Given a choice, most children prefer the local hamburger joint to a fancy five-star restaurant. Why? A fun but safe playground, chairs that are the right size, and bright colors might have something to do with it.
Now take a look around your church. The food you serve your youngsters' souls is more important than any hamburger they will ever eat. But is your children's church environment as attractive and safe as the nearest fast-food chain?
"The children's area of the church should be unique and designed especially with children in mind," says Dale Hudson. Dale Hudson, Director of Children's Ministry at Christ Fellowship Church in Palm Beach, Florida, knows a lot about environment and its effect on ministry. He remembers the impact of environment at a church he used to work at, First Baptist Church in Springdale, Arkansas, which built two age-appropriate children's areas, Toon Town for the younger ones and Space Place for the older group, attendance by children doubled to more than 500 per week and hundreds have been saved he says.
"The environments we created help capture the kids' attention and draw them into the message we are trying to communicate each week," Hudson says.
Church Meets Disneyland
Dale Hudson had a big vision for the children's worship space at First Baptist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. To make his vision a reality, Hudson approached a top designer of children's amusement rides, Bruce Barry. Barry had designed the E.T. ride at Universal Studios and stage sets for Nickelodeon.
Barry, not yet a Christian, didn't really need the work, but his love for children drew him to the project. He accepted Hudson's offer. As he worked at the church, God's love worked on him. Barry and his wife became Christians and were baptized the same month the new worship spaces opened.
There are two children's areas, each age-specific. "I believe it is very important to have age-appropriate environments for today's children," Hudson says. "Today's pre-teens are a world apart from a kindergartner or a first grader. We have recognized the needs of each age and tried to create a unique, appropriate environment for them."
Toon Town is for first through third graders. Entering the room is like entering a different world, full of animation, 26-foot-tall buildings, puppet stages, lights, bright colors, and video games. The room has pipes that blow out confetti, a water tower bucket that overflows and pours bubbles down on the kids, a prize booth, a firehouse with a hammer that rings a big bell, cars that honk and flash their headlights, an oversized working stoplight, and a tv shop with glowing neon wires and moving satellite dishes. "It is almost like going on a ride at Disneyland," Hudson says.
The Space Place, with its outer space theme, was designed to appeal to fourth and fifth graders. It features cutting-edge video games, a giant space painting, disco lights, and lots of posters of Christian musicians.
"It is an environment that our preteens feel comfortable in," he says.
Start with the Walls
Not every church will be able to do what First Baptist did, but church staff can make good decisions when choosing furnishings for children's areas.
Many recently built churches have large multi-use spaces, so it may be hard to create a separate children's area. However, several types of partitions are available to subdivide a large space, like the fellowship hall, into smaller classrooms.
Screenflex offers a unique product that contains 32 feet of flexible partition stored inside a portable cabinet that doubles as a workspace and storage container. No teacher will have to carry materials around in milk crates anymore. "In seconds you can divide large areas into smaller, semiprivate areas," says Rich Maas, vice president of Screenflex. Decorations can be affixed to the partitions, using staples or tacks, so each room can be personalized. Screenflex offers "no-poke-through" hinges for safety, Maas adds, so that children on one side of the partition can't stick their fingers through to bother children on the other side.
Chuck Topping, president of Curtition, which makes folding walls and accordion partitions, notes several factors to consider when purchasing a partition. First, consider how location affects sound rating. If a partition divides a children's play area from an adult teaching room, a higher sound rating (better soundproofing) may be needed.
Second, churches need to consider whether their building has the required support structure overhead to accommodate a track and hold up the weight of the wall. A folding wall with a high sound rating can weigh as much as 12 pounds per square foot.
You should also pay attention to the covering or "skin" of a partition. Vinyl wears best, and steel skins make the most sense for high-use areas, such as gymnasiums.
If you need a curved divider, consider a curvilinear, lightweight, semi-rigid space divider from Versipanel LLC. Lee Stevenson, president and chief executive officer of Versipanel LLC, notes that his space divider is extra safe for children's areas since it has no mechanical parts.
"There is no framework system to trip over, crawl over, or crawl under, and no sharp corners of any kind," he says.
Carpet for Kids
Consider using multiple colors to coordinate with the walls and to help distinguish different areas and age groups. You'll also want to choose a design, usually a multicolored design, that will effectively hide the inevitable juice spills. When choosing carpet colors, consider your audience (children) not their parents, says Hudson. He observes that what kids like may not appeal to adults. Adults may remark, "My, that sure is bright," while their children say, "Wow, this is cool."
Kid-friendly Tables and Chairs
After deciding on partitions and carpeting, make sure you've got enough money available to buy furniture. Leftover adult furniture shouldn't be donated to the children's area. Children need furniture that is built to fit their growing sizes.
"If you walk into a Sunday school class and see a child sitting in a chair swinging his legs, you know that the chair isn't comfortable [for the child]," says Michael Sammons, owner of Church Chair Industries. "To prevent squirming, you need a comfortable chair."
Since children's areas are likely to have crafts and food, Sammons suggests choosing molded plastic chairs or two-piece plastic chairs over the traditional upholstered varieties found in the adult areas. Children's seat heights start at 8 inches and go up to 18 inches, the height of an adult chair.
Consider activity tables in novelty shapes for the younger children. Midwest Folding Products offers children's adjustable tables with a plywood core and laminate top.
Also, check warranties. Particleboard tables often have a one-year or five-year warranty, while a table with a plywood core may have a ten-year warranty.
For preschool children and those in the first years of elementary school, use adjustable tables with heights ranging from 17 to 22 inches. Older children can use standard adjustable tables with heights ranging from 22 to 29 inches or a basic folding table. Choose tabletops in attractive colors that can both enhance the aesthetics of a classroom and separate different age or interest groups.
McCourt Manufacturing makes activity tables with adjustable legs in height ranges from 15 to 22 inches to 22 to 31 inches. McCourt's tables come in five colors or wood grains, and a variety of shapes are available—rectangle, round, kidney, flower, clover, horseshoe, and trapezoid.
The Nursery: Keep in Touch
In addition to the standard children's furnishings, you will need to have specialized nursery equipment for infants.
Safety and convenience are two good reasons to consider a communications system that allows you to quickly find parents whose children are in the nursery. JTECH Communications offers several types of silent paging systems that allow parents to enjoy services with the peace of mind that they can be contacted in case of a problem. Vibrating, numeric, and alphanumeric pagers are available.
"The prices for these systems vary depending on the number and type of pagers needed. Our average system runs between $2,500 and $3,000," Marion Raymundo, marketing communications manager for JTECH, says.
Finally, exciting extras will enhance your children's church environment.
"Children in your community have PlayStations, X-Boxes, cable TV with cartoons 24 hours a day, Disney World, Chuck E. Cheese, the Internet, and a host of other things," Hudson says. "Beige walls and flannelgraph are not going to make the cut with them." For this visual generation, children's ministries should make use of DVDs, PowerPoint presentations, and other technologies, he says.
All to say, then, that while the children's area may not be at the top of your church budget, it is often the first place new families visit on Sunday mornings. A welcoming children's area attracts not only children but also their parents. As you build your children's ministry, you're building your entire church body.
Jennifer Schuchmann is a management consultant, who formerly worked in sales and marketing for church-management software.