Childlight USA Conference, Christianity, CM in Non-Mason Settings, CM Reading Groups, Handcrafts
Comments 16

Living Mason’s Ideas at VBS by Tammy Glaser

Vacation Bible School usually follows on the heels of ChildLightUSAʼs conference for me. The stark contrast between Masonʼs philosophy and typical VBS fare hits me every year. Like most churches, mine offers flimsy crafts, loud music, much-needed gym time, kid-appealing snacks, and time-tested themes. I like that our curricula lives with one person or section of the Bible for a whole week and makes time for the pastor to share the Gospel from sin to salvation. The programʼs delivery system is the stumbling block: a workbook that awards points and stickers to children who memorize verses, complete worksheets, and perform good deeds. I kept quiet about my concerns until God gave me a Mason study group. Last year, another CM mom and I conspired to expand woodcrafting for 5th-6th grade boys to all 3rd-6th graders. The men prepped enough lap desks for kids to sand, decorate, varnish, and tack on a cushion. The woodwork was so popular that our men followed up with birdhouses this year.

A few months ago, I talked to our pastor about scrapping the workbook system in my class. My weekly after-school children have proved that the Bible is exciting on its own merit when taught Masonʼs way. Rewarding children with points and stickers implies that the Bible isnʼt inspiring on its own. Asking them show me their chore chart fosters bragging and runs counter to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-4). My pastor elaborated with Jesusʼ comment to the apostles in Luke 17:9-10. Do children need to be rewarded for doing their duty? Then, my pastor asked what the children would do instead. I suggested they memorize verses, talk about the storyteller lesson and Gospel, and do a service project: stuffing hospice pillows (a ministry in our church). When asked about points and stickers, I offered to use them to illustrate grace. I suspect the service project won his support.

Attending the CLUSA conference strengthened my resolve. Bobby Scottʼs talk on atmosphere emphasized a warm, encouraging attitude over classroom decorations (another area in which I stick out like a sore thumb at VBS). Carroll Smithʼs talk on the Sabbath of learning affirmed the need to live “excellently and deeply” and the sacredness of space and time. Jennifer Gagnonʼs talk on science revealed what I dislike most about the workbook system. She shared a discussion of Canadian zoos on a radio show. One caller described a disturbing scene in which a bored twenty-something cruelly poked young elephants in a parade at Ontarioʼs African Lion Safari. A caller from Zimbabwe stated that animals lose their natural majesty when confined to a small space. One would never poke elephants living wild in the African safari. Stripping large mammals of their natural space invites us to prod. Likewise, confining children to an artificial system of learning by rewards encourages adults to poke them to stay in line.

During VBS week, many things unfolded that reinforced life on the road less traveled. My reckless attitude toward stickers puzzled veteran VBS students. I didnʼt even bother to check their workbooks or chore charts. I just handed them out. If they forgot their workbook or nametag, I still gave them stickers. At random times during the day, we passed out stickers for no reason whatever. They sometimes got stickers a day early. Finally, one boy asked, “Miss Tammy, why are you giving me stickers? I didnʼt do all that.” I smiled and said, “Itʼs like Godʼs grace. You didnʼt do a thing to earn it. Iʼm giving you the stickers because I like you.” He looked at me curiously and said, “Youʼre not like most teachers.” Instead of poking children to perform, I relaxed and focused on relationships. One morning in the sanctuary, one boy said, “Iʼve never noticed the green in the stained glass before.” I replied, “I love looking at the arcs, too. Itʼs like the Bible: you never know when youʼre going to see something new.” During a recitation of the memory verse, one girl confided, “I pray when Iʼm scared.” I added, “I remember when you prayed before your Christmas solo and how much it helped you.” She smiled at the memory. Another boy was looking at a poster I had made of pictures of Old Testament sites and objects. He asked about the pot inside the ark of the covenant and enjoying learning about manna. I asked children in a small group discussion to tell me something new they had learned. One girl said, “Iʼve never made a birdhouse!” Another said, “I always wondered why there were floods after God sent the rainbow. Now, I know that God was talking about flooding the whole earth!” A third girl added, “I knew that we are supposed to obey the Bible, but I didnʼt know we were supposed to think about it.” I asked them why they should think about the Bible which led to a grand conversation.

While my class caught on to turning the hospice pillows right-side out and stuffing them, they struggled with not keeping them. I had overlooked how much we give our children and how much they like things. Several times, I had to explain the purpose of the pillows: people who are in hospitals, who are very ill, who might die soon. I found it difficult to tell them no. On Tuesday, one boy told me about his sick great grandpa. I created a poster with a pillow list for specific people. Only children with family listed could take any home. While turning into church on Wednesday, an ambulance zoomed past. A few minutes later, one girl arrived in tears: EMTs had taken her grandpa to the hospital. We wrote his name on the list, and I took her to see our secretary and pastor for comfort. I returned to the classroom, and the kids circled up and prayed for her grandfather. At noon, the girl joyfully told me that he was much better. That day, she took him a pillow. Another girl missed three days of VBS because her father had been in the hospital. She gave him a pillow on Thursday. The pillow poster was covered with names on the last day, and we still had a huge bag of pillows for the hospice representative. Friday morning, we bowed our heads and prayed for every person by name.

