“Help me encounter God by myself.”
This is the vital cry of children that we serve.
Children (and really humans) learn best when they can work with their hands at their own pace. Focused work helps us integrate our hands, hearts, and minds.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) uses 2D figures to illustrate parables, and 3D figures to re-enact events in the life of Jesus (called Infancy Narratives or Paschal Narratives).
Pay attention to the difference in 2D vs 3D! I have gotten them confused multiple times myself, especially when assembling materials for a new atrium. Oops!
You can make or find figures from a variety of sources & media: clay (Sculpey brand often preferred), resin, clothespin or peg dolls… We started our parish atrium with lots of unclaimed nativity pieces in storage that fit the presentations. However, many did not last normal wear & tear.
We have replaced most of them with wooden figures that will survive inevitable falls and bumps (and the occasional intentional smashes of our traumatized kids). Wood also provides a satisfying sensory experience for children.
Now what do you do with them?
Create a Prayerful Work Space
No matter what materials you use to make your figures, remember that this is not grunt work! Prayer is the true work of God.
There are many ways to sanctify your space and remind yourself of the true purpose of your activity:
- Make the Sign of the Cross, with or without Holy Water
- Light a candle (“Jesus is the light of the world”)
- Read the scripture aloud before or as you work to reflect on its meaning
- Call your attention to a photo, icon or statue of a mentor or Saint and ask for them to pray for you
- Sing hymns or spiritual songs
- Frame photos of children you serve in the atrium
- Use group work time as fellowship: discuss blessed moments or troubleshoot difficulties in the atrium
- ALWAYS thank God for the privilege to serve God’s children
Whatever you do, make a decision, and make it a habit. Maybe switch it up if the action loses its power and meaning, but be intentional about making physical space and time for prayer.
Cut figures may need sanding so kids don’t get splinters. It’s good to have some medium or fine sandpaper handy any time you are working with wood. Some prefer sanding sponges or blocks for a good grip, and others prefer the flexibility of paper.
Professional sandpaper has a grit number; the lower the number, the larger the particles to rub your wood. You can start with grit #200 or above. While you’re buying sandpaper, you could also get some #400 grit blocks or a combo pack. Extra fine sandpaper is needed if you want to make sure the pieces are extra smooth after painting or varnishing.
CGS USA recommends non-toxic acrylic paint for your figures. Many woodworkers also add a sealer or primer to the wood before painting.
We started off with a couple sets of Testors Model Paints because they were available in our local Discount DrugMart. Their Primary Dark Colors set is perfect for Middle Eastern skin tone and other base colors. Plus they include a tray and three brushes:
More serious crafters recommended FolkArt brand for acrylics. You can find individual 2-ounce bottles at large specialty craft or paint stores, but if you’re in a rural area like me and rely on bulk online bulk purchasing, try the Bright Colors set. It has a wide range for everything you’ll need, except skin tone.
In addition to the photos in the CGS USA Materials Manual, Pinterest is full of great ideas about how to paint CGS figures. If you upload pins of your finished work, please share with me @mustardseedtraining to join the Boards:
WARNING: You will find vendors selling pre-painted CGS figures. Pre-painted figures are NOT approved by CGS USA.
For further tips on general painting techniques, you can also search YouTube for tutorials on painting wooden toys or clothespin dolls. Here are some personal tips:
- Use masking tape or painter’s tape to cover what you don’t want to paint, in order to make clean lines.
- Brushes matter! A wonky brush will ruin a good project. Faces are important, especially for your level 1 3-6 year old children. Army Painter offers a brush called The Psycho for fine detail. Paint pens are another good option.
- Remember that Jesus was Galilean, a 1st Century Jew in Palestine. He and his disciples would have had darker skin tone and coloring than used in classical European art. As far as I can tell, Sofia & Gianna did not consistently use historically accurate figures in levels 1 & 2, but level 3 for older children does emphasize understanding the historical and religious context of Jesus’ life and teachings.
This is my favorite YouTube video about painting clothespin dolls, including adding arms and clothes if desired. Most of the tips can apply to any 2D or 3D figures:
Assembly is simple!
- Try sliding the figure in without glue first to test the fit. If the figure has any rough edges blocking the way, use sandpaper. Slide the figure out again.
- Squeeze a small amount of super glue or hot glue on the figure or in the slot.
- Slide the figure into the slot. Glue often sets better with a little wiggling.
- Hold the figure in the position you want (anywhere from 10 seconds to 3 minutes). Wood glue may require clamps to hold in place for hours. For clothespins with a little warp, you can push a thick screwdriver into the middle and let it set overnight.
- Once the glue is dry, voila!
Some catechists choose to use varnish or lacquer finish after painting. These typically come in aerosol cans for easy application.
I’m not providing any links to varnish I use because I don’t! While manufacturers claim such finishes are non-toxic when dry, they are not even safe for you to breathe in during application.
Another option to avoid furniture scratches & noise in the atrium is to glue felt on the bottom of your figures and dioramas.
What did the Merchant do once he found his precious pearl?
What did the Woman do when she found her lost coin?
Take some time to see your work through the eyes of a child. Celebrate and enjoy your work. Psalm 90:17 is a suitable prayer for this moment:
“Prosper the work of our hands!
Prosper the work of our hands!”