According to the Gospel writers, Jesus’ disciples only asked him to teach them one thing: how to pray. If I’d been there, I probably would’ve asked Jesus for tips on raising the dead or feeding crowds of people with just a few sandwiches, a packet of ready-salted crisps and a brownie (if I hadn’t already eaten it). But they asked Jesus to teach them how to pray.

The disciples almost certainly already prayed every day. They would’ve learned a lot about prayer from their families and from the religious leaders. And yet, when they witnessed Jesus praying they saw something profoundly different. I wonder what they saw: simplicity? Honesty? Intimacy? Power and authority? Whatever the disciples saw, they knew that they didn’t have it, and they knew that they wanted to learn it, more than anything else.

“When you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production,” said Jesus in response to their request, perhaps having a bit of a dig at the professional religious leaders nearby. “Do you think God sits in the box seat?” he added with a smile. “Find a place where you won’t be tempted to role-play before God,” he said, getting down to business. “Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God and you will begin to sense his grace. This is your Father you are dealing with,” Jesus explained, bringing his brief instructions to a conclusion. “And he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this…” (Matthew 6, The Message).

Being there

Somehow, somewhere along the way, we’ve made this prayer thing more complicated than Jesus meant it to be, especially for children and young people. It may be because we adults don’t find it easy to “be there simply and honestly”. We over-complicate things instead of keeping them simple, and we pray the things we think we ought to pray instead of being honest about what’s really going on in our lives. And then we teach our children and young people lots about prayer (among all sorts of other things), rather than inviting them to try praying.

If we want them to be able to “sense his grace” and to know that a God like this loves them in life-transforming ways, then I think we need to make some changes. We need to do everything we can to start out by making space for them to: “Be there as simply and honestly as (they) can manage.”

One way to help children and young people to be there, to connect with God, simply and honestly, is to use creative prayer activities. I work with Prayer Spaces in Schools, which equips local churches to use carefully designed prayer activities in schools, with children and young people of all faiths and none. Although they take a broadly Christian perspective as a starting point, the prayer activities purposely allow pupils to make their own meaning and to draw their own conclusions. So far, more than 500,000 children and young people have visited a prayer space in their school, and many have welcomed the invitation to ‘try prayer’ and have drawn their own, often surprising conclusions.

“Using the post-it notes was really helpful. It gave me a way to pray. It was the first time I prayed properly.” Year 10 pupil

“I’ve never seen prayer displayed or experienced like this before. It’s made me realise how many different ways prayer can be appreciated. It’s opened up religion into my life again. Thank you!” Year 12 pupil

“It was really fun. It made me see God everywhere I look. God spoke to me.” Year 6 pupil “It felt like the truth in here.” Year 4 pupil

After more than 2,500 prayer spaces in all sorts of schools – faith schools and community schools, primary and secondary schools, within the UK and beyond – we’ve noticed that the prayer activities that work really well seem to have a few things in common.

None of these things are rocket science, of course, and all of them can be seen in what, and the way that, Jesus taught. So, whether you’re a parent wanting to encourage your own children to grow in prayer, or a children’s worker or youth worker wanting to deepen the prayer life of your church-based groups, I hope that these questions are useful in the things that you do too.

Is it simple?

Is your prayer activity, or whatever you’re doing to invite children and young people to pray, simple? Can you explain it in one sentence, without using any abstract concepts or religious words? If so, this is a great place to start - you’re on the right track. Remember Jesus’ words: “With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply.”

The best prayer activities involve something to reflect on and something to do as a response

Is it real? Is it relevant?

Start with what’s going on in the lives of your children or young people. What are they excited about, worried about, struggling with, confused by, angry or sad about? Your prayer activity needs to begin with something – a theme, an experience - which the children or young people can relate to. Jesus talked with everyday people about their everyday lives, he talked about farming and fishing with farmers and fisherman, and he helped them to connect with God where they were.

Is it interactive?

Prayer is more than words. In fact, our words sometimes get in the way of simple, honest communication with God – somehow, searching for the right words to pray leads us away from expressing what’s really going on inside. In Dave Tomlinson’s book How to be a bad Christian, he describes simple, honest prayer as ‘soul talk’, and he insists that this ‘soul talk’ doesn’t require words. What helps you to express what’s really going on inside? Dancing? Singing? Playing music? Drawing? Running? Making things (or destroying them)? How about blowing kisses?

