Pray and Play inspiration

A church sent me photos of their brand new Pray and Play space today. This is always so exciting, and I love seeing these creative places where children can worship through play. They’re not quite done with theirs yet, so I’m waiting to share their photos, but it reminded me I took a full set of photos of my own a few weeks back and haven’t yet shown them!

Ours is mostly used:

  1. At the beginning and end of services, when toddlers aren’t in their Sunday School groups.
  2. During All-Age Worship.
  3. Over the summer, when we have no Sunday School.

This means it’s predominantly used by under-5s, and was designed with them in mind.

These photos give an overall view of the space. In the second photo you can see that it’s positioned in the south aisle – you still have a clear view of the altar.

Spaces at the very back can make it hard to see what’s going on, while those at the very front can sometimes make parents feel nervous and exposed – especially if you’re late, and there are no side aisles, so you have to do the Walk of Shame, with a fussy toddler, to reach the space at all.

There are chairs around the edges, so parents and carers can stay with their children, and the Good Shepherd poster on the wall is from McCrimmons.

Carpets like that are available from most educational supply stores, or from Amazon or Dunelm or the like. Ours cost £60. The altar is a £5 IKEA plastic table with a metre of fabric in the appropriate liturgical colour over it.

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Here’s a closer view of the altar. This is NOT at its best! The crucifix was inherited – I’d prefer one that didn’t have small pieces that could break off, and I’ll be buying a new one soon. We used to have a toy metal chalice and paten from Articles of Faith – they’ve discontinued it and have only the expensive one now. We used to also have IKEA wooden bread that “broke” via velcro in the middle – also now lost. So these are fill-the-gap bits, but they do the job for now! (That’s a wooden egg cup, by the way.)

1 metre each of red, green, white, and purple fabric will see you through the year.

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The back of the chair makes an excellent bookshelf … these are all great titles. The book on the Creed was made and illustrated by the Sunday School a few years back. Soft Noah’s Ark toys make less noise when a toddler hits them against stone church floors. You can buy one here (note: this is my company, so, conflict of interest alert) or here.

We have some puzzles of different Bible stories, and a bunch of themed baskets. We’re not rigid about how the toys are played with – kids can mix and match bits from different baskets. About once a month or so I go through and re-organise it all, which takes about 10-15 minutes.

There used to be laminated Contents lists in each basket – of course these got lost. If I were doing it again, I’d punch a hole through a corner and tie them onto the handles of the baskets.

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One of my favourite themed baskets is our Good Shepherd one. You can buy the shepherd and sheep set here. I’ve added a few railings from model railway sets to make a sheep pen – and if you look closely, you can see I’ve also added a piece of circular green felt to be grass and some strips of blue felt to be water. A couple plastic sheep have also found their way in over the years – that’s okay, Jesus says he has other sheep not of this flock! I added the book to give it a bit of context. You could include a book of the 23rd Psalm as well, if you liked. (I use wicker baskets from Argos, with liners, which can be taken out and washed.)

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The Baptism basket has a doll in a baptism dress (also available through Mustard Seed Kids), a shell, and a candle. There used to be a wooden dove – it appears and disappears at random, rather like the Holy Spirit itself …

Sometimes I’ve sent this basket home with a family preparing for a baptism where there is an older sibling. They can play at baptising “their” baby.

I may add a book for kids about baptism to this basket as well.

 

 

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The Easter one has some deep levels of symbolism which I’m sure many of the kids don’t understand, but which I include anyway, because it helps to build awareness of the symbols. The caterpillar and butterfly are symbolic of resurrection, and the globe stress ball indicates that Jesus’s death and resurrection saved the whole world. This also has our Jesus doll (you can buy it here – though they seem to have made him look more European since we got ours, which is a shame), and donkey and sheep hand puppets. The sheep symbolising Jesus as the lamb of God, and the donkey for Palm Sunday. This is also where the bread and egg-cup-wine-goblet were before we had to press them into service on the altar – to represent the Last Supper.

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I bet you can guess what this one is.

