Toddler/Preschool Bible Stories:
1) I don't think we can overestimate the value of telling a story over and over, even simple stories with pictures or sounds or actions or all of the above. Little people LOVE to hear their favorite stories over and over from the time they're old enough to sit in your lap and look at a board book. As grown-ups we sometimes get tired of reading the same stories over and over but what an opportunity to nurture a love for scripture when the story a child wants to hear over and over is a Bible story!
Toddlers and preschoolers may not come away with deep cognitive understanding but they will remember the emotional experience of being held, being loved, having fun and sharing time with someone who loves them - someone who shares their love of stories. Before long, they will even remember the story. It has great potential to be a positive love-filled association to God and faith.
The child who won't sit still on your lap? Act it out. Pretend. Use stuffed animals or objects instead of pictures to tell the story. Use lots of sounds, not just words and narrative. Get excited, loud, quiet. Tell parts of the story fast and parts of the story slow to build to the important part. Use a puppet on your hand. Use a puppet who doesn't know the story so the child has an active role to play. When you're all done, sit and let the child tell you the story or let each child take a turn adding the next part.
2) Think simple. Take a minute and look at the "concrete" of the story - nouns (people, place, thing), verbs (action words), basic feelings: happy, sad, angry, surprised. Are all the words in the story words that a child can identify, imitate, or show you? Does every word you're using have meaning to the children who are listening to the story? Is it something they've experienced? Think about the simplist form of the story - true to the text. You don't have to totally dumb it down but exploring the words beforehand may give you ideas for ways to enrich the story.
3) How do we give the words in the story meaning? Consider something like a touch table or a word blanket - things to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, identify that represent the words in the story - pictures or objects, sounds, foods. Identify basic people words, (age, gender) identify relationship, (family, friend words) identify job words and associate them with similar people in the lives of your listeners. Identify the basic "thing" words in the story and make sure kids have opportunity to see, hear, touch, taste, smell those things.
Identify elements that make the place of the story unique. If you're talking about a desert turn up the heat. Bring in some sand, some big photo quality pictures or examples of deserts, desert plants, desert animals. No water - no drinks until the very end. Think simple.
What about a mountain? A high place to stand, a miniature world. Cold. Snow. Ice cubes? You get the idea. Maybe, you will say, these things will distract very young children from the story - maybe. But if the story is just meaningless words you may not be internally accomplishing what you think you're accomplishing with your quiet well-behaved listeners.
4) Basic feelings - happy, sad, surprised, mad. Jesus friends were sad when they put him in the tomb. They were surprised when he was gone. Maybe they were angry. They were happy when he was alive. "Someone took Him! Oh, there He is!"
5) Don't forget that the youngest of children will still believe everything you tell them. They still believe all that's true about the stories of scripture in a way that most of us grown-ups don't - even if we believe. We say we believe but I bet you don't believe the same way you did when you were a little child. Do you think God was unintentional when He made us that way? Should we take that away from them and throw all the hard realities of life at them when they're still believing all the good stuff? Faith in it's simplist form is believing what God tells us. The last thing we want to do is clutter a child's heart, mind, and spirit with all the things that challenge or confuse this simple faith. The faith of a little child isn't wrong - just new, clean, uncluttered, unused. Once we pass that stage in life most of us don't get to go back so enjoy it and make the most of it to grow faith.
As you give the words meaning, you give the story meaning. Associations between our lives and the stories of scripture can start at any age and take many forms but think simple. I'm talking about a couple of sensory experiences to give meaning to story words. You're looking to create experiences that give the words in the story meaning - sensory, experiential, emotional meaning at the most basic level without didactic moralizing, explanations, or interpretations. (You could even use simple scripture 2-5 word phrases running through a little child's mind.) Children often use real things when they play and imagine and process their world. That's what you're doing - giving them real things to play, imagine, process their faith in God.
As adults we take our grown-up understanding for granted. We are so intent on teaching concepts and understanding, explaining, interpreting, analysing that sometimes we miss the simple, concrete experiences that are essential to giving meaning to young children. I'm not sure that anyone but God Himself truly understands how child-like faith, imagination, and what is real and true all work together to help us draw near to the Living God in Christ Jesus. I wonder if sharing the simple and keeping it simple doesn't in fact give Father, Son, and Holy Spirit more room to work to make His stories, and ultimately His presence, real.