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?