My 33-year-old brother, Matthew, has cerebral palsy. He is able to control his electric wheelchair, but his body is so severely twisted and his muscles are so wasted that he is unable to care for himself in any way. He has never been able to speak, never been able to put into words what he is thinking or feeling. For as long as I can remember, whenever my dad has taken Matthew to their local Anglican church services, Matthew has blown kisses throughout the prayers and the worship. Is he ‘saying’ something when he blows kisses? Yes, of course.

What is he ‘saying’? Nobody really knows. Does anybody need to know? No. Does God know what’s going on? Yes!

Does your prayer activity involve something to do? It’s OK to use words, of course, but it’s better to include a mix of wordy and non-wordy activities. The best prayer activities involve something to reflect on and something to do as a response, eg tear this, drop that, write this, move that, tie this, wipe that, make this, walk over there etc. If it’s fun or exciting, that’s even better.

We’ve made prayer more complicated than Jesus meant it to be

Is it inclusive?

Jesus shouted at his disciples when he saw that they were pushing the children to the back of the crowd (Mark 10). Jesus welcomed everyone, and he still does. He is hospitable and open-hearted towards everyone, regardless of their cultural background, their academic ability, or however they describe their faith (or lack of it). Is your prayer activity hospitable and welcoming? Will every child or young person feel that what you’ve created is for them – will they feel included? A prayer activity (and prayer itself) can sometimes be challenging, but it should never exclude.

Is it take-away-able? (Is it ‘sticky’?)

Will the children and young people be able repeat your prayer activities in their own time and space? Will they learn things as well as experience things? A simple way to do this is to create prayer activities using items that the children and young people will have at home, or will see every day.

Is it both communal and personal?

Do your prayer activities, or whatever you’re doing to invite children and young people to pray, provide opportunities for personal reflection and solitude, and also for dialogue and companionship with others? Jesus demonstrated that there are times and circumstances when we need to ‘go it alone’ in prayer, and other times when we need our friends to go with us.

Is it two-way?

Perhaps, more than anything else, it was the intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with his father, and the way that he listened for and heard his father’s voice, that the disciples saw and wanted to learn for themselves. Prayer is a two-way communication. Do your prayer activities provide opportunities for children and young people to pause, be still and listen for the Father’s voice? And, here’s the fun part, what will you do when God speaks?

Some ideas

So, what does this look like in our homes, our children’s groups and youth groups, our church meetings and our everyday lives? How do we invite children and young people to express their ‘soul talk’, to start praying ‘simply and honestly’?

If you’re creatively challenged like me, it helps to get a few ideas from other people first. So I asked some of my friends to send me a few of their favourite creative prayer ideas for children and young people. Here’s a sample of what they replied with:

  • Sit or stand in a circle and give an inflatable globe to one person. Invite them to say thank you for someone or something in a country that they know about, and then throw the globe onto someone else.
  • Create poem-prayers with fridge-magnet words.
  • Collect some wooden lolly sticks of different colours (red, yellow, blue, green, orange, white, purple etc). Invite each person to think or say whatever prayer they feel in response to the colour of the lolly stick.
  • Keep a daily prayer diary. Draw pictures in it. Write words. Stick images or mood-faces in it. Reflect on it at the end of each week.
  • Stick hand-shapes onto a bedroom wall with the names (and photos?) of friends and family that the child wants to pray for regularly.
  • Keep all of your Christmas cards in a box. Each day, pick one out and say a short prayer for the person who sent it.
  • If you’re a parent, be a good example. Pray for and with your children. And let them see you pray too. Simple, honest prayers, remember?
  • With younger ones, use children’s toys (eg blocks, figures) to represent people or things that they may want to pray for.
  • Engage all of their senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.
  • Do a prayer-walk through a local park. Collect sticks, leaves and other things and then use them to make a prayer-collage about something.
  • Go somewhere special (eg scale a hill, light a bonfire on the beach, climb to the top of a clock-tower or a block of flats, go to a forest, go for a walk in the rain, stand outside an important building) to pray about something particular. Maybe you could write or draw on a stone and leave it somewhere as a marker. Make memories.
  • Stick a (waterproof) family prayer-list in the shower at home.
  • The Prayer Spaces in Schools website has loads of free-to-download prayer activities, using all sorts of items, including fizzy tablets, Love Heart sweets, a life-size Tardis, zips, an Olympic hurdle and even a wheelbarrow. If you Google ‘prayer activity ideas’ you’ll find hundreds of other ideas too. There’s no shortage of stuff. The thing is to get started.

“Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this…”