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The Hands by Which We Take Hold of Heaven

The Hands by Which We Take Hold of Heaven

“I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Luke 18:17 (New Living Translation)

Jesus had a special affinity for children. It’s easy to see why. You can’t plan what they’ll do next. Can’t predict the words that will come from their mouths. Can’t envision what mischief and light-heartedness they’ll deliver on a whim. Can’t imagine the selfless beauty that lies within their hearts, and the precise moments they will deliver nuggets of unabashed wisdom and humbling insight to those who are blessed to hear.

That’s why, amid all the guidance adults provide, there comes a time to put the weight of the world aside and think like a child. What storyline will light up their eyes? What beautifully crafted detail will stick in their minds for years to come? What ambiance will transport them from feelings of separation anxiety most quickly when mom and dad leave for the main service? What well thought-out nook will keep them coming back to explore for months and years to come?

The most inviting church children’s spaces help hold kids’ attention, give them room to explore and imagine, and give staff and volunteers a place to make a difference, for God, in the life of a child. For those planning, upgrading or simply refreshing children’s areas, Worship Facilities Magazine sought out the input of some dedicated designers to learn how best a church facility can speak to a child.

Indoors Meets Outdoors

“In 2010, it would be fantastic to get our children out of the basement or the oft-neglected leftover spaces that we unfortunately turn into places for learning and play,” says Sharon Exley, president of Chicago-based ArchitectureIsFun Inc., a developer of architecture, interiors, exhibits and interpretive experiences for children, families and communities.

“We should be thinking about sustainable spaces, especially for children, that can provide natural light and connections to the outdoors. We should stop thinking about creating classrooms and begin to consider adaptable spaces that are age and developmentally appropriate,” Exley continues. “In 2010, we should [seek to create] sophisticated and smart architecture for children that will reflect their interests and spark spirituality.”

And she adds, “Let’s think about spirit, play and imagination as qualitative elements, which should uplift and transform the ordinary, dreary Sunday school classroom that has become ubiquitous.”

ArchitectureIsFun is credited with creating the children’s ministry at Granger Community Church in Granger, Ind., including its “Big Fish” environment, which is lit by softly spouting fiber optics positioned under color-changing waves—a space that transports children to a church world of wonder and learning. “Children arrive by sliding down into the Big Fish, which becomes a beautifully illuminated place of purposeful play,” Exley describes.

David Pfeifer, principal with Domusstudio Architecture of San Diego, echoes Exley’s belief that children’s spaces should connect inside with outside. He notes that while program approaches and teaching philosophy will change and adapt in relation to future technologies, a child’s need to connect with the outdoors will remain universal.

“The spaces [of 2010] are being tailored to the constant and fixed physiological needs of children, such as appropriate scale, atmosphere, security/control, visual connectivity with the outdoors/nature,” Pfeifer says. In addition, he notes that the provision of natural ventilation, access to views and day lighting are paramount in the design of children’s spaces—enriching the body, soul, mind and sense of wonder.

As part of its commitment to blending interior children’s spaces with exterior, Domusstudio Architecture has sometimes partnered with Landscape Architecture specialists. As Pfeifer reports, “In recent years we have developed spaces with Deneen Powell Atelier, landscape architecture [San Diego], that not only serve as play spaces, but challenge the children’s imagination and garner a sense of exploration and discovery. These spaces are populated with places to dig, climb, spray, stack; basically play, but also passively enrich their developmental skills.”

At the Village Community Presbyterian Church in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., for example, Domusstudio Architecture’s team used natural materials and forms as part of the playscape environment. Climbing boulders, fallen logs, sunken tunnels, and grassy hills, Pfeifer reports, “all form a fun and enriching environment for the children to play and grow.”

Technology Sparks the Senses

Ben Mankin, president of Nashville, Tenn.’s Mankin Media Systems, a company that offers advice and guidance to churches wanting to create compelling spaces, also believes that precious church space should be thought of differently when it comes to children. Yet he focuses primarily on church interiors, and how technology is supplementing and sometimes changing space design.

“[A] room concept we are using is the mini-stage, where instead of having multiple classrooms with 20 elementary kids all gathered around a table or sitting in neat rows of folding chairs, [there are] rooms that can hold 100 elementary students with a small stage at one end,” Mankin says. “There on that stage is acted out [Bible stories and lessons] by video, live actors, or a dynamic storyteller using props and engaging a large group of kids.”

According to Mankin, this concept is playing out well in a new children’s space the company completed at First Christian Church in Huntington Beach, Calif. In this space, an area known as “The Pier” features stages for different age groups that are themed to tell different stories while engaging children in a space that feels personally like their own—more than a traditional classroom can deliver.

