Explore the story with your Nativity set


Home is the perfect place to have a nativity scene which children can play with. Often sets are so beautiful and delicate that they aren’t appropriate for children’s touch, which is a shame. Play is a wonderful way for children of all ages (and adults!) to explore the meaning of this incredible story–the one which changed everything–when God became human and lived with us.

I think children are capable of great spiritual things and are less inhibited than most adults. For example, when my daughter was 2 years old I saw her very gently kissing the 3cm image of baby Jesus in a manger in a picture. How beautiful! It would be easy to miss or dismiss such behaviours. Perhaps that was her way to worship?

Nativity sets for babies and toddlers:

The Christmas my daughter was 18 months old, I invested in a child-friendly nativity set. She already loved having the story read to her from The Christmas Bible Storybook, a lovely re-telling, perfect for under 3s. I chose a simple, wooden set which was also handmade and Fairtrade, which I liked. I put it on display but on a low table to invite play. The first day I told the Holy Family story from Godly Play, a beautiful version of the Christmas story ending in wondering questions. Then she was off—play being her primary language—she played her way through that Christmas and many afterward using nativity sets.

Another year, I volunteered to tell the Christmas story with the children at my daughters’ nursery. There was a three-year-old boy who could hardly sit through the story who afterwards produced some of the most dynamic and interesting play, creating a cathedral-esque stable for the tiny Christ child.

Other ideas for encouraging play:

  1. Combine more than one nativity set together and invite your children to add additional things from the house or their toys. Many children will do this naturally, but if not ask them who or what they might like to add to the set. Often children will add themselves in some form, or other characters they have heard mentioned in other versions of the story. Instead of being super-keen on a Biblically accurate version, this is a good time opportunity chat about what each character brings to the story, where you and they might be in the story, which part of the story might be especially for you and them this year. It’s fab to be able to really connect with the story and allow God to speak through the narrative, even the additional bits.
  2. Set out new pieces each week in Advent. One year I did this and having new pieces each week meant I could tell that part of the story with them, and they got to play with those characters for a whole week. I then added new ones, but didn’t remove the old ones, so we ended up with it all out. I put out Mary and Joseph and the angel in week 1, baby Jesus in week 2, shepherds in week 3 and the wise men in week 4.

Nativity sets for older children:

As your kids get a bit older you may wonder if they will continue to use the nativity set. Here are a few ideas to encourage your bigger kids to keep playing!

  1. Use it to act out the Christmas story as you read it from the Bible
  2. Loan the characters out to people, e.g., take the characters on “outings” to school or church
  3. Take photos of your set and use them to make your Christmas cards or decorations for your tree
  4. Make a mini video of the story using a camera or mobile phone with your characters in the starring roles
  5. Make your own Christmas book using photos of scenes from the story.
  6. Use your nativity scene to help you spend a few minutes thanking God for sending Jesus. You could put each piece into place one at a time, thanking God for that part of the story as you do so. You could especially thank God for the things in the story which you’d forgotten or noticed that you hadn’t noticed before
  7. Invent your own Advent game. I know of one family who sets their scene up during December and move the characters around the house, gradually arriving at the nativity scene. Anyone is allowed to move the characters, but no one is allowed to be seen moving them. This family is still playing this even though all the “children” are now adults!
  8. Allow everyone in your family to “adopt” a different character each week. At some point, tell the story together, with each person telling their part. Ask each other questions like, “How do you think your character felt when that happened?” or “What did your character expect to happen?”
  9. Make nativity sets using peg dolls, Playmobil or Lego.
  10. Put out part of a set in the first week of Advent, then continue to add to it. This works well with sets where you can add lots of non-nativity-set-specific pieces, such as Play Mobil. See more on that here