Samsura is the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
I asked the children, "What is a cycle?" 
They gave me lots of fun answers involving bikes and butterflies, seasons and food chains.

I made a circular motion with my hand whenever I used the word CYCLE.  "A cycle goes around and around and around."

Once they understood what a cycle was I explained Samsara.
"Samsara is the cycle of life, death, rebirth, life, death, rebirth over and over and over again.
Now, if all life has old age, sickness and death, that must mean that all life has suffering.
So as long as we are in the cycle of Samsara there is suffering."

I laid out fresh flowers, soil and seeds.
The children took turns labeling each symbol, touching the flowers, dirt and seeds.

Flowers: Life
Dirt: Death

Seeds: Rebirth
The children regularly offer flowers to images of the Buddha.  It's a way to honor the Buddha.  We also use the flowers to meditate on impermanence and the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

We discussed how every living thing is caught in the cycle of Samsara, living, dying and becoming reborn.
While we haven't gotten to the story of the Siddhartha's enlightenment yet, I felt it was important to point to this event.  Without reference to the hope of enlightenment, this lesson is just too sad and burdensome for a child, in my opinion.

After our reflection they made a simple illustration of Samsara, using the flower's life cycle for symbols.

Keep it simple.
I wanted them to remember the word Samsara so I said it EVERY TIME I referred to the circle.
Life, Death, Rebirth.  That's what I wanted them to remember so that's all I put on the felt board.

Use what you have.
A little glue, construction paper and markers are needed.  I fetched old pizza saucers from the recycle bin.  (You know, those silver, cardboard thingies you can use to microwave them?The kids used them to trace a perfect circle.  A bowl or plate would work just as well.

I had old, silk flowers left over from craft projects, but stickers, pictures from magazines or greeting cards, or drawings could be used.

The earth I scooped from a pot on the front porch and brought in a ziploc bag.

The seeds came from the last of our zinnias which had dried out in the front yard, but you could easily harvest them from a plant nearby, something in the fridge or a leftover packet if you're a gardener.

The children now have a foundation laid.  When in our next lesson, Siddhartha leaves his palace in search of a way to end suffering they will understand more thoroughly what he's looking for.  When in upcoming lessons he reaches enlightenment, they will better appreciate that The Buddha has reached Nirvana and following his path can lead us to a freedom from the cycle of Samsara!  That's my hope, anyway.

May all be free from suffering with the power of the Triple Gem.

The Four Signs

The Four Signs

This lesson was shared with children from age 5 to 7.
We began by recalling the sadness Siddhartha had felt when he witnessed suffering by people and animals at The Plowing Ceremony.

Then the story of Four Signs was read.
The books I have listed in the resource section all have a simple retelling of this story for children.
You can also find it by clicking here.

As the story was read, children took turns laying out the following symbols:

The First Sign

The Second Sign

The Third Sign

The Fourth Sign
After reading the story, children were asked to try to remember one of the four signs.  They took turns matching labels to the correct felt symbol.

I like using felt boards with children in this age group.  Being able to place a felt piece on the board or label a felt piece is a big treat for the kids.  It encourages even the youngest in my group to stay focused on the story.

Keep it simple.
For the youngest children, I avoid getting too fancy or having too many things on the felt board.
I ask myself, "What do I really want them to remember?"  In this lesson I wanted them to remember the 4 signs so those were the only symbols I laid out.  I didn't even include Buddha or Channa, his chariot driver, in the illustrations.

Use what you have.
I've got a lot of felt and it's cheap, but paper, cloth, clay, anything you have on hand can be used to make a simple visual aid.

Looking at the first three signs, we discussed how sad Siddhartha was about the suffering of others.
We discussed that everyone gets sick, everyone grows older, and eventually, everyone dies.  That's a heavy theme for a young child.  Heck, that's a heavy theme for an adult.

After talking about all the things in nature that get sick, suffer and die, it was important to point out the fourth sign.  This is the child's hope!  Yes, the first three signs are sad, BUT the fourth sign brings happiness.  Choosing to become a renunciate was how Siddhartha eventually found enlightenment and a way for everyone to end this cycle of suffering!  Let this lesson end with that promise.

If there's time left, the children could take turns acting out the story.  My kids love performing and it's one more way to make the story stick in their memories.

Our classes always end with chanting in the Pali language led by one of the monks.

May all be free from suffering with the power of the Triple Gem.

The Swan

This lesson was shared with children ages 5 to 8.
The story can be found in the books listed in the reference section or by clicking HERE.

Before the story the children were asked to recall a time when they felt sad for a person or animal who was suffering.  I used a few images on a flannel board to keep their attention.  An illustrated book or pictures drawn on paper would work fine too.

