feelings if they have a story to talk about it through. Talking about how the characters feel, what the ending means, and so on, can help you talk about what’s going on in your own life, without revealing really personal stuff. A child who responds to the Baptism of Jesus story by saying “I liked when Jesus heard God’s voice, because maybe he’d been feeling really alone, but then he knew God was with him” may be saying something deeply personal, but because it’s done through the story, it’s easier to talk about. I’m making weekly story videos of the lectionary, which you can find here. If you’re dealing with a bereavement, I have a Pinterest board of children’s books about death, which can be found here.
But also, allow children to process feelings in different ways. Some children will find it easier to express their emotions through drawing or making something. Some things I’ve done include, “make a Play-doh sculpture to show how the story made you feel,” “go find an object in your house that represents something that’s been sad or disappointing this year and we can pray about it,” and “draw what you’d like us to pray about.” Don’t force children to share their drawings/objects/etc if they don’t want to.
Acknowledge emotions. We want to reassure children and make them feel safe, and this can sometimes lead us to dismiss what they’re feeling, if what they’re feeling is uncomfortable. If a child says “I feel like there’s no hope,” we want to instinctively say, “oh, I’m sure it isn’t that bad.” Unfortunately, that can lead the child to feel dismissed, and to trust us less. Acknowledging the feeling – “that sounds very hard. I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. Thank you for telling us. Has anyone else in the group ever felt that way? What did you do that helped?” can acknowledge the emotion as real, while also pointing the child to look for coping mechanisms.
Keep it small – that’s where the power is. “Can you think of one thing that made you smile this week, and say thank you to God for it?” “Can you think of three things you’re grateful for?” “What’s one thing you can do this week to help somebody else?” All of us, but children especially, feel better when we’re able to feel useful and helpful and like what we do matters. Giving children opportunities to reflect on gratitude and small blessings, and then to think of what they can do to make a difference, can be very helpful. This can be a way to close your prayer time.
Do you have any other thoughts on how to acknowledge difficult times and support children’s emotional wellbeing? Please share them in the comments!