by Catherine Maresca
It’s January! There’s a fresh start this month for our work with a group or groups of children that we already know. Unlike our planning for September before we get a feel for the personality of a new mix of children, we can now fine tune our work in the atrium to the group before us.
Do they need more or less practical life? Or grace and courtesy? Or handwork? Or presentations? Or music? Or communal prayer? Should we rearrange the furniture, the order of the session, or the sharing of responsibility. Do we have too few adults, or too many?
Within the essential list of materials and presentations that comprise CGS we have a great deal of flexibility to adjust our practice to the needs of the children present. We do not need more presentations or materials. We do need to help each child establish their work cycle so that they easily enter the atrium, choose a material, work until they are satisfied, restore the material, and repeat as long as time allows. Part of this cycle will be the introduction of a new material to expand their choices. At the beginning of the first year in a new atrium, this will happen weekly for a while, but can be slowed to twice a month thereafter, allowing time for true catechesis (working and praying with the material) to happen.
With 3-6-year-old children our adjustments are based on observation. These children rely on an interior attraction to guide them. A certain kind of work or material draws them, and that is usually the work that will best meet their needs. Sometimes they need a beloved and familiar work. Sometimes they need a new one spark their contemplation of a new face of God. Children who are still unable to settle to work in the atrium will need your observation, prayer and discernment, and maybe a little creativity.
Here are some 3-6-year-old ideas whose success surprised me, but were only perfect for one year for one particular child or small group of children:
- The group that began each session with an elaborate singing procession to the prayer table, followed immediately by personal work. The procession was the beginning and end of their group prayer.
- The group that sang while putting away their work.
- A small group of five-year-old boys who copied and illustrated the kindom parable Scripture booklets.
- The three-year-old girl who dusted materials and furniture throughout every session for her first year in the atrium.
- The five-year-old girl who methodically worked her way through every material in the atrium in one year, letting the catechist know which presentation she needed next.
- The four-year-old boy who began each day for a year in our school atrium working with the Good Shepherd.
- Permitting the violent use of materials or art to help a child to process some of the trauma of their young life.
As a new catechist, I was always delighted to receive a “solution” that served a child well, and certain that it would serve other children well too. But that is often not the case. We will need as many creative responses as we have children – our work is always new – and CGS does lend itself well to the small adjustments that each child needs.
In the 6-12 atrium we have a new, social dynamic in play. Part of the work of this plane of development is to learn how to be community, and the atrium is a place where this work can be done. Communal prayer and community meetings are both important to these children.
Communal prayer serves the children in many ways: developing reading, singing, planning, and leadership skills; reflecting on familiar passages together – hearing one another’s insights and creating together a deeper understanding; placing their awareness of the needs of the local and global environment in God’s hands; and developing compassion for each other and the world beyond their daily life; creating silence together supports the growth of stillness in each child and the powerful experience of group contemplation.
Community meetings may be infrequent, but allow the children to voice their concerns and preferences about the atrium time, make decisions that accommodate the needs of all in the group, address difficulties, and commit themselves to the choices they have made, rather than resist choices forced upon them. At the beginning of the year we meet, get to know each other, and make decisions about our time together. There are limits to the choices, and I make these clear, but then invite them to decide when they would like to have prayer together, and how long that prayer might be. Would they like to have some special celebrations during the year? Who would like to be planning and leading their prayer, how should we manage taking turns…
January might be a good time to check in with the group about these decisions and see if anything should be addressed, or changed.
Again, there are a huge variety of group and individual work accommodations and choices that may be implemented. Here are a few of the homerun choices, that were never repeated because they were so particular the child or group involved.
- The 9-12 group that heard about an orphanage in Haiti and decided to plan and implement a clothing drive, sorted and packed the appropriate clothing for Haiti, and raised the money to ship their donations. They created a flyer, and ran the project from start to finish between January and May, all while continuing their lessons and work in the atrium.
- The 6-9 group that was incapable of group time, so never they met or prayed communally after the first few weeks. For one year they worked well from start to finish, and I sang to them when the opportunity presented itself.
- The boy who needed his own space and his own work. He spent the year at his table painting materials, within earshot of every presentation offered.
- The boy in the 9-12 group who I politely dismissed to the 6-9 atrium (prearranged with the catechist there) when he began to disturb our prayer service for 20th time. A number of years later, children who never knew the original transgressor would say to each other, “You better stop or she’ll send you to the other atrium.”
- The 9-12-year-old who seemed unattached to the atrium or anything in it. His mother told me he enjoyed sitting on the back stoop watching birds. So I hung a birdfeeder in the window of the atrium. None of the other children noticed it, but he came to me the first day he saw it and said, “You know, I was thinking about not coming to atrium anymore, but I see you have a birdfeeder here now, so I’ll still be coming.”
None of these strategies are taught in my courses – but are offered here to give you a sense of the possibilities to help children connect to and work peacefully in the atrium. Your prayerful, creative care for the children who journey with you each year can get you and the children over the hurdles they may encounter in your atrium.