Nursery Leader: Everything I Needed to Know About Teaching

When one thinks of the most demanding callings within the church, a few might come to mind, but being called to the nursery can evoke trials of faith for many.  Having completed two long-term tours myself, I found each experience to be demanding but also fulfilling.  In some ways, the calling is not unlike the rocket skates of Wile E. Coyote.  At first, when Mr. Coyote lights the rocket skates, the skates take off faster than he can react and he finds himself being dragged down the road at high speed not even close to getting his balance.  But little by little, line upon line, Mr. Coyote is able to inch his way up into an upright position and find a precarious balance.  The skates have not slowed down at all, but Mr. Coyote has found that he has increased his experience and skill with the skates to no longer be dragged behind.  Then as confidence grows, Mr. Coyote is able to own the experience and even be a leader of the situation as he then leans forward into the wind, now directing the rocket skates to do the work that he originally set out to do.

At this point, we’ll end the metaphor as it is not a perfect example (such as Nursery is not something that sends one over a cliff while the rocket skates explode…we hope).

But the first few weeks of nursery can be challenging as the children don’t know you, you don’t know them, and preparation that you seemed to have planned for is all but out the window in the first few minutes with kids playing, running, crying, and more.  The planned activity and song never happens as you can’t herd the kids into a general area to sit on their chairs like you see general authorities do in conference.  Snack time seems more like an ambushed food truck in famine-suffering Mogadishu. And the one child that cried for the first 18 minutes after the parents left finally calmed down only to start up again when the same parent showed their face in the door window just to check in.

Set Apart

Step one of being a nursery leader after being called is to be set apart.  After all, many instances in the church call for being set apart.  Being called on a mission, one gets set apart.  Being called to be a temple president, one gets set apart.  Presidents of the church are…set apart.  And thus it is with being called as a nursery leader.  The term set apart can be thought of in different terms as well.  When one leaves for a mission, they are told that they are “set apart” from the world and will rejoin the world once they return from their calling.

A seasoned nursery leader finds that racing to the classroom early for the extra 4 minutes of preparation helps greatly, so they often cut out of Sacrament Meeting slightly early to be ahead of the curve.  This means that others in the ward don’t notice the nursery leader in the aisles of the chapel during the meet-and-greet.  Nor do they see the nursery leader in Sunday School class or other auxiliaries.  More than once while I was serving in the nursery, members had thought I had moved out of the ward as they simply didn’t see me.  Of course this was while I was watching their children in class.   The concept of being set apart from the ward… really sunk in.

And since one is set apart, it means you now have a mission, an assignment.  Good class begins before class.  Having things in your pocket to pull out and present.  Sometimes they can be in the order you plan, but other times, you can pull out different prepared things at the right time.  To the class it may seem that you are so knowledgeable and perceptive to think up such creative and on-target things on the fly.  But in reality, you’re using a ready-made prepared choice off the shelf not unlike Batman and his famed utility belt.

Change Ups During Class

It’s rumored that a goldfish has an attention span of 3 seconds.  A 2-3 year old may also have an attention span of 3-9 minutes, and that’s if the subject is interesting.  Adults (hopefully) have longer attention spans which allow for long meetings where one reads out of a book or from a Power Point screen.  But for children?  Change it up.

  • Activity 1: 3-9 minutes
  • Activity 2: 3-9 minutes
  • Activity 3: 3-9 minutes

But over 2 hours, that could be 40 different activities which is going to exhaust the teacher in no time.

Realistically, certain activities last longer and don’t forget that the setup or cleanup is an activity in itself.  For example, free-for-all playtime, which can be done effectively right at the beginning (as well as right at the end) means that many of the children will naturally flow their attention from toy to toy.  But the clean-up activity is an activity itself to herd the children through before starting them on the next activity which is the setup of storytime/snacktime/game/singing/etc.

So far we have an example resembling something like:

  • Free play
  • Clean up
  • Setup (get carpet squares in a circle, sitting in them, not hitting the person next to them)
  • Story time
  • Clean up carpet squares from story time
  • Set up chairs for snacktime
  • …and so on

In this we are taking Henry Ford’s quote to heart of:

Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.

Knowing and Flowing Your Target Audience

One thing about 18 month old children is that even if you have the best plans in place, they may not be in the mood for it.  You may have cut out little sunshines on paper and glued them to popsicle sticks, or prepared CheezIts in baggies or learned a new song to teach or game to play.  But there are times where you sense the children aren’t on the same level as you.

