I have a three-year old.

As Christmas approaches and I choose gifts for her, I’m constantly looking at the age recommendations of toys. I do so because I want to know if a toy is developmentally appropriate for her. If I give my daughter a toy that’s too young for her, she’ll get bored with it. If I give her a toy that’s too hold for her, she’ll get frustrated by it. If I give her a toy that’s developmentally appropriate for her, she’ll play with it for hours on end.

In the same way, as a youth worker, when I choose or write curriculum for my teens, I want to make sure it’s developmentally appropriate for my students. I don’t want teens to be bored (which happens when our activities and lesson are designed for people much younger than them) or frustrated (which happens when we ask them to do or think in a way they’re not yet equipped to do). Instead, I want them to be engaged – to actively participate in whatever we’re doing so that they can learn about their faith and make it their own.

To determine the developmentally appropriateness of activities or curriculum, answer these seven questions:

  1. Is your curriculum concrete or abstract? Teens don’t have the ability to think abstractly until early high school. Until then, curriculum needs to be largely concrete. This means, for example, that in middle school (when most mainline congregations do confirmation), it’s far more important to teach teens the stories of our faith than it is to teach them abstract theological doctrine. If teens leave their junior high ministries understanding the arc of Scripture, we have set them up to have for more complex, abstract conversations in high school.
  2. How many points or stories does your curriculum make each week? Because of how little time we have with our students, it can be tempting to cram as much as possible into each of our gatherings. However, doing so is simply not developmentally appropriate. Instead, your curriculum needs to focus on ONE key point or story each week. Doing so will not only help students leave understanding your point, but it will also help keep you from using random Scripture passages to support a topical point you’re trying to make.
  3. How many learning styles does your curriculum engage? Students learn in different ways. Some learn visually. Others learn through hearing. Still others learn best through experiences or through movement. Even though your curriculum should focus on ONE story or key point, it should do so in multiple ways. Teaching the same point in a variety of ways helps to ensure that no matter how students learn, they leave knowing the point you’re trying to make.
  4. How active is your curriculum? The younger your population, the more active your curriculum needs to be. Small children can’t sit still as long as tweens can. Tweens can’t sit still as long as high school boys can. And high school boys can’t sit still as long as high schools girls can.
  5. Who does the talking in your curriculum? The older your students, the less talking you should do. Since we speak our faith into being, when we give teens the opportunity to actually talk – to wrestle with what they believe and why – they learn more.
  6. How does your curriculum translate into students’ real lives? As youth workers, we want our students to have a consequential faith – a faith that impacts their real lives outside the walls of church. Good curriculum should help teens translate a Bible story into their real lives. In middle school, this often happens through brainstorming (or even giving) teens practical things to do during the week to live out their faith. In high school, this often occurs through posing open-ended questions designed to help teens continue thinking about and applying Scripture to their lives throughout the week.
  7. How well does your curriculum connect with what your larger congregation is doing? Developmentally appropriate curriculum recognizes that the primary spiritual influencer in a student’s life is their parents. As such, whenever possible it connects teens to what’s happening in your larger congregation in order to foster conversations between teens and their parents at home.

Using these seven filtering questions will help you choose a curriculum that will engage your students and help them form a lasting, consequential faith that impacts their daily lives.