In seminary we were given some sort of vague familiarity (or at least knowledge of) the so-called “Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with Children” that had been composed as an option for the Novus Ordo at Masses where the majority present were children. I think I had even seen one of them used “in the wild” on one occasion. And I was sure that they were not the right approach.
Therefore, from the time that I was ordained to the present, I have never used them, even when it has been requested of me. Now, the temptation in these circumstance is to go ahead and use the shortest Eucharistic Prayer — the second one, the one that I suppose is most often heard at daily Mass (but in many places, sadly, even on Sundays). The idea behind such a compromise is that children have short attention spans and generally find Mass boring; so get it over with, already!
However, at some point early on I decided to try something different: I used the Roman Canon, the first Eucharistic Prayer — also the oldest one. In fact, the Roman Canon was the only Eucharistic Prayer in the Roman Church for well over a millennium. Although the fourth Eucharistic Prayer of the Novus Ordo — a fairly rare bird that, it seems to me at least, is even less commonly used now under the new translation — is probably just as long if not longer, we can say that among the choices most commonly used today, the Roman Canon is the longest.
So it goes against the compromise/wisdom above that suggests that what the kids need is something quick.
Although I do not always use the Roman Canon in school Masses and the like (in one case, because everyone has to kneel on a gym floor), I have used it fairly often with school groups and other groups of children. And with no problem. Why is that?
My theory is that the particular features of the Roman Canon more readily pique the interest and imagination of children. For one, there are the two lists of saints: one before the consecration and one after. “Who are all these people?” “Why do we mention their names specifically?” “Hey! I know someone named Cecilia!” “I know someone named Jude!” Etc… These are what I imagine to be some of the thoughts that children might have while those names are being read.
There is also the fact of the greater variety of gestures in the Roman Canon. Within its opening paragraphs the celebrant traces the sign of the cross over the gifts on the altar. He pauses and joins his hands in prayer at the commemoration of the living and the commemoration of the deceased — before and after the consecration, respectively. After the consecration, he bows profoundly with hands joined on the edge of the altar, begging God to receive in heaven what has been offered on earth, by the hands of his holy Angel. (What a marvelous mental image for children to work with!)
Finally, the “register” of the Roman Canon — the level of language used — is richer than in the other prayers. This is especially noticeable since the new translation. “He took bread in his holy and venerable hands”…”He took this precious chalice”…”this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim”…. The greater beauty of the text, particularly when pronounced well and with reverence, surely has a splendid effect on the minds and hearts of innocent (or mostly innocent!) children.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says that the Roman Canon or “First Eucharistic Prayer” may always be used (no. 365). There is also the important directive of no. 42, which helps us to stay rooted in our tradition: “Attention must therefore be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice.” My contention is that the more frequent use of the Roman Canon (I try to use it at least on Sundays and Holy Days in my parish), especially with groups of children, is a spiritually good and traditional practice that priests should pursue in the Novus Ordo.
You can review the texts of the four main Eucharistic Prayers on this site.