Jonathan Martin, president and owner of Jonathan Martin Creative in Tulsa, Okla., says that new lighting technologies in particular are helping churches’ themed children’s areas stand out. “Lighting is a big key. We hit our 2D and 3D environments with LED lights that you can aim and shoot and pick the colors, and that just makes everything pop. It comes alive.”

Stephen R. Boyd, associate and project manager with ADW Architects P.A. in Charlotte, N.C., a company that provides church master planning, space needs analysis, and comprehensive design of new facilities, also finds that audio-visual and lighting technologies are influencing the design of children’s spaces—particularly assembly spaces such as auditoriums—helping to add flexibility and keep these areas fresh for little eyes and ears.

“As A/V/L technologies play an ever-increasing role in children’s ministries, acoustical requirements and the placement of equipment such as projectors, screens, monitors, speakers, and theatrical lighting are [having] an even greater influence on the layout of children’s assembly spaces,” Boyd says.

As an example of design and A/V/L requirements working hand-in-hand in a children’s space—much as these elements have done throughout the past 10+ years so prevalently in adult worship spaces—Boyd points to ADW’s work at Matthews, N.C.’s Carmel Baptist Church. Here, “the children’s main worship space … was designed to incorporate A/V/L elements and theming, while maintaining seating flexibility,” he reports, so the assembly space can be used for a variety of church events, such as theater and even meals.

As part of the move Boyd foresees toward enhanced flexibility in children’s spaces, he reports that from 2010 on out he expects to see specific changes in lighting. “We anticipate the increased use of dimmable fluorescent lighting within nursery and child classrooms to help define flexible activity areas,” he says.

Donnie Haulk, president of Charlotte, N.C.’s Audio Ethics Inc., a company that specializes in worship and presentation technology design and implementation, foresees technological special effects adding to children’s worship experiences moving forward. “Even holographic Bible characters will be a commonly used technology in the future for our children,” he says.

Theming Never Tires

While levels and degrees of theming may vary from church to church, Reagan Hillier, president of Argyle, Texas-based Worlds of Wow, a creator of themed church destinations for kids, finds theming melding more and more with the growing use of A/V/L technologies in children’s spaces.

“There is definitely a rising trend in using A/V/L components to deliver the ‘wow factor.’ We love to incorporate them because it gives us flexibility in what the scene or backdrop will be from week to week,” Hillier says.

In a children’s destination that Worlds of Wow created at Shoreline Church in Austin, Texas, for example, the company used a wall-to-wall screen backdrop for elementary worship that Hillier describes as “second to none.”

Shoreline uses a large screen backdrop and front projection so the scene is always changing and moving behind the children’s worship leader. “Every week can be a new destination for the large [children’s] group worship,” Hillier describes.

While Bruce Barry, president and founder of Wacky World Studios in Oldsmar, Fla., a full-service theming and design company, finds that there are some new design components to consider for children’s spaces in 2010, and he reports that church leaders are best served by making sure they do one thing, no matter what materials, designs, themes or components they choose: “The biggest thing is to make sure they have a plan and stick to it. In a model home, for example, everything flows from carpet to linens to curtains, it’s cohesive. So I put upon churches to make sure their [children’s space] design is cohesive and flows through the look and feel.”

In a Calvary, Canada, church project, Wacky World Studios created an under-the-sea theme, for example, that is well thought-out down to the smallest detail. “We used water lights under the sea, a 3D wrecked ship, and the check-in counter is a treasure chest,” Barry describes. “It feels like you’re under the sea, and then it transitions from above the sea to the boardwalk.”

In terms of technology intertwining with theming, Barry reports that lighting plays a large part and helps add flexibility to the look. “We added lighting special effects by incorporating LED lighting into our 2D relief and 3D structures,” he says. “You can change around the treasure chest with different Bible verses.”

Design & Content Go Hand-in-Hand

No matter the manner or level of engagement a church chooses to create within its children’s worship spaces, most designers and kids’ worship leaders agree, content is ultimately what will keep families bringing their children back to church each week.

As Todd Phillippi, president of Penndel, Pa.’s WPH Architects for Ministry, a facility planning, architecture, interior and landscape design company, says, “The [children’s ministry] space can help foster excitement about being there, but the content is what will cause families to stay—when they see their children impacted in positive ways rather than simply being entertained for an hour.”

Barry agrees. “I can go in and create Disney World … but it you don’t have the staff, curriculum, the volunteers and happy, friendly people, I don’t care what I put in there, it’s not going to grow. I tell pastors to marry my work with great curriculum and positive people, music and atmosphere. Then watch out, it will explode.”

Martin closes with these words of wisdom: “When it comes to creating children’s spaces, don’t be afraid to be a trail-blazer. Don’t just copy what other churches have done…. But make sure your children’s space fits your ministry overall. This is art, though, and it comes secondary to teaching and curriculum.”

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