Where Jesus would put the kids in worship

Churches with a play space in the worship space: so good. (And a hill I’m willing to die on in future pastoral leadership!)

A post shared by Erica Schemper (@eschemper) on Jul 16, 2017 at 10:35am PDT

Last weekend, I posted a picture on instagram of my husband with our two youngest children, playing in the child-friendly “prayground” space at my sister in law’s church. (Shout out to Shepherd of the Valley for general awesomeness.)

I snapped the picture because the light was good, and, in the interest of truth telling, I find my husband doing his amazing work of parenting really sexy, so I wanted a pictorial record of the moment.

I also mentioned that the play space in the sanctuary is a hill I’m willing to die on in future pastoral positions. (Take note, search committees of the future who may be reading my blog posts: if this sounds like a bad idea to you, we’re probably not a good fit.)

The photo was a hit with friends and several have asked me for my input on these sorts of spaces.

Here’s the thing: I can mostly comment as a parent of three kids who has spent a good deal of time sitting in the pews with my kids in last 6 years. Though, I bring a bit of expertise since I happen to have background and training in church ministry with children and families.

But, I have yet to successfully pull off the concept of kids truly having their own space to play in the church, particularly in a place that is sort of up close to the front and visible.

Had I been in full time ministry for the last few years, leaving the Sunday morning pew parenting solely in the (more than capable) hands of my husband, I honestly do not think I would be as adamant about the need for these spaces. I didn’t fully realize, in my first five years of parenting, how difficult it is to parent kids in a way allows them participate and be present in the faith community, because I was up front leading worship, or in the back greasing the gears of programmatic ministry: my husband was the one doing the hard work in the pews.

There are churches that have been doing things to encourage children’s presence in worship for years, and even some that have done so in similar ways to the prayground. As far as I can tell, the prayground concept came to full fruition (or at least got national attention) under the leadership of the Reverend Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, who pastors at Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, MN. Last year, she told fellow members of Young Clergy Women International (at that time, the organization was called the Young Clergy Women Project) that she was developing this space in her sanctuary where kids could play during worship. She asked for help in brainstorming names. Someone suggested “prayground.” Andrea ran with it, got it running in her church, and it was soon featured in an ABC news segment.

Other churches have adopted the concept and the name, including my sister-in-law’s congregation.

To me, the things that qualify something as this prayground concept are:

  1. There are toys. Good toys. Perhaps, even, better toys than the nursery. It’s a place intended for play, and not necessarily for play that directly correlates to worship (though I’ll come back to that later).

  2. It’s in the sanctuary. Not in the Narthex. Not in a room separated by a window (the horribly named, in some churches, “cry room.”)

  3. And, in fact, it’s in a pretty visible place in the congregation. The ideal for me? Up front, between where the bulk of the congregation is sitting and the chancel area, because this gives clear sight lines to the kids, which is essential, and also because this means that people in the congregation see the kids playing.

  4. And, I suppose you could start this in your church without this point, but I think it won’t work without it: the congregation has done the work to start developing a culture where they don’t just tolerate but welcome kids in church. And by welcome, I mean that they actively encourage and support parents in their decision to have their children present in worship even when their children behave like children.

These sorts of spaces are amazing for both kids and parents.

As a parent, it means you get to continue to participate, in a fully embodied way, in the worship life of your congregation. We forget how much of worship parents miss. I would be willing to guess that I have spent at least 30% of my worship time in church in the last 5 years outside of the sanctuary. Before I explain, I attend an incredibly child-welcoming church. A friend who joined there about the same time as I did once told me, “We decided to join this church because nobody shushed our kids.” In nearly five years there, I can tell you that this has been my experience 90% of the time. (There have been a few slip ups by some people, but I’d say 90% of the time is pretty good!) I once even had an elderly woman loud-whisper to me as I was rushing a super-squirmy 2 year old out of the sanctuary, “Don’t leave! We love having him here!” My congregation is doing a good job, and I am delighted to be a part of that community, and they are, most importantly, being the embodied presence of Jesus Christ to my kids.

But, our dedicated play space for kids is in the narthex. So, if I take my kid out to play, because playing the pews is not working for them anymore, I have to leave the pew where the rest of my family is sitting, and I participate in worship through a barrier of glass. I can hear what’s going on through the canned speaker. But it’s a little weird to sing the hymns or participate in responses and prayers without the voices of others surrounding me. It’s not the same.

We also have a nursery. Nurseries are really a good thing. But sometimes my kids want to go down there because that’s where the best toys are. And they have snacks. It’s a fun place. Which is great. But it’s funner than church for my kids, so they want to go there. I would prefer for them to be in church. But sometimes, we wind up in the nursery.

