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.
You may want to have a party of some sort on All Hallows Eve with your families. You can send sweets to families for the parents and carers to give to their children, have an online pumpkin-carving competition, and more.
Here is a liturgy that you can do on Zoom as part of this. It takes about 20 minutes – 11 minutes of that is a film, a portion of Disney’s Fantasia that explores the journey from a scary night to the dawn of God’s light in the morning. It helps put All Hallows Eve in its context – yes, death and evil are real, and yes, the world can be a scary place. By dressing up as skeletons or ghosts or zombies, children take charge of those fears and, through play, achieve mastery of them. In the morning of All Saints Day, after we have confronted our fear of death through the symbols of All Hallows Eve, we are comforted by the reality that we do not become ghosts or zombies after death, but saints, given new life in God’s Kingdom by the one who has defeated death, and who invites us to follow him into new life with the saints who have come before us.
Once we’re in more normal times again, the liturgy can be easily adapted to be done in person, not over Zoom.
All Hallows Eve liturgy:
Approximately 20 minutes, on Zoom. Appropriate for ages 5 and up.
Leader: The night is far gone
All: the day is near.
Leader: Let us then lay aside the works of darkness
All: and put on the armour of light.
Leader: As the earth turns towards autumn, darkness and cold, and the year dies, we remember that all living things will die, and we face our fear of death. We may dress up as ghosts, or skeletons, or vampires, or zombies, in this dark autumn night. We play with spookiness, as we confront symbols of death and darkness. And we acknowledge that the world can be a scary place, and we need bravery and courage.
But we remember that death does not have the final word. The night of All Hallows Eve passes, and with it, the ghosts and skeletons and vampires and zombies. And the dawn breaks on the day of All Saints Day, when we can remember that after death, we become not ghosts or zombies, but saints. We remember that in the battle with death and darkness, we have on our side Jesus, who has fought death for us and won, and who invites us to follow him through death into new life that lasts forever in God’s Kingdom.
If you have a decorated pumpkin, you can light it now. Otherwise turn off all the lights except one, or turn off all the lights and light a candle.
On Zoom – participants mute themselves. Leader shares their screen and clicks the “share computer sound” box in the bottom left of the “share screen” popup. Everyone sings along at home.
This was both a wonderfully joyful and creative, and heartbreaking thing to write. If you’re thinking of using it, you may feel the same.
If you want to skip straight to the downloads, which really contain all you need, go right to the end of this post.
If you want to ease yourself in with some information (most of which is repeated in the downloads), so you have some idea of what’s going on before you wade in, read on:
The service is designed to last about half an hour. There is an opening section with a brief prayer, and some text from John 1, followed by the Christmas story in three parts (Annunciation, Nativity, Shepherds), and then closing prayers which everyone participates in.
There are also Christmas carols. Notes are included on singing – you’ve probably done singing over Zoom already yourself. I’ve found the best way is to find a version of the hymn on YouTube, and have everyone mute themselves and sing along. With the voices on YouTube, you don’t feel like you’re the only one singing, as you would with an instrumental backing track. I’ve included links to YouTube videos of each hymn, but if you have a choir, you may wish to have them do recordings – just remember to add lyrics to the video so people can easily sing along.
Anyone who wants to is encouraged to draw along with the service and share their drawings (or Play-doh sculptures, or whatever) on the church’s social media page. You may want to have a specific album for them to share to – you can put the link to that in the chat.
Children are also encouraged to come to the service dressed as a character from the Nativity story – they will join in the prayers at the end based on what they’re dressed as – eg all the Maries read one bit, all the shepherds read another. If you have non-readers, you may want to do “repeat after me” with the prayers.
The stories are told using PowerPoint presentations – these are available to download in this post along with the order of service. In two of the PowerPoints, there’s something to discuss at the end, so people can join in and share their thoughts with each other.
Families can also be encouraged to create a “Prayer Space” by their computer – with a nativity set, or decorations, or anything they like. Everyone will need a candle (or an LED candle, or string of lights, or something like that). If you know a family doesn’t have one, and can’t access one, do find a way to provide one for them.
With Remembrance Day coming up, one activity children can do at home is to design a war memorial. They can use whatever materials they have at home – items from the recycling bin, play-doh, Lego – whatever you have. These can then be photographed and sent into church and collected in a Facebook album.
Encourage them to think about the following questions:
How would you want people to feel as they look at your memorial?
What shape do you want your memorial to be? Do you want there to be words? Pictures?
Who do you think might visit this memorial? Soldiers who have been in wars? Families of people who have died? People who are praying for peace?
Could there be an interactive element to your memorial? A place for people to leave names, or prayers, or draw or write something? Will your memorial have moving parts to it?
Where is God in all this?
A few memorials for inspiration:
Does your church have a war memorial? Can you visit it?
Last year, the “Faith at Home for Advent” resource, in association with Red Letter Christians, was extremely popular. This year, I’ve updated it so that the dates are accurate, added two activities in the final week (because Christmas is a Friday this year, not a Wednesday, so Advent is two days longer), added some prayers for coronavirus times, and changed a few things that referred to meeting up with other people.
The weekly themes, and most of the activities, are the same as last year. Many children love tradition and repetition, so this may not be a problem, even if you used the resource last year.