Just over a month ago, millions of Muslims took to Mecca to carry out the pilgrimage that’s been going on in some way or another for thousands and thousands of years.
As someone with no firsthand knowledge of visiting Mecca, I knew I needed to learn about it and inshallah educate H in the process.
I was fortunate enough to work with ICNA Relief- Calgary’s Little Muslim’s Library to bring to life a story program for children aged 4-8 to learn about Hajj; the history, the rites and the significance of this glorious journey.
In preparing for this session, I learned much more than I anticipated and something was awakened in my heart. It was also a great opportunity to spend some one-on-one time with H. She was so excited to do something together without Y. She actually wanted to help with the storytelling (inshallah she will have the chance to in the future) and went as far as insisting we wear our matching outfits.
Because of time and logistical constraints, I was only able to consult resources I already had at home, including a handbook from the popular Weekend Ilm Intensive classes from a course I attended in the past. However, I did come across cool and innovative things I hope to use in the future, including Hajj-themed image files that can be purchased and downloaded online.
And with the intention of benefitting as many people as possible (I know that many people are trying to start children’s programs in their own communities), here’s what I did:
Duration of program– The program was advertised as a 2-hour program. Even though I knew it would not take this long, I wanted to factor in for lateness and for the children to have a chance to work at their own pace and socialize with each other. I knew that for children like my daughter, this was a rare opportunity to be in a traditionally Islamic space and among this many other Muslim children.
Age of participants and maximum capacity– I was intentional about the age of participants and the limit of how many children we would accept based on past experiences and my own need for calm. The program was designed to be an unparented experience for children between the ages of 4-8 however if younger siblings were attending, a parent had to stay and supervise them. I wanted between 12-15 children so we accepted 20 because there are always last minute cancellations. This approach worked out as we had 12 children that fell into that age range, one toddler and two 9-year old volunteers. Had the program been designed for younger children, it would have been structured differently and would definitely have been shorter.
Format of program– From my experience working with children (and people in general), I know that it’s important to appeal to various learning styles. I make it a point in my story programs to not just read a book, but instead appeal to children’s visual, auditory and bodily senses. That means that in my programs, there is a good chance that children will listen, speak, chant or sing as well as move around. I also like to include opportunities for creative expression when possible.
Room set-up – The room was divided into informal areas that supported the order of the program. There was a sign-in table outside where children received a name tag and parents communicated important information (including allergies). This space was in the same area as the actual little library, piquing the children’s interest.
Once the children entered, they were invited to pick from a variety of pre-printed activity pages that were clearly displayed at one end of the room. The children took their pages and sat at one of the three tables that were set up with chairs and colouring utensils. This gave the children something to do while we waited for everyone to arrive. The space in the middle was left open to allow for movement and an allocated space for a more intimate experience during the actual storytelling.
Volunteers– Even before our program formally started, I could hear the children sharing knowledge with each other as they made new friends. The addition of the two 9-year old volunteers turned out to be a great symbiotic relationship. The younger children had less-intimidating people they could connect with and look up to. It also allowed the 9-year-olds to review their own knowledge and develop their leadership abilities as well as help their self-esteem by feeling valued. The sister volunteer from ICNA Relief Calgary not only helped me organize the program, but she set up the room, took care of the registration and lead the craft. She was also on standby in case I needed an extra pair of adult hands (a few parents stayed for the program and they were able to help too).
Delivery of the program– I formally started the program by inviting everyone to sit with me. I introduced myself and invited the children to share any thoughts or ideas they had before I began our first story. I was pleased to see that H shared something that she didn’t know earn from me, but from one of the volunteers just moments before.
The first story was told orally and was essentially based on the life of Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him. I wanted the children to have a point of reference for the different rites of Hajj when we learned about them later in the program. In retelling the story, I emphasized certain aspects like how special it was that God had taken Abraham for a friend, and I had been more cautious about the idea of sacrifice, making sure to avoid words like “kill”. It’s always a challenge to present complex ideas to young, impressionable minds that are still developing and prone to fear. I didn’t go into specifics and was mindful of the direction that the volunteers may take the discussion so I did not call on them during this sensitive time.
The second story was one that I had created to introduce children to the different aspects/steps of Hajj. It was framed around a young girl who’s parents would be making the Hajj pilgrimage, her feelings about missing them and what her parents would be doing while they were gone.
I wanted this story to have visual aids and told it in an interactive style. I found images that fit the story and printed and laminated them before sticking magnets on the back. I used a dry erase marker (and big magnetic white board) to tell the story, using the marker to show the physical path that the pilgrims took and accentuating ideas like going around the Kaaba seven times (I circled the picture on the whiteboard seven times, inviting children to count out loud with me). The children also joined me at points throughout to recite the talbiyah (the prayer often made during the Hajj).
This story gave the children a pretty good overview about the steps of Hajj. To review the steps (and to get up and move around) we sang a song called “We will all go to Mecca on the Hajj” to the tune of “She’ll be Coming around the Mountain”. This is a song I found floating around online (you can find it on google), but added lyrics and amended some of the existing ones to better suit my purposes (to better match the story and so the children could learn the Arabic names of the different parts of Hajj). We added actions to all of the parts of the song. The younger children really seemed to enjoy this part of the program.
While the children were standing, we demonstrated how to wrap an ihram.
We then talked about how Hajj is not an easy journey and how it takes a lot of planning and a sincere intention. We read a beautiful book called Yan’s Hajj: The Journey of a Lifetime by Fawzia Gilani. This book makes me tear up every time I read it. I had actually pre-ordered it from Amazon in the spring.
The next step involved the lovely volunteer from ICNA who gave children bookmarks to decorate however they chose. She laminated the bookmarks for the children to take home with them. Once the children finished, they were free to continue colouring their pages, browse the books or re-enact the stories.
On their way out, children were given a snack. It was a bag of popcorn decorated like a sheep. I had come across this cute DIY idea a few years ago and had added it to my daughter and niece’s Eid al Adha gift basket. I thought it would be a simple, nice thing to send the kids home with.
All in all, the program felt like it was a success. We received good feedback from the kids and parents. I know I saw the themes from the program continuing in my daughter’s own play in the weeks to come.
For example, my daughter and niece were playing in their grandparent’s backyard. It has an open gutter running through it so that rainwater can drain. They were running back and forth counting out loud, pretending they were doing the sa’ee and that the water from the gutter was the spring of zam zam. I also heard them singing bits and pieces of the song and asking to play with the story magnets.
A big thank you to ICNA Relief Calgary who has been supportive of the various initiatives I have approached them with. I was so impressed by how well organized the program was- they put so much effort into the registration process, setting up the room perfectly and creating the props I envisioned (sourcing the ihram, creating the Kaaba and prepping activity pages was all them!)
I look forward to doing more story times sessions throughout the course of the year.