Most churches are keenly aware of the role that children's facilities play in the ability of the ministry to serve families, but how long has it been since you toured your own hallskeeping in mind the perspective of someone who is much younger (and shorter) than you?
"In working with children's ministries across the country, I see all over the board from high-end spaces to modest ones," says Greg Baird of KidMin360 in San Diego, a consulting firm that helps with staffing, training and coaching. "When I am working with a church, I encourage them to do three things to the maximum that [are] in their reach." Baird's three things are as follows:
Visitors, new parents and first time families are drawn to colorful, child-friendly spaces that communicate that the church cares about kids. This can be as simple as painted walls to as elaborate [as] 3D murals and play structures.
The best children's facilities go beyond the visual. How does the space sound? Is there music playing? How does the space smell?
Are the facilities age-appropriate? Do the two-year-olds have tiny chairs? Does the space for the 5th graders make them feel good about themselves? Is there linoleum where there needs to be easy cleanup for art projects or food?
"Whatever you can do in terms of these three areas, you should do to the financial level possible," Baird adds.
Current Movements and Technologies
"We find that churches grow when they reach out to kids," says Richard Carver, founder and CEO of Little Mountain Productions in Tulsa, Okla. "The trend is away from the birds and butterflies of 18 years ago. Now we see more imagination art' that is tuned to both boys and girls. We are also seeing lighter colors that are very contemporary. Clean looks with just enough artworkit isn't overdone."
Acoustic panels, too, are working to serve double duty, as functional art pieces. "They can be updated every few years simply by reprinting the graphics and re-skinning the elements," Carver adds.
3D animation companies that serve churches are reporting a trend toward balancing security, function and the wow factor in children's spaces. "They want their children's facilities to feature shapes, colors, characters and themed environments that resonate with children but are also practical," reports Nolan Menefee of Tulsa, Okla.-based Creation Animation Studios. "We are typically involved on the front end to help the ministry visualize the spaces, but it is really fun to see it when it is open and the kids get to go climb around on it. Most of what we are seeing at the moment are renovations and facility expansions. There is also a lot of repurposing of buildings like strip malls or grocery stores that have closed down, which is less expensive than new construction and frees more resources for design and ministry purposes."
"Three years ago we began introducing digital puppetry as a live action interactive," Carver adds. "We call them Power Puppets.' The character is onscreen and interacts with the children while the teacher controls what the puppet says and does. Because the character is on screen, he can show up anywhere. For example, the character may interact with a child at check-inmaybe ask about her red shoes or talk about a team jersey, then also be present on the screen in the worship space. We've created over 16 characters for clients to choose from."
Utilizing technology for digitally savvy kids is going beyond the typical audio-visual and lighting needed for presentation spaces. One kinetic technology that has been popular in malls, movie theaters and hotels is Reactrix's Stepscape. Stepscape projects an image onto the floor and people can "step" on the images, causing it to react. Typically the technology is sold to grab the attention of passersby and draw them into interacting with a brand, but it can also be used in children's facilities. Of course, ministries have to balance the cost of the technology with the amount of time it will hold a child's attention. A less expensive kinetic technology is the Xbox Kinect that offers a host of child-appropriate games available that will react to children's movements.
Indoor play equipment is another investment that churches can make. To get something durable and popular for a variety of age groups can be a challenge and can easily run over $100,000. Before investing in play equipment, it is a good idea to speak with other ministries to find out which pieces worked for them and what they would do differently. Sometimes the approach to a play space can be really simple, like staining a concrete floor and putting up a basketball hoop to a child-appropriate level.
Churches with tighter budgets may find themselves taking a do-it-yourself approach. "There are some great resources out there like creativeforkids.com [that] provide things you can implement yourself," encourages Baird. "One opportunity that children's ministries often miss is the chance to communicate a strong vision with consistent logos, colors and themed elements in a way that wraps it all together. This starts in the facility and unites web, printed materials and signageall of the communication. "
Many churches need their children's spaces to be multipurpose. Companies like Church on Wheels based in Madera, Calif., and Portable Church Industries of Troy, Mich., specialize in supplies that can be pulled out and packed awayeven if you have a permanent space. Churches either with or without permanent spaces can also consider using large-format graphics that can be dead hung and easily flipped to switch from a kid-friendly vibe to a more adult or youth look. This can also be done with metal tracks and curtainssimilar to what photography studios do when changing backgrounds.
“Find a vendor to work with who offers flexibility and alternative options," Carver suggests. "When we work with a client, one of the first things we ask is if they have a strong group of volunteers. There are some things that you can do yourself and, by utilizing the skills of your congregation, not only do you save money but the church body becomes more connected and passionate about these changes, as well. It also might be advantageous to bring in a consultant who can lay out a clear plan for future steps and get you started in the right direction.”
Sometimes the best ideas come from simply walking your space and trying to see it with fresh eyes. Drop to your knees. Is it welcoming from that height? Can children find, use and return materials independently? Are there spaces to be loud and engage in and other spaces that are quieter and more comforting? Can children see and move easily? When we work and live in a space, it quickly becomes invisible. Taking time to reimagine the space from a different perspectiveor even engaging some outside inputcan help spark ideas in yourself and your team.