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Emotions: The Cement of Learning

Sue Geiman

"Feelings" are more than an old song; they're the key to amazing learning in your classroom!

I sit on the bench under the trees, smiling as I see little hand- and footprints in the paving stones under my feet. I can still remember the six of us laughing together that hot summer day two years ago. Caleb pouring water into the bucket and mixing it with the powdery cement until it was so stiff he needed Grandpa's help. Mommy, holding a grinning Ben as he pressed his foot into the dark, wet cement. Four small hands covered with sticky cement, reaching out as four adults joined in a chorus of "No, don't touch that!"

A lasting impression -- set in cement. Isn't that what you want in children's ministry? A lasting impression on children's lives and God's truth cemented into their faith.

Well, it's not as far away as you might think. Create a place where learning about Jesus is exciting, mysterious, relaxing, intriguing, and, well, downright fun.

Brain Chemistry

Research has proven that the emotional climate of a classroom or any other learning environment actually affects brain chemistry -- and that affects what children learn. We're just beginning to understand how what we see, feel, smell, touch, and taste is transported through the millions of neuron networks in our brain and then translated into millions of interconnected memories that travel down multiple different paths into long-term storage vaults. And even more amazing (if you've ever misfiled anything) is how we retrieve and use those stored memories to help us know what to do in every life situation.

One thing is clear -- there's one force that's more powerful than any other when it comes to moving information into and out of long-term memory storage: emotions.

Emotions -- Handle With Care

Because emotions are powerful shapers of human growth and development, we need to handle them with care.

Think of your brain working in dual mode -- thinking and feeling. When information is received, it goes in two directions at once: the full message traveling to the "thinking" brain (in the hippocampus and neocortex) while a shorthand version shuttles quickly to the emotional alert center (the amygdala and other parts of your limbic system). Before your thinking brain has time to retrieve and connect this new information to related memories and determine the appropriate response (which happens quicker than we can imagine), your emotional brain has responded to its first impression and set responses in motion.

Positive emotions facilitate these connections in a way that enhances learning, but fear and stress dramatically affect brain chemistry in ways that interfere with learning. We must plan learning experiences that integrate emotions in appropriate and positive ways. Avoid activities that arouse undue fear or humiliate students. Resist setting up highly stressful competitive situations. And never allow experiences that attempt to manipulate children.

Positive Learning Environments

So what can you do to put the power of emotions to work in helping children grow in their relationship with Jesus? Start by creating a learning environment that has a positive impact on brain chemistry. Help kids feel safe -- physically and emotionally. Let them know it's okay to make mistakes as we learn how God wants us to live. Give kids lots of opportunities to work together collaboratively -- not competitively. Encourage kids to express themselves in a variety of ways, such as journaling, artistic creations, dramatic presentations, and more. Use music to set the tone -- it's a great way to celebrate God's goodness, to calm a group, to help kids relax, or to stimulate reflection and expression.

When you provide a place like this for kids, you're mixing the water with the powdery cement and preparing a place where lasting impressions can be created.

Learning Strategies

Now you're ready for the real work of helping kids learn what the Bible says -- the stories, the facts, and the principles to live by. Not because knowing all that will help them pass a test or win a Bible drill. No, you want them to be able to remember those important life lessons to help them face the daily challenges of life in a way that reflects their relationship with Jesus. So what kinds of learning experiences produce that kind of long-term learning and life application?

Without a doubt, emotional memory strategies are the most powerful, says Marilee Sprenger in Learning and Memory: The Brain in Action (ASCD). Many researchers believe that emotions are the force behind our ability to pay attention. That means that active emotional engagement is a critical element of effective learning experiences. If that's true, then we must be intentional about including the power of emotions in teaching children to know and love Jesus. Here's how.

1. Identify what you want kids to learn. Itemize the Bible story, the key point you want them to remember, and the resulting life-changes you hope to see in their behaviors.

2. Select learning activities that involve as many of kids' five senses as possible.

3. Build in movement. Physical activity along with positive emotions actually increases the neurotransmitters for making brain connections.

4. Create a mood. An emotional environment can consist of decorations, costumes, props, lighting, smells, and music.

5. Carefully stimulate the key emotions connected to what you want kids to learn. Your opportunities are endless: games, crafts, role plays, videos, puppets, movie clips, snacks, science experiments, skits, and acting out the Bible story or a life-application challenge, to name just a few. For an effective active learning idea that uses emotions effectively, see the "Stick It Out!" box.

6. Always debrief activities. Intentional questions and discussion help kids connect their emotions with the Bible story or character's life response so they remember the lesson for a lifetime.

Congratulations! When you help kids experience strong feelings about what you want them to remember, you're helping to cement those facts and feelings into their long-term memory vaults. And you're creating lasting impressions.

Sue Geiman ( is vice president of products at Group Publishing, Inc.

Stick It Out!

The key ingredient of R.E.A.L. learning that cements life lessons in the minds and hearts of kids is emotion. Take a look at this effective emotion-based lesson about perseverance.

Evoke Emotions

Distribute a needle and thread to everyone. Have kids each try to thread their needles in two minutes. Let those who thread their needles quickly cheer on those who are having trouble. Give the last person who threads his or her needle a big round of applause.

Debrief the Activity

Ask: "How did you feel as you tried to thread your needle? How did you feel when you succeeded? How did you feel about the encouragement you got? Why were some people more successful than others?"

Talk about how ordinary people who persevere are often more successful in life than very talented people who give up easily. Ask kids to name situations in their lives that call for perseverance. Invite kids to talk about experiences in which perseverance paid off.

Connect to Scripture

Read aloud James 1:12. Gather everyone around a table with a pincushion on it. Have kids take turns sticking their needles into the pincushion and saying, "I commit to sticking it out when I feel like giving up."

Adapted from 10-Minute Devotions for Youth Groups (Group Publishing, Inc.).

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