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Monday, September 19, 2011

My First Hands-On Bible: Your preschooler is going to LOVE it!

"That's the curriculum we use in our classes!" the pastor of the children's ministry at my church told me when I showed him the review copy of My First Hands-On Bible that I had received from Tyndale House Publishers. But it wasn't this specific book he was talking about—at the time, the book I was showing him had yet to hit retail shelves at all. He was talking about the "Hands-On Bible" curriculum for churches, but this new book is indeed from the same source. I told him that he was holding a brand-new release, and within thirty seconds he had calculated how much he would have to budget to buy enough copies of the book for every child in his classes to be able to use one on Sundays! That's how enthusiastic he is about the Hands-On Bible materials. He told me that when they were examining curricula to use in Sunday School, he had decided on a different curriculum and even ordered it, but then he saw what the Hands-On Bible curriculum had to offer and actually canceled his order for the other product to order Hands-On Bible. After using this book with my 3-year-old daughter for a night or two, I understood what he saw in their materials! I don't know that this book would be entirely appropriate for a church class—it's designed more for home use—but you certainly could use it in a church setting in a pinch, and for home use it would be hard to beat.

My First Hands-On Bible is very tightly structured. Each Bible story is taken directly from the New Living Translation of the Scriptures, word for word; it is not a reinterpretation of the Scripture text (or, at least, not any more than the NLT itself might be). Each lesson, including story, colorful illustrations, and some discussion materials and activities on the last page, is four or six pages long (a perfect length, as we found out, for bedtime reading to a preschooler). After the story proper, there is a section called "The Jesus Connection" (one or two sentences highlighting the relationship of the story to the person of Jesus), a section called "Let's Talk" containing two discussion questions, an activity introduced by a character named Cuddles the Lamb (at my church they actually have the puppet of Cuddles to use with their lessons!), another activity (or sometimes a song), and a short prayer introduced by a kangaroo named Pockets (there is also, by the way, a puppet of Pockets, although I don't think my church's ministry has picked one of those up yet). Several times in each lesson, there are small color-coded icons of handprints; these lead to micro-activities such as "Sarah laughed because she was happy. Let out a really happy laugh." and "Simeon was very old. Act like an old man leaning on a cane." These micro-activities are well-designed and well-spaced to keep the attention of a small child by breaking up the story a bit, and to provide something they can remember the story by later. The book itself is a 416-page hardback containing 85 stories.

The NLT is a good choice for a story Bible like this; I have trouble calling it a "Bible story book" because although it is a book of Bible stories, so is the Bible itself! And these stories are, after all, the exact same easy-to-read, easy-to-understand words you'd find in the NLT Bible you might have on your shelf. But it does not contain every single word of the NLT translation; in fact, some stories are highly abridged to fit into the book's format. The story of Jonah, for example, which fills four chapters in the Bible itself, is told in four parts, but the complex story of Esther, on the other hand, which fills 10 chapters in the Bible, is told in this book in only two short segments which each cover 3-4 chapters of the Bible text. So this book is not a traditional Bible story book, but it is not strictly a Bible either; it's something sort of in between. But it is obvious that it was designed by people who know how to engage the attention of children; the activities I called "micro-activites" above, for example, seem to come at perfect spots to keep attention from wandering. The "Jesus Connection" sections (example: "Jacob loved Joseph and gave him a coat. God loves us and sent us a special gift—Jesus.") do a pretty good job of bringing out a point in the story, much like a good pastor will do for his congregation, but on a kid level. The "Let's Talk" questions allow you to invite your child into the conversation and let them tell you what's going through their minds as they think about the story. And my child always wants to know what Cuddles "says" and what Pockets is going to pray. Add to that the cute watercolor-style illustrations, and you get a book that can make Bible story time fun (and educational) in ways that most Bible story books can't.

I did figure out early on that if I was going to use the book for bedtime reading, the activities at the end of the chapter were generally not going to be usable. Don't get me wrong, they're great activities... they're simple enough to do with a child, never require anything that you don't probably already have at home (and usually don't require any "props" at all), and relate to the story in ways that help bring it back to your child's attention. But the activities aren't things you can do as your child is winding down for bed. In fact, they resemble something that you might send home with a child in his "things to do this week" Sunday-School packet, and my guess is that they were created for that or are adapted from some materials created for that (some of them even start off with phrases like "As you do ________ with your child this week..."). Some of them are simple crafts, some of them are things to do as you're driving in the car or as the child is taking a bath... not things that happen before bed, and if you're reading a new story every night, some of those things might not even happen before the next story. I'm a fast reader, so normally when I get to that part of the night's reading, I skim through it to see if it's something we can feasably do; if I can tell it's probably not going to happen, I just skip those parts. I consider them optional; in a few cases we've been able to use them, and they've been quite effective, but usually we leave those parts out.

One part I never leave out is the prayer. I always save it for last, and when I say, "Pockets says..." my 3-year-old girl says back, "'s time to pray!" The prayers are very short—one or two sentences—but they pertain to the topic of the lesson, and they are actual prayers, written to be prayed out loud to God. They are not lessons disguised as prayers; they are actual prayers, sometimes thanking God for something that was illustrated by the lesson, sometimes asking for help with a dilemma highlighted by the lesson which a child might face in his or her day. They are prayers that I, the parent, easily find myself praying from my own heart. It allows me a chance to pray humbly and honestly before my children, and that's a wonderful thing.

This is easily my all-time favorite Bible story book for children. As of this writing we have read forty-eight of the stories/lessons, and when we get to the end of the book, I'm not sure what we'll do next... maybe start over from the beginning! If I misplaced this book, I would immediately buy another copy; if a second volume is ever released, I'll be the first in line to pick it up. It's not often that you find a way to share treasures from the Bible with a preschooler in a way that is meaningful to them and immediately applicable to their lives; I can't say I've done exhaustive research into children's Bible literature, but I can say that this is hands-down the best I've ever seen for little ones. For under twenty dollars, you can spend the next three months sharing a Bible story every night with your child, and they'll love every minute of it. That's quite a bargain.

I was provided with a review copy of this book by Tyndale House Publishers. The opinions expressed in this review are mine alone.

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