By Mira Rose-Dewil
Here are some practical ideas for creating a Krishna conscious environment for kids at home, many based on Montessori principles that I have found successful in my school. They are geared toward the 2-6 age group. I would love to hear from anyone who might have more ideas for this age group or for older children.
1. Organize the physical environment so that all devotional items and activities are easily within reach for children to access independently. Have a specific place for each item so that children know where to find things and how to pack away when they are done. This can make a huge difference to how often your child spontaneously engages in KC activities. For example:
Put your Bhagavatams and other books on a low shelf so that kids can take them out and look at the fascinating pictures whenever they want.
Have a kids’ altar at kids level so that they can offer things whenever they want, clean, or just hang out in front of the altar.
Have a low shelf nearby with a child-size offering set, cleaning cloths (spray bottles are fun), a basket for picking flowers, a child-size arati set.
Have musical instruments in a basket right near the altar so they can do kirtan whenever they want.
Make your kitchen child-friendly by having a step ladder so that they can reach the taps and counters. Have a low table for them to work at with a child-safe chopper, chopping board, bowls, peeler.
2. Children of this age love to be engaged in practical activities and thrive on doing such work. There are so many possibilities for age-appropriate practical activities. For example:
Have a little tray set up for brass polishing with cotton wool, a dropper bottle with Brasso, and polishing cloths.
Pouring. Have a little jug and tiny cups that your child can pour water into to offer to the deity pictures on their altar.
Threading. Have a tray with string and beads for making bead garlands. (Very small children can use chunky beads and older children can use quite tiny beads.) Have drawing pins or hooks in the back of the picture frames and show your child how to hang the garland on the picture. Older children can use a blunt needle and thread and make flower garlands.
Dish-washing. Show your child how to wash Krishna’s dishes after making an offering.
Food preparation. Have a child-friendly set-up as described above. Potato and carrot peeling are popular, as is chopping. We have a serrated child’s chopper and the children are always very proud to identify the bits of vegetables or fruits that they have chopped in the prasada. The possibilities are endless – baking, pancakes, sandwiches . . .
Cleaning. Show your child how to carefully remove everything from the altar and wipe the altar and all pictures before replacing everything.
3. Teach by teaching and not by correcting. Many children are very sensitive to being corrected or scolded for mistakes, and this can dent a child’s confidence or sap enthusiasm for an activity. So make sure you anticipate possible challenges and demonstrate everything in a clear and logical way to avert unnecessary difficulties.
For example, rather than having a situation where you end up scolding a child for putting a sacred book on the floor, show the child: “This is how you carefully take the Bhagavatam off the shelf. This is how you carry it to the table or the cloth that you have laid on the floor. This is how you open it. This is how you carefully turn the pages holding onto the corner of the page, until you find the pictures. This is how you close it and carefully put it back when you are finished.” The same careful demonstration applies for every activity.
Accept mistakes and accidents calmly and matter-of-factly. Show kids how to carry things with two hands. Show kids how to wipe up spills and clean up after accidents.
Don’t be hung up about rules and regulations and worried about children making “offenses.” Krishna should feel like an all-loving friend to them and they should not have to tiptoe around Him or be scared of doing something wrong. If a toddler pulls himself up at the altar and offers Krishna a sticky sweet that he has held in his hand for half an hour and dropped on the floor several times, we should be delighted by his impulse to offer something precious to Krishna.
4. Independence and free will. Kids of this age are really striving to learn to do things by themselves. We should facilitate by allowing them to do things without undue interference, advice, and hovering. Also, children should never feel forced to engage in some kind of devotional activity. If they are not interested in something because it does not serve some meaningful inner purpose for them, coercion may kill any likelihood of their natural interest in the activity arising at a future time. As soon as we try to force small children to do some devotional activity as a matter of routine, it could become a chore. Also, we deprive ourselves and them of the joy that arises when they spontaneously decide to decorate the altar with flowers, or take their deities (pictures) on an outing to a nice spot with a cool breeze and sing bhajans, or take out all the Bhagavatams and “read” them all in one go, etc., etc.
5. Don’t over-praise. Of course we want to encourage our children and express our satisfaction when they do something devotional nicely. But excessive praise may make children dependent on outside approval and validation for their activities, rather than wanting to do something for its own sake, and feeling satisfied by their own evaluation of what they have done. Simple observations can be very effective e.g. “I saw how carefully you chose only the perfect flowers to offer to the Lord.” Or “Look how shiny the acamana cup is now!”
Here are a few other ideas that I have found quite successful:
Have a set chanting time during the day. From early on begin training your kids that “Now is my chanting time. You may be here if you want to chant or if you are silent. Otherwise you may play anywhere else in the house.” Gradually the period of time during which they can adhere to your request extends.
Get kids counter beads to chant on. It is very exciting for them to finish a “round” quickly.
Get squares of felt in 3 different colours (I used pink for “Hare,” blue for “Krishna,” and green for “Rama”) and lay them out on a carpet to make chanting stepping stones. This is a great way for them to chant when they don’t want to be still. Also good for introducing other kids who don’t know the mantra.
Have festivals at home. Even if you live close to a temple, there are benefits to having festivals at home specially for small children as temple festivals may not always be geared for them. We have “birthday parties” for appearance days, and it’s something the kids can really relate to. We invite all the neighborhood kids and they come and bring or make presents. We cook a simple prep like biscuits or halava, get flowers for offering and decorating, chant, dance and have stories and maybe a puppet show. There has to be a cake with candles and preferably balloons. They LOVE the festivals.
Sing songs together. You can make up long epic songs about pastimes, which can be useful for entertaining kids while you are doing something else like cooking or driving. If you sing it the same way each time they will quickly learn the words. Teach them traditional bhajans. I first realized how easily kids learn songs in other languages by seeing how effortlessly our 3- and 5-year-old learned “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” our national anthem. If you choose a song and sing it repeatedly over a period of time, they will soon pick it up and sing it again and again.
So many crafts can be done. For example:
Make hand puppets or finger puppets. Kids can glue on eyes and jewels or flowers.
Get cardboard and make beautiful jeweled picture frames for deity pictures.
Make bows and arrows and shields (and clubs and swords!) to offer to Lord Rama.
Make a picture book of your child’s trip to Ratha-yatra or India or some other spiritual occasion. These can be really simple with a photo and one or two sentences per page. Kids love to re-live their experiences in this way.
Have a “special night” regularly or occasionally where the whole family does something fun together e.g. a play where you all dress up and Mom is Sita, Dad is Ravana, kids are Rama and Hanuman and Lakshman, or a puppet show or story-telling.