I placed the word Compassion on the flannel board above the story.
I asked, "What does it mean to have compassion?"
After some guesses I suggested, "Compassion is feeling sorry that someone is suffering and wanting them to not have to suffer."

Then I asked, "How did Siddhartha show compassion?"
(by feeling sad for the wounded swan and helping it)

"Why did the elders agree that the swan should be given to Siddhartha?"  
(because he tried to give the swan life, not take life from him)

"How can we show compassion?"
(Some good promptings:  at home, at school, to the sick, to the poor, to the sad, to animals...)

To conclude the lesson, the children used pictures of animals to decorate a paper with the words, "Be kind to all living beings."

As an alternative activity the children could make edible ornaments for wildlife.  Winter is the best season for this since birds and other neighborhood wildlife are more dependent on us for food.  There are some easy directions for making the ornaments here.

Keep it simple.
There were two key points I wanted the children to take away:
1. Even at a young age, Siddhartha felt compassion for living beings who were suffering.
2. Like Siddhartha, we should show kindness to all living beings.

Use what you have.
I cut out the pages of an old, outdated Animal Encyclopedia, but you could use old magazines, postcards, or encourage the children to draw pictures.  

If you are working with older children, I would recommend using the lesson on Devadatta and the Swan found in Margaret Lisa Buschmann's Book (See Resources Section).  Along with a deeper study of the story, she offers wonderful reflections on arguments and confrontation.

May all be free from suffering with the power of the Triple Gem.

Queen Mahamaya's Dream

The story can be found HERE.

This lesson was shared with children between the ages of 5 and 12.  That's a diverse audience.  The challenge was to keep the lesson simple enough to hold the little one's attention without boring the older children to tears.

The solution:  A play.
This story lends itself well to a dramatization because there are lots of characters involved.  The older children were all assigned roles.  As the story was narrated, they acted out the story for the younger children.

They enjoyed this activity so much that we actually did the whole play four or five times, with children switching roles.  This helped embed the story in the little one's mind while keeping my older students completely engaged.

After the story, the youngest children drew pictures of their favorite part of the story.  As they colored, the older children were prompted to discuss questions from Margaret Lisa Buschmann's book (see Resource Section).

Keep it simple.
The play was last minute idea when I realized that I would be working with both older and younger children.  I didn't have any props or costumes.  They didn't seem to mind.

I also scratched a more involved art project I had planned for the little ones.  I keep lots of blank paper and crayons on hand for emergencies like this.  By giving the tots directions to just draw their favorite part of the story, I could devote my attention to the older kids for a deeper study and application of the story.  


Here are some of the resources I've found helpful:

Their webpage has a section of children's lessons based on Jataka Tales.  
These will eventually be published into a book, but for a limited time they can be downloaded for free.

Dharma Publishing has a wonderful selection of children's books.

Buddha Stories by Demi
This is a small collection of Jataka Tales
Most bookstores in the US will have it in stock.
It can also usually be found at the local library.

BuddhaNet has a wonderful, free online library
It now includes an entire children's section with stories from the Dhammapada, Jataka Tales, Rahula, and many more.

The Buddhist Series: Life of the Buddha
These are another set of Student Text books for children.  They can be found at Vijitha Yapa Shop.  

The Buddhist Way of Life, by N.G.W.I. Jinasena
This is a series of text books written for 1st through 6th Grade.  They are written in English but must be shipped from Sri Lanka.  The books themselves are very inexpensive, about $1.00 to $2.00.  However, the shipping can be pricey. I'm sharing two distributors here.  

Vijitha Yapa Bookshop is here.

Lankae Shop is here.

The Story of the Buddha Illustrated Text Book
This is an online book that can be downloaded as a pdf.
You can find it by clicking here.

Each Breath A Smile, by Sister Susan
You can find more info here.

Time Out For Parents:
A Compassionate Guide To Parenting, Cheri Huber
Publishing and Purchasing Info can be found here.

Prince Siddhartha: The Story of the Buddha
by Jonathan Landaw and Janet Brooke
Publishing and Purchasing info can be found here

Access to Insight is a website full of resources that include The Dhammapada, discourses, teachings, and history of the Buddha, particular in the Theravada tradition.

The Buddha and His Teachings, by Narada Mahathera
   This book can be ordered online.  It's published with several different covers.  A free pdf of this book is available clicking here.

Buddhism Key Stage 1, by Jing Yin, Ken Hudson

It can be downloaded for free by clicking here.

Morals in the Life Story of the Buddha, by Margaret Lisa Buschmann
This book is especially helpful for working with older children.  I would recommend for teaching kids 10 and older. It can be ordered through the Buddhist Publication Society.