The Value of a Child-Friendly Nativity Set

Mary and the angel lost their heads this week at our house.  Baby Jesus?  He’s MIA.   It’s ok, though, we have a spare Jesus at ready.

At our house, the nativity set is hands-on.  We get out the tacky glue, and Mary and the angel get back to the action, ready for small hands.  We like lots of traffic around the manger.

In many people’s homes, nativity sets are ornately beautiful and fragile, set up on display as a look-but-don’t-touch Christmas decoration.  I appreciate those beautiful sets; there is a certain amount of reverence inherent in beautiful things.  Some day I’d love to have a set like that.  But right now, that’s just not the way we live.

baby jesus

We are a household with four young kids. I don’t really have a place to set up a fragile nativity set without fear, and I don’t want to anyway.

Our little wooden stable and nativity set currently reside in the dining room on top of my grandma’s sewing machine table.  At children’s eye level.  To make it accessible to even our littlest one, I put the step stool right next to the nativity set.

One of the sheep in our nativity is a three-time amputee.  He now spends his time laying down.  We have a wiseman that lost his legs, another is missing part of his crown.  You get the picture.

We have a backup nativity set, though, so we can create a full “cast” by combining the two sets.

The nativity set figurines sit next to our Little Golden Book called The Christmas Story, a simple version of the Bible story with beautiful traditional artwork.  The nativity set and the story go hand in hand, and we can grab the book and read it whenever the mood strikes.

I give my cousin, Annie, the credit for this child-friendly arrangement.  A few years ago, I spotted a picture on her facebook page: an adorable wooden, hand-painted child’s nativity set, rearranged in some sort of humorous configuration by her young son.  This struck a chord with me, and thus began a quest for a nativity set for our children.

While I loved my cousin’s set, the hefty price tag for that nativity didn’t sound feasible for me.  I’m too busy (or really, just too lazy) to keep track of expensive little figurines that our dog might chew up.

I then looked at the nativity set made by Little People.  While I love those little figures as toys, I didn’t want them as a nativity set because they really just look like another toy.  I wanted the nativity figures to look more realistic, and somehow different from “just another toy.”  Not finding what I wanted in any stores, I hunted around on the internet and almost bought a set there.

Inspiration struck, though, and I headed to the thrift store.

Eureka!  I found a classic wooden stable, complete with a working(!) light.  Conveniently attached was a plastic nativity set with traditional-looking figures, super-glued in place.  I spotted and then snatched up another nativity set made of resin for a few bucks more.

Those figurines seemed like just the ones: worn just enough to not worry about future nicks, and very similar to the set from my childhood.  For less than fifteen dollars, I now possess a lighted wooden stable and two nativity sets, one plastic and one resin.

Wanting an interactive nativity set experience for my kids, I pried off the plastic figurines that came super-glued to the stable.  One king refused to budge, as did all three sheep, which tend to be stubborn animals.

It’s not quite perfect, but it’s not meant to be, which actually makes it perfect.  From a distance, the set looks nice, and up close, the apparent wear and tear makes our nativity fuss-free for our kids.

So why do I intentionally allow my children to potentially damage these semi-sacred objects?

We all know that children benefit from hands-on learning.  Both educators and parents alike know that children learn by seeing, touching, and doing.  So often, though, when it comes to “the reason for the season,” people set up nativity sets that are off-limits to children.  To me, that looks like a missed opportunity for learning.

Child-friendly nativity sets provide the visual and tactile opportunity for kids to engage with the Christmas story.  Learning about something that happened so long ago is an abstract concept, but seeing, touching, and manipulating the characters in the story helps kids to sort it all out and create understanding.  The teacher in me likes that.

And the kid in me says it’s just plain fun.

When I took out our nativity set and stable for the season, I never actually pointed it out to our kids.  I just set it up, turned on the stable light (“open for business”), and waited.

A few hours later, I noticed our 19-month-old daughter sitting on the step stool, playing with the figures.  I overheard her little monologue: “Mama, baby.” “Dada!” Then the holy family climbed the roof of the stable, “Stays (stairs)…up, up, up!”  Soon the wisemen took turns riding on the cow, “Weee!!”

Perched on a step stool, our baby plays with our child-friendly nativity set.

Perched on a step stool, our baby plays with our child-friendly nativity set.

As she played, I told her the names of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.  That’s enough for her for now.