Occasionally, our nursery isn’t staffed or doesn’t have a non-parent, pre-assigned volunteer. Then I have to stay down there. I can turn on the speaker and hear worship. But I can’t see it. And I really can’t participate. Some churches expect parents to be the volunteers who staff the nursery. This feels more like a babysitting co-op than a Christian ministry to me.

Now, I do think nurseries are great sometimes. Some Sundays, I need my kids in the nursery because I really need to be in church or they really are just not able to deal with church.

But I think majority of the time, kids ought to be in worship, in large part because it’s the way they learn how to be in worship.

When my kids are in the sanctuary, they are experiencing worship with all of their senses. Even when it looks like they are not paying perfect attention (because they are playing with something else or reading or coloring), they are picking up the sights or the smells or the sounds. They learn the rhythm of liturgy. I’ve caught my 2 year old muttering parts of the liturgy that she’s heard Sunday after Sunday. (In fact, I once had some people giving me the side eye when they thought she was just being noisy while the pastor was praying, but she was actually speaking right along with him, parroting his lines because she had heard them week in and week out, and she hadn’t figured out yet that this was his part, not hers…or, to frame it another way, maybe my 2 year old is developing a call to the ministry!)

The point of the prayground concept is not just to keep kids in worship so that their parents can stay in worship, it’s to keep in them in worship so that they can absorb as much as possible of the worship service.

I mean, let’s be honest. Very few adults pay perfect attention through the entire worship service. I know this is true because I’ve been up front leading worship often enough to notice people looking distracted, and I’ve been a worshipper myself enough to know that I get distracted! (Sometimes, I even get bored during my own sermons.) Children aren’t going to be able to track the entire service, but they will pick up on many many things if they are present.

This is why I don’t even think it’s essential that toys be directly, thematically related to worship. Building with blocks (those foam ones are great because they are very quiet when they fall down!), rolling play dough, or cuddling a stuffed animal might be the thing a kid’s hands are doing, but their brain is still paying attention to what’s happening around them. Obviously, a singing doctor’s kit (no, really: this is a real thing, and it’s my 2 year old’s favorite toy at home) is not going to be appropriate for a space like this. But I’m sure parents of kids have ideas about the toys that they would love to have around for their kids for quiet play. In fact, some of them might already be lugging their own toys to church for play in the pew (by the way, it’s really hard to play in a pew…), and they would probably love not having to add “pack toys” to their list of Sunday morning tasks.

I mean, think about it: what if the toys up in the sanctuary were the best toys in the building? The ones kids wanted to play with? I know worship isn’t about toys, but for a four year old, the memory of church having great toys would actually translate well developmentally to a long term understanding that church is a good and delightful place where they are welcome to come and be themselves.

Because staying in worship allows children to participate with all their senses, I would say that the best place to put a play area is toward the front. If they can’t see what’s happening (because they’re in the back), they miss out on that valuable visual information.

And having kids in front is a good thing for everyone else, too. Children are part of the body of Christ. We shouldn’t hide them. We should celebrate their presence. Even Jesus told his disciples that the children should be close to the action.

Finally, we need to adjust our attitudes about children in worship if this is going to work for many congregations. Kids won’t be completely silent. Not every parent will make the same judgment call about when a kid maybe needs to take a minute to cool down in the narthex. We might have to modify the ways those of us who lead worship do things. (For instance, maybe we have to be OK with the idea that a kid might pipe up and interrupt a silent prayer; maybe we need to recognize that our preaching is absolutely inaccessible to an 8 year old, so of course they are bored, and modify things a bit…) Last Sunday, my two year old was in that play space at her aunt’s church and she discovered that there was a toy box whose lid she had not yet opened. She picked up the lid, and she looked inside (puzzles! There were puzzles!) and she yelled, “It’s a TREASURE CHEST!” She did this during a time when the flow of the service was pretty quiet. So everyone heard it. My husband, who was then sitting in the congregation, said that people around him chuckled, and he heard a few mutter, “Yes. It really is.”

So, if you were going to do this at your church, what would it look like? How would you set it up? You might have to rip out some pews, or change the configuration of some chairs. You might need to poke through the catalogues that preschools get with wonderful pieces of furniture for displaying books or little shelves that fold and roll if you have to put things away during the week. You might need to make a trip to buy some brightly colored children’s size furniture that doesn’t exactly match the church decor. You will probably have to talk a bit to people in the congregation who might have some questions and feelings about this.

But I think it would be worth it, even if it’s struggle. Many of my clergy colleagues say that the sound of children in church is important, because it’s a sign that we are fulfilling our baptismal promises. It’s a sign that we’re not dying. It’s a sign that the Church will go on.

So, let’s do this. Let’s get children into worship, and make spaces that make it easy for them, and for the people who are caring for them, to stay with the body as much as possible. After all, Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.”