While churches can allow children to feel safe and secure, sometimes holding their attention and keeping them interested can be a problem.
“The main thing is that churches have become aware that the institutional look—the beige walls and tiles—is out, and awakened to the reality that they need to do something a lot more fun and a lot more engaging,” says Jonathan Martin, owner of Tulsa, Okla.-based design firm Jonathan Martin Creative.
Themed environments are always appealing and have typically been developmentally appropriate. When designing for children, popular themes in ministry spaces include jungles, aquariums and outer space.
“We provide the services for youth ministries from standard murals, getting into 3-D props and interactive sound and video,” says Steve Dockery, owner of Benton, Tenn.-based Wonder Work Studios. “These rooms draw the attention of children and, once they are there and want to be there, then they receive the word of God.”
Dockery’s company recently completed a job in Boston where it designed the children’s area to look like the inside of a space station, with an industrial feel using a lot of metal props and a large mural on the walls.
“Another important fact to themed environments in youth facilities is that … attendance in youth programs has jumped up 30% within 90 days of completion of our themed environments,” Dockery says.
Over at North Coast Church in Vista, Calif., Dennis Choy, communications, technology and production pastor, says they have created different themes for each grade level, with the overall theme being “Coast for Kids.”
“We have a tree house theme in our kindergarten and first grade room, with a large Styrofoam tree cut out from the wall,” Choy says. “For second and third graders we have a room designed around ‘A Bug’s Life;’ fourth graders have an Indiana Jones adventure-type room and fifth grade is a tropical theme with lots of frogs.”
The curriculum also matches each theme, such as teachers reading adventure stories from the Bible to the fourth graders.
An Educated Design
While many churches employ a look with bright colors and lots of animated characters, some are more interested in creating an educational look-look to better reinforce the personality of the congregation.
“Once we did a set up of different parts of the world with different countries represented,” Martin says. “It was very classy but still kid-friendly and educational.”
Headrick, based in Laurel, Mo., is a static signage company known for creating large 100- to 200-foot majestic crosses around the country. About three years ago, the company started getting into more of a design and building phase inside the churches, including crafting popular Noah’s Ark displays.
Senior Pastor Jessie Hawkins, Jr., at St. John AME Church in Aurora, Ill., wanted something different, however. Hawkins looked to create a room that was both educational and visually stimulating for kids and parents alike, and contacted Headrick to create an African village.
“Because the education of children and youth were key to Pastor Hawkins’ mission, he wanted the kids to know their heritage and what it was like for some of their relatives,” says Headrick’s account manager, John Rebry. “He was very against doing anything cartoonish, and we made it historical, accurate and more of an educational experience.”
By using real photographs from Africa and superimposing scenes, animals and people digitally, the 3-D display represented a realistic look of the region.
“The digitally printed wallpaper scenes are actually high definition photos taken in Africa and then blown up to 11-foot tall and 50-foot long,” Rebry says. “The 3-D elements take into account the construction methods used to make huts in those villages, as well as the painting artistry on the walls.”
The Great Outdoors
Because of video games and computers, children are spending less time than ever outdoors, so it is critical that a church’s outdoor spaces be relevant because they compete for precious time and interest.
“Whether we create parks, public space, or a playground, they must be beautiful, challenging, stimulating, and sustainable,” says Sharon Exley, president of Chicago-based ArchitectureisFun Inc. “If they are merely places to expend energy, opportunities to help children grow physically, emotionally, intellectually and, especially spiritually, will be lost.”
Churches understand that they can theme and customize play equipment and construct message and meaning out-of-doors when they allow children to be free to run, jump, soar, play games and be challenged to climb, build, and explore.
“Outdoor church spaces can be where great stories are told and where sanctuary can be found,” Exley says. “Shared meaning is formed of shared experiences—places of delight, inspiration, creativity, collaboration, and reverence must be designed for children of all ages to play and pray in the outdoors.”
Jim Tomberlin, founder and senior strategist of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based MultiSite Solutions, explains that there are more than 3,000 multi-site churches across the nation, reflecting healthy, growing congregations. Creating a kid-friendly environment is important in establishing a successful multi-site facility, he reports, and large video screens are almost always utilized.
“These rooms are very much having that Disney look and feel, with lots of biblical themes,” Tomberlin says of the culturally relevant approach.
Since many of these sites are in schools or commercial fronts, the children’s spaces in multi-site locations are used for more than just housing the kids, and so any props, designs or wall hangings need to be removed when the children leave.
“This does limit the design, but the important thing to do in these cases is to make things portable and easy, because no one wants to spend hours tearing down and putting things up,” Martin says. “For these rooms, we focus on anything that can be rolled up or hung from a wall or ceiling. We will print things from the computer and put it on canvas or vinyl that can be hung easily.”
Multi-site and multi-use locations might be thought of like traveling exhibits or stage sets where the church’s message and branding must be apparent.
“Innovative churches have employed theatrical elements for some time, so use what you already know to help say who you are,” Exley says. “Tell a story. Develop a strong narrative that runs through the palette to the décor and through the experiences to the programming. Create focal points using the stage, risers, or even activities to help create a sense of place and purpose.”