Our kids aren’t always reverent with the figurines.  I already mentioned the missing heads.  Sometimes the donkey fights with the cow, and sometimes the figures are stacked in pig pile fashion.  Kids are kids, after all.

However, our 19-month-old often carries baby Jesus around the house saying, “Aww, baby,” and lovingly kisses him and gently covers him up with tiny blankets.

My three-year-old son, also a baby lover, has the same reaction.  When he plays with the nativity set, he always makes sure that baby Jesus has his mom and dad close at hand.  And after seeing and playing with the set at home, he can easily name the “characters” in the story when he sees them in other places, like church or TV.

One night as I read The Christmas Story book to our kids, my six-year-old daughter jumped up off the couch and grabbed the nativity figures.  Giggling and using exaggerated gestures for comedic effect, she made the figures act out the play as I read the book.  Afterward she took an especially grand bow, and we clapped.

I think the person who said “let the little children come to me” would approve.

And as for Mary and the angel, they might lose their heads again before Christmas, but hey, don’t we all sometimes?


20 thoughts on “The Value of a Child-Friendly Nativity Set

  1. This is everything a post should be–light, humorous, fun, with a serious meaning behind it. Great great story! It reminds me of another story I read once – If you’re missing Baby Jesus, call ___ If and when I find it, I’ll try and get you something about it. I think you would like it.
    Enjoy your Nativity set.

  2. This is an absolutely splendid, “why didn’t I think of this when my kids were growing up” idea. I’ll just need to implement this with the grandchildren I hope to someday have.

    I can just picture your sweet wee one cradling the baby Jesus.

    Remarkable teaching opportunity and opportunity to grow the little ones’ faith.

    Thank you for sharing this idea.

  3. I think the story above was in Reader’s Digest or Guidepost. I don’t read anything, and that sounds familiar so I would narrow my search to those. Wasn’t it a set at a hardware store, and some one called and there was a miracle at Christmas…? I love hands on for kids, for stress free, and for the young producer in every child. I looked at a set just last week at St.Vincent DePaul, and opted out due to the over abundance of “desert moss” that I feared would cover my house. Reading this makes me sorry I missed out.

  4. What a lovely post. I agree with every word. It made me feel happy and yes we all have the capacity to lose our heads from time to time. Thank God for the wonderful people in our lives who offer us some glue. I loved hearing that the children got to play and truly interact. They will have warm loving memories of the Christmas Story.

  5. Great post Kathy!! My kids are allowed to play with ours too! Ours is made of ceramic so we had many broken pieces last year…super glue to the rescue! This year everything has remained intact but one of the wise men is missing! I have searched hi and low but with no luck..I’m hoping he just went back for more frankincense and will return shortly!

  6. Your writing is so natural, it felt like I was sitting at your kitchen table discussing child rearing with you! 🙂

    I came to this same nativity conclusion the hard way. My hubby wanted a nice set for the family, so years ago I spent a few Christmases buying pieces for him. I also spent many Christmases gluing pieces back together – the pieces I could find, that is. Mary is still missing a hand. 🙂

    But, after buying many at the thrift stores, I now have vintage plastic pieces that are in a hands-on display for kids who love to touch.

    • Thank you. And poor Mary, missing her hand! : ) Even if you did stumble upon the same idea the hard way, I’m glad you’ve got a set for busy kid hands now! Some wisdom just kind of comes with a heavy pricetag… : )

  7. What a wise mother you are, Kathy! I’m sure your children will have a much deeper understanding of the Christmas Story because you let them experience it hands-on.
    And thank you for sharing; I love your writing!
    Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  8. my kiddos are just into the age where they are no longer “playing” as much with our christmas decorations. makes me a little sniffy. 🙂 we did make a point to get them their own little inexpensive nativity scene. they still love to set each one up themselves. i think it does give them that connection, an “ownership” of the story. love what you’ve done with your munchkins. besides….jesus said let them come right? 😉

    • Sounds like great minds think alike on nativity sets. : ) Our kids are still at the age where our ornaments get taken off the tree as much as they get put on (and it’s usually me redecorating…) And as nice as it’ll be to have a tree that stays decorated, I’m sure I’ll feel a little sad when they get past that stage, too.

  9. Great post! One of my favorite nativity sets is the one my grandmother crocheted for me when our oldest son was born. My kids all loved playing with it as they grew up. It looks a little worn out now but I smile every year thinking of those chubby little hands using it to put on a “nativity play” for me. I’m so glad I didn’t put it up to “protect” it. 🙂

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