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A seasoned children's worker explains what motivates kids at various ages.

AGE 0 to 2 years


Children at this age are motivated by approval. They’re making exciting advances in their physical abilities, and they look to adults to affirm their new activities. Young children, particularly toddlers, are motivated to learn new motor skills. Older toddlers and 2-year-olds may be motivated by other children.


Show your approval of children’s new feats by saying things like: “Look at you! You did it!” Provide a variety of age-appropriate motor activities such as lightweight cardboard blocks for stacking (and knocking down!), follow-the-leader games and motions, and toys for pushing, pulling or riding. Help older children develop small motor skills by letting them cut rolled sections of modeling clay using blunt, rounded scissors. Encourage developing social skills. For example, help children push all the chairs into a line and pretend to be a train-chugs, whistles and all.

AGE 3 to 5 years


At this age, children are strongly motivated by other children. They’ve progressed beyond the desire to be near other children to wanting to interact with those children. Children at this age love to pretend and act things out. Five-year-olds are motivated by a desire to know more facts about the world around them. They often ask “what,” “why” and “how” questions to expand their ever-growing knowledge and experience.


Children who regularly attend your children’s ministry will form friendships at this age. Allow free playtime in each session for kids to interact with one another. “I’m getting ready to go to the movies,” a 4 year old might say as she puts on a fur muff and grown-up shoes. Help children learn more about their world. Encourage imagination by asking them to tell you more about what they’re doing. For example, ask: “What movie do you plan to see? How will you get there? Who is going with you to the movie?”

AGE 6 to 8 years


These children are motivated by praise. Eight year olds may even put themselves down hoping an adult will correct their assessment with words of praise. Children are also motivated by action. They love to tackle new challenges and often demand complete attention from adults and children alike.


Motivate children to come to events with exciting, action-packed names, such as Bible Safari or Sunday Adventure Club. Offer children ways to get actively involved in lessons. For example, have children build a human “wall” to help teach a lesson on cooperation from the story of Nehemiah. Or lead kids outside to march around the church to teach about the walls of Jericho. Praise children for their successes and efforts. Vary your routine from week to week to keep children coming back.

AGE 9 to 11 years


Older children are motivated by independence. They want to do their own thing in their own way and time. Children want to understand all that a task requires before they begin. Once they’ve begun, they want to complete each task. As they approach adolescence, children want people to notice and respect their growing maturity. Children at this age are loyal to their friends and identify themselves strongly with their peer group. They’re curious about God and faith. Children may begin to ask questions such as, “What does God look like?” or, “How can God be so many places at once?”


Respect older children’s maturity by asking them to help with younger classes. For example, have them present a finger play or skit based on a lesson they’ve learned to a lower elementary or preschool class. Nurture friendships by planning social events. Ask follow-up questions to their questions about God such as “What do you think?” Provide a Bible for each child. Teach children how to use their Bibles so they can look for answers to their questions about God any time. 

Jennifer Root Wilger is the former associate editor of Group books and curriculum and teaches preschool Sunday school.

More from Jennifer Root Wilger or visit Jennifer Root at

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