Last summer I helped out one week with the 2nd-5th grade room of the summer KidZone program at church. I don’t remember whether I was there for the entire lesson, but I was there for the Will it float? segment. This was a short video (the summer program uses a video curriculum to minimize preparation required by short-term volunteers, since the regular volunteers get the summer off), showing a man tossing various objects into a swimming pool.
Before throwing each object in, he would ask the audience, Will it float? I don’t remember what the objects were, but I know that the students – and I – guessed wrong as often as right. I wondered how many kids would go try it at home, if they had backyard pools. And I wondered what it had to do with the Bible lesson.
I had forgotten all about that by this summer, when I signed up to help again in that room. This weekend’s lesson is about loosening the Fear Knot of the fear of the dark. The opening activity was decorating pocket flashlights with self-adhesive shapes (flowers, letters, geometric shapes, etc.) made from colored foam. The flashlights, of course, were to help with fear of the dark, since sometimes all you need is a little bit of light.
Then the leader announced that it was time for our live Will it float? Everyone got in a line and headed next door to another classroom. Mystified, I went with the crowd. To my amazement, I found the children standing in a circle around a swimming pool full of water! Not a little kiddie pool either – this was one of those “easy set” pools, at least three feet high and maybe twelve or fifteen feet across.
To one side was a table covered with a variety of objects, mostly food. The leader climbed a stepladder at the side of the pool, and prepared to toss items in. As with the video Will it float? last year, he asked each time whether the children thought the object would float. The first was a watermelon, one a little larger than a basketball. I was sure it would sink. But no, it bobbed to the surface. It kept going under, but it also kept bobbing back up.
Next was a five-pound bag of birdseed. The seed itself could float, I knew, but it seemed to be packed very tightly in the plastic bag. I assumed it would sink. Not at all – it floated immediately, not even bobbing up and down like the watermelon. I was zero for two, and I wanted to get the next one right. The leader held up two 2-liter bottles of pop, one of Coke and one of diet Coke.
That would float, I knew – between the gas in the pop and the air trapped at the top of the bottle. I just didn’t know whether there would be a difference between regular and diet pop. There wasn’t, as far as I could tell – both made a terrific splash (which most of the children loved, and I found that standing three or four feet back wasn’t enough to keep my glasses dry), and then turned upside down and floated.
We trooped back into the main classroom, and I found myself asking, what was the point of that exercise? It was fun, definitely, and it probably has some influence on kids wanting to come back each week. (I was glad that at least it wasn’t emphasized as a reason to come back.) There’s nothing wrong with having fun, and not everything done in a church building has to be explicitly related to learning the Bible or corporate worship or “fellowship” (which encompasses a great many things, but in my opinion requires a level of interpersonal interaction that a Will it float? game does not provide).
The younger children (last week I volunteered in the 4-year-old through 1st grade classroom) get time to just play, for somewhere between fifteen minutes and half an hour, depending on how early they arrive. But that is clearly free play, not part of the lesson time. The leaders are there to supervise, but only the teen helpers generally get involved in play themselves. The Will it float? is organized and teacher-led, which makes it seem like part of the lesson. But any connection it may have to the lesson eludes me.
When I got home, I went on the Internet to see if other churches do Will it float? as part of their summer curriculum. I found a DVD made for that purpose, which is probably what the church used last summer. But all the other hits I found had to do with either teaching science, or with David Letterman.
David Letterman? I’ve heard of him, but never watched his show. I was surprised to discover that one of his well-known sketches (not well-known enough for my husband to have heard of it, though) is Will it float? Wikipedia’s article on Letterman’s sketches reports that he adapted it “from a similar BBC programme entitled ‘Is It Buoyant?'” I’m sure now that the DVD I saw last year must have based their show on Letterman’s sketches.
But why? As a gimmick to get kids to come to church, it’s better than some I’ve seen or heard of. During the year I spent at Word of Life Bible Institute and was assigned to a church in Saratoga Springs for weekend ministry, I was a reluctant participant in an attendance contest they had, pitting the children’s Sunday School against the adults to see who could boost their attendance more. The children got candy or other prizes for coming, and the leader of whichever program lost the contest (it turned out to be the adults, with the pastor as their leader) had to kiss a large dog.
That was only one example of the church’s apparent adherence to the principle that the ends justify the means. The goal was to get people to hear the Gospel, and appealing to children’s greed, or being rude to people (following them down the street telling them about Jesus even if they tried to get away from you), were considered acceptable means to get people to hear it.
Compared to that, putting up a pool in a Sunday School room and filling it with water so you can throw things into it seems fairly innocuous. Who knows – maybe some child will be curious about the physics involved and develop an interest in science. (By the way, I wouldn’t consider it an improvement if someone tried to manufacture a spiritual application of the Will if float? game to justify its inclusion in the curriculum.)
It seems it me, though, that there are so many other ways to make a children’s program fun and exciting that can be directly tied to Bible lessons and their application to our lives. I’ve probably mentioned before my enthusiasm for the Rotation model of Sunday School, where children participate in drama, arts & crafts, music, cooking, and other hands-on activities as an integral part of the lessons.
You could do a Will it float? activity to help show just how much of a miracle it was for Jesus to walk on water. Or, to use a much less known Bible story, the one of Elijah making an axe head float. Because the Rotation model splits the children into four to six (age-integrated) groups, each spending one week in a different activity center, you’d be using the pool for at least a month, which would help justify the effort of putting it up to begin with. But you’d also be directly supporting the lesson, rather than adding it on just for the fun of it.
There’s nothing at all wrong with having fun. I think one of my mother’s big problems was that she had little or no idea of just having fun. Everything had to be for the purpose of self-improvement, and she didn’t see fun as having such a purpose (though I think it would have improved her quite a bit). If I had to choose between a church that approved of fun for its own sake, and one that disdained activities that did not have a clear “spiritual” purpose, I would choose the former over the latter.
I put spiritual in quotes above to indicate people’s misconception of the idea. Our whole lives can and should be powered by God’s Spirit, but that doesn’t mean we have to be talking about God the whole time. It can be spiritual to wash the dishes, mow the lawn, repair cars, flip burgers, operate machinery, or any one of a great many other (but not all) tasks that we do in life. And it can be spiritual to have fun, because God is a God of laughter and delight as well as of deep theological truths.
Still, if you only have 75 minutes (on average) to spend with a group of children once a week, and their parents are entrusting them to your care with the expectation that their children will be learning about God and the Bible and how to live as Christians, you want to make the most of that time. Something as simple as sharing a snack offers opportunities to teach serving others and putting them first, as well as gratitude for everything we receive. (I saw relatively little of that in evidence among the children yesterday.)
But of course, no matter what the curriculum, what is taught depends a great deal on adult volunteers. They keep order, act as role models, answer questions, and generally (at least ideally) reinforce whatever is being taught. And it’s not easy to get volunteers, especially on Saturday evenings. During the summer, when the regular volunteers are taking a (usually much-needed) break, it’s even harder. A program that appeals to children by its very nature (video, games, and excitement) makes it easier for a few adults to keep things moving more or less smoothly.
But I can’t help asking myself, what other lessons are the children learning, along with trusting God when they’re afraid of the dark? What are the unintended lessons, unconsciously absorbed by the children as a result of how the program is set up? How does it shape their expectations of time spent at church and of what it means to learn from the Bible?
(One other question – do you think a five-pound bag of flour will float?)