One Christmas, about a dozen years ago, my sister, brother and I, along with our families, gathered at our parents’ home to celebrate. After Christmas dinner, the kids had all been excused and were playing together while the adults sipped coffee and chatted. My nephew, Joe, was about three years old at the time. He was contentedly ambling around the house, nibbling on a cookie, when he ever-so subtly swiped the baby Jesus figurine out of my mom’s creche in the foyer. Only I spied him, and I took great delight in his interest and care as he clutched the tiny Christ-child and wandered back toward the dining room.
It gives a whole new meaning to “grasping the gospel,” doesn’t it?
Of course, once others became aware of this kidnapping, Joe willingly surrendered and put baby Jesus back to bed. It made me think, though, that Christmas traditions are often shrouded behind an invisible DON’T TOUCH sign. Ornaments are fragile, heirloom china cracks easily, and candles are too dangerous for little hands. When we mix these issues with impulsivity, sensory problems, and difficulty following directions, Christmas can become altogether frustrating for some children with disabilities.
Fortunately, we can, with a bit of planning, create a more welcoming, hands-on holiday. Of course, not all of these ideas will work for every child, but hopefully they’ll at least spark an idea or two that will work for your family or Sunday School class.
Find–or make–a nativity set that can be handled by kids. We purchased this advent calendar when Annie was in preschool. In addition to helping us count down the days until Christmas, we have also used it to talk about the “players” and review the events of Jesus’ birth. Annie would sometimes play with the characters and talk through the story. One evening I heard her lyrical little voice singing a song she had invented. I snuck closer to the to listen, and I heard, “The angels and the wise men came to babysit Jesus while Mary and Joey went on vacation…”
We had to review Luke 2 that night at dinner… 🙂
It’s important for kids to learn, play and review with all of their senses. A child-friendly creche allows children to experience the Christmas story. (and it assists with retelling, summarizing, sequencing…and a host of other language skills!)
Start hands-on traditions. Kids are bombarded with the “don’t touch” message during the Christmas season. Stores, churches and homes are full of precious items that can’t be handled, both for safety and aesthetics. While there’s nothing wrong with having boundaries or owning fragile items, kids can get discouraged (and crabby!) with the barrage of admonitions that accompany this season. To remedy this, create opportunities for kids to participate fully without worrying about breaking or ruining anything.
One such tradition for our family is our Travel Tree. Each time we go on a trip (even if it’s just an overnight!) we purchase a small trinket to remind us of our time together. These ornaments are carefully packed in a special box until Christmas, when we decorate our “travel tree.’ It’s great fun to watch the kids examine each item as they reminisce about our adventures. When they were little, we set up this tree in a carpeted room so there was no danger of ornaments dropping and breaking.
Another family I know makes a gingerbread house together. The goal isn’t perfection, but rather, togetherness and fun. By the end of the project, everyone is covered in frosting and sprinkles…but altogether pleased with the process AND the product. This project, of course, is less manageable for families who deal with food sensitivities and special diets. However, the same teamwork approach applies to making luminaries, beaded napkin rings or Christmas cards. Hands-on activities at home and in church allow us to work together in celebration of the season.
Communicate clearly–and offer grace. We’re all a bit prone to crankiness at this time of year. Parents and church volunteers are as tired of saying, “Don’t touch!” as children are of hearing it. It’s helpful to offer clear directions proactively. For example, before students enter your Sunday School classroom, tell them, “Please choose a storybook from the basket, and sit on the carpet while we wait for everyone to arrive.” This helps kids know what to do and eliminates the likelihood of destruction at the craft table.
My smart friend Cindy had a great strategy for managing her kids’ “gotta touch” impulses. She would clearly tell them, before entering a store or a home, “You may touch things with ONE FINGER.” This boundary allowed her children a little more freedom (and kept Grandma’s pretty collectibles safe!) It’s important to remember that some children with sensory issues aren’t able to gauge the speed and pressure of their touch, so practicing this will increase the likelihood of success.
Finally, if something breaks, offer grace. The child is probably more crestfallen than you are. Plus, it’s a fact of life: precious things break. Use this as an opportunity to practice telling the truth and seeking forgiveness with the child. And, if you happen to lose your cool, give yourself some grace, too!
When we review Jesus’ life on earth, we see that people were constantly trying to be near him and touch him. As you plan your own traditions, remember that the main goal is to communicate and experience the closeness of Christ. Here’s to a hands-on holiday!