Adapting Materials to Different Cultures – A Guide for Children’s Workers

Suggestions on how to evaluate the local culture and adapt programs and curriculum for greater effectiveness.

Regardless of where you work with children, their inner needs are very similar. The differences in culture, however, result in wide variances in the classroom. Mostly these differences are in the way people deal with authority, the norms for communication and the children’s life experiences. As you seek to adapt a program to a particular culture, consider the following:

The Child’s Culture

Children around the world share many traits in common. However, variations in culture and local values result in significant differences in ministry needs and realities for kids. There are wide differences in:

  • Family
  • Social Structure (includes gender, age, etc.)
  • Communication
  • Religion
  • Economy (includes health, education, etc.)
  • Values/worldview of the culture

In some places, differences in cultural norms and values mean:

  • Children are not allowed to look adults in the eye (respect and communication issues).
  • Boys and girls cannot play games together (gender values).
  • Games cannot be played in church (respect for God’s house).
  • Older children will be babysitting younger children in your group (child status, economic realities).
  • Children may not be able to read (education).
  • Children may not be willing to answer questions (respect for teacher, traditional classroom cultures).
  • Children may never have used crayons or glue (poverty issues).
  • Children will refuse gifts … or mob for them (gift-giving practices).
  • Children feel deep shame if chosen as winners or losers (shame culture).
  • Children may be embarrassed if given recognition as individuals (valuing group over the individual)

The Child’s Context

What are the strong influences in the life of a child you will teach? These may include:

  • Families: Always, families are the number-one influence in the spiritual growth of a child. In what ways they encourage or hinder growth?
  • Economy: Does the child live within a poverty culture? Or with wealth?
  • Education: Can children read? Have they learned about the world outside their neighborhood? How will lack of education impact your program plans? How can you cater for a range of educational standards without discrimination? Does the education system favour memorisation or enquiry?
  • Social status: At what age are children given permission to make decisions? How will they expect to be treated ?

And more: The factors influencing a child’s life are too many to number. For any setting, research local norms so you can really prepare for excellent ministry to kids.
Attempt to understand life through a child’s eyes. Ask, “What is life like for a child?” Consider their roles, value, status, work, education, health care, etc.

The Child’s Interests

Ask yourself, “What delights children everywhere?” Consider your answers. Especially notice those items that do not cost any money. Always work toward including these in any program, irrespective of the culture:

  • Laughter
  • Personal attention
  • Stories
  • Color
  • Movement
  • Encouragement
  • Friends
  • Listening
  • Surprise
  • Participation

Make a list of what local kids like to do: music, games, activities. Incorporate as many of these as possible into your program.

Additional Thoughts

If you hope to communicate the truth about Jesus, the following considerations may help your message to connect with kids more effectively:

Communication is a two-way process. If you do not understand something, ask. Then listen for the answer. Rephrase student responses to check your understanding. Use open-ended questions which require more than a “yes” or “no” answer. Give everyone a chance to be heard. Use what you learn to adjust your lessons.

Involve them in the process
Adults often rely on their ability to lecture when teaching children. However, kids learn best in a setting where they can participate in the learning process. Use drama, music, movement and active projects. Challenge yourself to involve your kids’ minds and hearts in the process of discovering truth.

Watch your non-verbal communication
You communicate with body language, laughter, silence, eye contact, openness, gestures and facial expressions. Help kids understand that you respect and enjoy them as they watch your body speak. They will listen to you much more readily when the messages of your mouth and your actions agree. Jesus taught with words, silence, commands, sermons and more. But his greatest lesson was taught to us as he lived a perfect life, then died on the cross for our sins. Be challenged by him to be a great example.

Know that actions speak louder than words: we cannot communicate the love of Christ if we do not demonstrate it in our attitudes and actions.

Tips for a program that really connects with unbelieving children:

  • It must assume children know nothing about God though they may have certain impressions or opinions stemming from their own experiences and their culture.
  • It must not compromise the true message by weakening it.
  • It must have lots of fun and activity, since this is a language all kids understand.
  • It must assume kids know nothing about how to behave in church (Again I’m not sure what is meant here – appropriate behaviour in general or in this program?).
  • It must not lead to judgment of (pressure on) kids who do not choose Christ.
  • It must be capable of inviting and addressing kids’ tough questions about God and life.
  • It must have the gospel presented clearly and often.

It may be helpful to engage in a Community Listening Exercise based around the following questions:

Questions for Children

  • What are the best things about being a child?
  • What don’t you like about being a child? (What makes it hard to be a child?)
  • What do you think that God is like?
  • What do you think that God would like to say to us?
  • What would you like your community to be like in the future?

Questions for Adults

  • What are the current big issues or challenges that children are facing in your community now?
  • What new issues and challenges are emerging that you think children will be facing in five to ten years time?
  • What do you hope for the future for children?
  • What do you fear for the future of children?
  • What should your community’s priorities should be in terms of helping children in your community to face the current and emerging issues

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