Three days have passed since VBS, and I have already heard wonderful stories. The grandmother of the boy who inspired the list told me his great-grandpa is in hospice. His pillow confirmed what God is doing in her life. A father said the whole family marveled when his son told his great-grandmother that, since the heating pad wasnʼt doing the job of easing her back pain, her pillow may give just enough support to make a difference. Another grandmother posted on Facebook how much it meant that her grandson made a pillow with his loving hands and prayed for her hip. It was something money could never buy. “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control ofspace, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.” ~ Abraham Heschel

© Tammy Glaser 2012


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. Beth says

    Tammy, what a WONDERFUL idea! I have always dreaded VBS. We won’t be able to attend the one at our church this year, but I will definitely keep this in mind for next time.

  2. Amber says

    Beautiful, thank you. I have taught Sunday school type classes and VBS before I knew much about Charlotte Mason’s teachings. As I learned more I became very uncomfortable with how the classes are taught for the same sort of reasons you mention. I haven’t taught for a little over a year (I took a break when I had a baby) but I wonder now how I can go back. The work is so vital, but I can no longer use the methods they want me to use. It is definitely something I am praying about!

  3. What a great post. How I wish that we had more of this in all of our churches!! I am struggling so much with how our home life looks vs. church life and the disconnect. What a lovely week you gave those kids!! THank you for sharing! Very inspiring!!


  4. I love what you did with VBS Tammy! It seems that the church is trying to draw the youth by trying to satisfy their fleshly desires. You are on the right track. I wonder what your pastor thought about how your class turned out. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Lovely.

    I know Charlotte Mason and Maria Montessori were not on the same page, but it is Montessori (as well as Alfie Kohn) who first gave me a disdain for the stars/stickers/rewards program. The goal is so short-term and generally detrimental in the long-term of the life of the soul and spirit.

    I *love* your example of focusing on relationship. Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

    (As for VBS, my young children — 4, 3, and 2 — would have a very hard time if I forced them into a group of strangers — youth and adults alike — so we don’t currently do it. Maybe some day?? We don’t do any Sunday school/daycare settings, either. Maybe some day?? For now, faith and God and Bible are a family affair — shared with friends and strangers when we can get out, or welcome them in.)

    Thanks again for sharing a message that resonates deeply!

  6. I try to remind myself that people really do want to reach children’s hearts through VBS. So many people at my church put in many long hours to make it happen and I truly appreciate that. I was lucky that my helpers didn’t mind a different approach (there were twenty plus children in my class).

    We are so indoctrinated by the culture, it is hard to step back and examine how we are doing in VBS unless we are already doing the same thing for education. I have made a paradigm shift that others have not, so I try to accept their reality while at the same time being authentic to what I believe. There are many other things I would love to change about the overall program, but it will not happen until others have made a shift in thinking.

    Rebecca, I haven’t had a chance to talk to the pastor yet. We are in a transition and he won’t be with us for much longer.

  7. Kathy Wickward says

    So much more satisfying. Think of it, actually listening to what the kids have to say, giving them food for thought instead of entertainment. My kids both did VBS through the Church of Christ and other than the catchy tunes, and the missionary talks, they remember very little.

  8. I love how you humbly asked to replace or leave off parts of the program that were in conflict with how children really learn. I have been so frustrated with this kind of thing I’ve gone mute when confronted with it. I finally screwed my courage to the sticking place and tackled it. I think my talk “Charlotte Mason Meets the Veggie Tales” from some conferences ago is still on the Internet somewhere. Because I had an “in” with my pastor (he’s my husband), our church did away with VBS and adopted Sofia Cavalletti’s Catechesis of the Good Shepherd as our Sunday School curriculum. HUGE and beautiful difference. I loved reading this, Tammy.

  9. Thank you for inspiring children at VBS! I will have to take a look at your Mason system. I agree it is a shame to have to try to bribe kids. Same thing happens with the adults these days. No wonder the adults do the same thing to the kids.

  10. Tammy, I had not thought about the paradigm shift that needs to take place in everyone else. It is a process and takes education. Your demonstration of how it looks is a good start.

    @ The Youth Rebellion, you can find Charlotte Mason’s philosophy and methods in her book series, Charlotte Mason’s Original Homeschooling Series. You can read them online at

  11. Youth Rebellion, thanks for stopping by. It’s more than a system. It is a way of thinking, a way of living, a way of building relationships.

  12. Leslie V says

    For years (even before becoming acquainted with Mason’s ideas) I intuitively felt that traditional Sunday School’s techniques were missing the mark and I always was the ‘trouble-maker’ teacher/leader. When I discovered Charlotte Mason, one of the first areas in which I connected the paradigm shift was the church’s Children’s Ministry. I got so excited and started developing lots of ideas for change in that area. Now at a new church, I am not in a position to institute or even suggest any such transition. It is very exciting to read of others who are bringing Charlotte Mason to church, however. I pray that your influence will grow and your ideas will be greatly received in your area.

    As a matter of fact, I had set my ideas so far back on the burner that I had actually forgotten about them until I read your article, so thank you so much for sharing.

  13. Karen W says

    Where do I find directions for making Hospice Pillows? Thanks!

  14. Karen, it is really simple: take scrap cotton cloth (people donate cloth to us) and cut it into two rectangles, sew them together leaving a slit open on one side. We had the children turn the pillows right side out and stuff them. You want a “squishy” pillow so people can form it to their aching parts (firm pillows prevent that). Then, a volunteer sewed the slit. We don’t do anything special because these pilows are meant to be thrown out when they become contaminated with fluids.

    Here is an example. Ours aren’t as long, but this link will give you an idea.

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