In these cases, flowing and channeling into another activity in your pocket does wonders.  And reuse the Plan B activities in your pocket too.  Pull out that same song you sang last week, the chairs don’t have to be in a row, there’s no state-level-standardized-ranking-testing-curriculum that has to be completed.  Perhaps instead of setting up the chairs in a circle for the story, the chairs are tightly placed one in front of the other against the wall and you tell the children to “board the train” as you tell the story about the train.  Or maybe they hide under the chairs as you tell a different story.  They’re going to be under the chairs at some point anyway, may as well capture that some times.

After you get to know the children over the weeks, you can get a sense of what energy they have at the moment and what they may or may not be up for.

Guest Presenter

You don’t have to do everything yourself.  At times, you may bring in somebody special for the children.  Whether once a month or maybe even once in 3 months.  One time we brought in for our singing time a member that brought his guitar and the children sang songs with him, which worked out best during Christmas for Christmas music.  Other times it was a “very special” adult that simply came in and told a story.  Face it, the kids get used to me and showing them something new is a change up in itself.

8-11 Year Olds

After leaving the nursery for the second stint, serving as Cubmaster showed up.  Running a Cub Pack Meeting is like doing professional party planning for discerning guests once a month.  And the age group is a little wider.  Certainly the 8-11 year old scouts are the target audience, but in Cub Scouts, their families young and old are also included.

In applying the lessons learned as Nursery Leader, things stacked up pretty well in Cub Scouts.  We segmented, we changed pace, we even flowed at times. With the kids being older, we didn’t have to stick with 3-9 minutes and could go longer on an activity, but the concepts were the same.

Guests for Cub Scouts was no different than Nursery.  Maybe 3-4 times a year we had a guest presenter at Pack meeting.  Two volunteers from the local Scouting Council came and did awards one night and dressed in full Native American clothing as we held a campfire outside and they even had little handfuls of preplanned materials they threw into the fire to make it flare up in different colors.  Another time we had an experienced cowboy come and present cowboy poetry.

Help is not always on the front line.  For Pinewood Derby, I delegated the race timing/winning out to our former bishop who was very good at that part while I had another ward member printing off award certificates in the other room on a printer for each scout leaving me to be the front man to conduct.  But in reality it was a team of about 8 or more that pulled of that successful Derby.

30-40-ish year olds

Ah, priesthood class.  No preparation needed, just read from the manual.  Or maybe take turns reading sections, and then everybody will discuss away, right?  It happens all by itself every time…sure.

Nope, it doesn’t.  Even if the teacher asks the question that everybody knows the answer to, many a Sunday everybody sits there quietly.  Or perhaps they’re clicking away at Candy Crush or checking football scores on their smartphone.

Prepare with different modules, change things up, and flow when you sense the target audience is elsewhere.

Snack time doesn’t have to happen in the adult class, but face it, it worked on the 2-year-olds, it still works on the adults too.  And more than just the sugar, the act of handing out the candy/treat is a break in the action, a segmentation, it changes up the pace and is an even by itself.

For an adult class, this may include a story at the beginning, but make the story out there and slightly unexpected.  Humor typically works earlier rather than later.  After your goldfish…er…class members settle into the first module, change into the second module, calling on people for discussion or handing out precut phrases for people to read/comment on.  Being adults, you can include “ringers” if you’ve had extra quiet classes before.  For a “ringer” talk to them the week before or during the week and ask them if they might read a snippet and comment on it or even give a 30 second spiel on their personal experience.  In class, others don’t have to know they are a ringer and it may embolden others to open up and talk.

The outside help doesn’t have to be a ringer.  One memorable priesthood class, with permission from the leader, I didn’t teach. First, I prepared with the quorum leader to pray about class.  Then during class, I handed out pens/paper and asked people just to write anything that came to mind during the class.  Then we had a ward member who wasn’t in the quorum come in and play a medley of favorite hymns that flowed in one non-stop 15-20 minute session.  After which, I asked for anyone if they’d like to share anything they wrote.  The first 3 up were ringers I had called earlier in the week, then what followed was a memorable testimony meeting as one after another people got up and shared heartfelt thoughts that uncannily seemed to center around a central theme that day.

Bringing it together

There’s more, but sticking with these ideas of

  • Being Set Apart – set as the one to do the task
  • Preparing tools/modules to have in your pocket
  • Change Up several times during the class
  • Have a ringer / Have help
  • Knowing and Flowing
  • Pulling out Plan B items from your pocket

These ideas have served me well in giving not only classes or callings, but also in the business world of giving presentations or sales within my own company or to other companies.

And it all goes back to nursery.  The trial by fire.  The rocket skates of the church.


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