Child Development And Its Importance For Church Leaders
by Amy Diller

When I was working on my degree in elementary education, one of the topics we revisited over and over in classes was child development. No matter the age of the children I taught, understanding where they were at developmentally helped with planning and instruction. Best teaching practices meant paying attention not just to the cognitive/academic development of my students but their physical, social, and emotional stages as well. 


The church setting is no different than school. The more you learn about the continuum of development, the better you’re able to spiritually engage kids while giving attention to their physical, social, and emotional needs in the phase they’re in.


In It’s Just a Phase So Don’t Miss It, Reggie Joiner and Kristen Ivy define phase as “a timeframe in a kid’s life when you can leverage distinctive opportunities to influence their futures.” This definition certainly applies to what we do as leaders. In order to help children grow in their faith, we can engage them in developmentally appropriate activities and lessons.


Let’s take a look at some of the general characteristics for elementary grades as listed in the M2P Family Experiences Developmental Guides*, along with ideas to incorporate in church classes. 



Kids in kindergarten are learning to become more independent from their parents. Large motor skills involve running, jumping, and skipping. Fine motor skills are demonstrated in an ability to zip and button. They are also developing fine motor muscles to be able to use pencils and crayons. Kindergarteners know right from wrong, can talk about their feelings, and want to make their own decisions. They like to play with their friends and are learning to cooperate when they do. Spiritually, kindergarteners are curious and may ask questions about God, Jesus, Heaven, and the Bible, which makes it a good time to begin reading the Bible to them.


In a church setting, provide opportunities for large motor activity through structured games and active songs. Give kids choices when you can. For example, “Do you want the blue paper or the red one for your craft?” or “Would you like graham crackers or animal crackers?” Set aside free play time to give them chances to interact with peers and learn to cooperate through play. Kindergarteners have a short attention span and rarely sit still. When planning lessons, think about interspersing sitting time with active time – sing songs with movements, practice memorization of verses by putting actions to the words, and find ways for kids to act out parts of the story with you.



1st Grade

First graders are spending more time away from their parents as they are in full-day school, making it a big transition year. Kids this age are often in constant motion. Typically, they don’t sit still but wiggle, squirm, and get in and out of their seats. They may be messy completing things such as writing, coloring, and putting away toys because they want to hurry up so they can move on to the next thing. They enjoy dramatic play. First graders (as well as all the younger grades) benefit from regular routines. They ask lots of questions and are developing their moral sense about right and wrong.


First graders are much like kindergarteners, and you can utilize the same planning tools as listed above. Adding regular times for movement is important in songs, memory verses, and lessons. Give them simple choices between two things when you can. Free play items that include dress-up clothes or props encourage imaginative play. This is a very good time to read Bible stories and ask kids to point out behaviors that are godly (right) and those that are ungodly (wrong).


2nd Grade

Second graders are better able to read more on their own. This gives them a sense of independence. They begin to develop close friendships and gravitate toward those kids for play. This is the stage where kids may not want to slow down anymore, even when they’re tired. Second graders can learn to perform basic chores like making a bed or putting dishes in the dishwasher. They care about fairness and start to develop more logical reasoning. Kids at this age begin to pay attention to the beliefs of others and might ask questions about the differences.  


As you work with second graders, you can expect a little longer attention span. Using props and costumes and involving kids in the story whenever you can helps to engage their interest and helps them remember what they’ve learned. At this age, a good number of kids are reading more independently. Incorporate reading Bible verses or parts of a story aloud (for those who want to) in large and small groups. Allow time for questions and insights.


3rd Grade

Third graders demonstrate a significantly longer attention span. They are much more aware of the differences in abilities and physical strengths between them and their peers, leading to comparison and self-esteem. Kids at this stage want to do things well. They are beginning to care about what others think of them. Their sense of humor is developing, and their friendships grow closer than in previous stages. Third graders notice the needs of others and care about them. They ask big questions about the Lord and have their own insights into spiritual things.  


When planning for third grade, you have the benefit that kids have longer attention spans. They still enjoy activities that incorporate movement, like songs with motions and group games. This is a good age to ask kids to help out with younger students, like being a buddy with visitors who are hesitant about a new environment. Kids are beginning to understand symbolism and like to explore what symbols mean. They can think through possible meanings of a Bible lesson on a different level. Be sure to include time for discussion and sharing of their questions and own insight about lessons. This is also a good time to encourage mission-mindedness. 


4th Grade

Fourth graders often physically mature more rapidly than in previous grades, although girls tend to grow and change faster than boys. They enjoy team sports and activities. Kids at this stage are far less egocentric and care about the needs of others. They may be more self-critical than before and feel the need to fit in strongly. Fourth graders need encouragement and reinforcement of their positive character qualities. They are concerned with right and wrong as well as fairness and justice. Kids this age can read their Bibles independently and benefit from guidance on how to have a designated time with the Lord.


When planning for fourth graders, remember their developing independence. Give them specific responsibilities to do each week, like setting out Bibles and other materials that are used during lessons, choosing games to put out for students to play, taking the offering, and leading motions for songs. In their own small groups, give them short passages to read on their own and come together to discuss. Encourage questions and thoughts. If you don’t know the answer to a question, allow kids to hear you say, “I don’t know.” Figuring out things together with you helps kids see that adults are still learning and growing, too. Challenge fourth graders by giving them an at-home goal like memorizing verses, reading a passage of scripture, serving someone else, etc.


5th Grade

Fifth grade is another big transitional age. Due to rapid growth and changing bodies, kids at this stage benefit from regular physical activity, healthy snacks, and time to rest. They may feel stressed about academic expectations and often need help managing their time well. Fifth graders are better able to recognize their own mistakes and take responsibility for them. They are very talkative, often needing to talk about something to help them think through it. Kids at this age start to see others’ perspectives. They think more about global issues, which helps them develop a strong sense of empathy. Fifth graders have deep thoughts about spiritual matters, but they often don’t articulate them as they are more self-conscious about what others think.


Fifth graders are on the line between childhood and the teen years, making this a tricky age. They want to be seen as leaders, especially if they are still part of your children’s programming and not part of youth ministries. This is a great time to give them greater responsibility. Allow them to choose the songs the group sings, take attendance, participate in communicating parts of the lesson, and teach them to do some of the technology jobs you may have. Your trust in them acknowledges their growing independence. Teach fifth graders how to have independent spiritual practices at home, like using a Bible reading plan, journaling their thoughts and questions, and praying for others.


Child development is such a vast topic, much larger than one simple article. Learning about how kids grow in physical, social, emotional, and spiritual ways will not only assist you with your students but also in conversations with parents who often want to know if their kids are on track. Two books I would recommend for further study are:1) Are My Kids on Track? by Sissy Goff, David Thomas, and Melissa Trevathan and 2) It’s Just a Phase So Don’t Miss It by Reggie Joiner and Kristen Ivy. 


 *If you have a membership to Ministry to Parents, you can find more information on developmental stages along with family events on the homepage ( Scroll down the page and click on Family Experiences. There are developmental guides for Infants – 5th Grade.