We got this toy church from Beulah Enterprises in the US (now part of The Sunday Paper) – you may want to go for the wooden church available from Articles of Faith (again, everyone’s White!! And the baby is literally glued to mum, so nobody else can hold it), which has a wide range of interior fittings, or the Happyland Church (store the wedding couple and coach separately, buy a bunch of ordinary Happyland figures to be the congregation, and bring out the bride and groom when you have a wedding). Playmobil also have a church, but that’s more appropriate for older kids and is very easily taken completely apart in minutes by an enthusiastic group of 7-year-olds – ask me how I know.

Finally – we put in a temporary 5-11 table over the summer, with plain paper, comic strip templates and speech bubbles, and some meditative colouring, since we had no Sunday School. We found that it was very popular, and, once Sunday School started up again, helped ease them back into church.

I don’t advise colouring being the extent of the Christian formation you have for primary-aged children, but as part of it, there’s nothing wrong with it. As long as it’s not completely banal imagery with preachy moralistic messages. This Psalms in Color (American spelling) book was about £10 and I photocopy a few pages when supplies run low. Far from being a distraction, keeping children’s hands busy helps settle them and enable them to concentrate more on worship.

In the future, I’d like to add a Pentecost basket and one with items related to our patron saint. You can get more ideas in our Pray and Play leaflet, which you can download here: Pray and Play Corners

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The light shines in darkness …

We now have a Light Box, which is available for you to borrow!

It comes with 85 letters, numbers, and symbols. This means you sometimes need to get creative if you need more of a particular letter than they have available.

You can use it in worship …

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You can use it as part of a prayer station …

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You can use it an an event or service if you want people to connect online with a hashtag …

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Or you could use it to publicise something coming up …

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You could also simply have it out for children to play with and make their own messages. You could take photos of every message/prayer/etc children make, and put these together as a collage for display or a slideshow to gather these prayers at the end of a session.

What other ways could you use it?

If you want to get your own, I got this one from Argos for £14 including shipping. Other versions are available – some of which change the background colour or have other bells and whistles.

If you’d like to borrow this one, get in touch via cme@stalbans.anglican.org.

New resource – labyrinth!

The Diocese now has a LABYRINTH, which is available for churches, schools, and other groups to borrow for use in their own programmes.

If you’re thinking, “what is a labyrinth?,” this short article can tell you a bit about their history and how they can be used for prayer.

Here is ours – in situ in a meeting room at Diocesan Office. It will look even prettier in your church, your churchyard, your school hall …

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How can I borrow it?

Simply contact cme@stalbans.anglican.org or youthoffice@stalbans.anglican.org and let us know when you’d like it. If it’s available, you can come and collect it.

I don’t have an enormous vehicle and seven weight-lifters to help me transport it – what do I do?

That’s okay! The labyrinth is made of plastic-backed canvas, so it’s very lightweight and it rolls up easily. It can fit in the passenger seat or boot of most cars, even small ones, and I can personally testify that a small woman who doesn’t work out very much can comfortably carry it under her arm for a ten-minute walk.

How do we use it?

There are no right or wrong ways to use a labyrinth. The simplest way is to walk through the path, slowly, pausing whenever you feel like it, and then walk back out.

You can also provide meditations or prayer activities at certain points along the path.

You can encourage people to walk the labyrinth barefoot.

You can line the path with electric tealights and dim the room the labyrinth is in.

You can play music, have incense burning, or have other sensory elements added.

You can use it as part of a story, as a response to a story, or as prayer.

You can just have it available when your church is open, or deliberately use it as part of a service or activity.

It’s up to you!

The only ground rules I would recommend you make clear to children are those you would do with any physical activity – giving other people space, not pushing or shoving, and a reminder that a labyrinth is a quiet and peaceful time, not a race.

Is there a leaflet to go with it?

Here’s the text that goes with it in its current space in the cathedral. You are free to use or adapt this as you like:

Our lives are like a long trip.

Sometimes the path is wide and easy, sometimes it’s narrow and hard.

Sometimes we feel far away from where we’re going, but actually we might be nearby. Sometimes we feel near to where we want to be, but we’re actually far.

People of all ages can walk this labyrinth.

You might want to think about all the places your feet have travelled through your life, and pray for the people in those places.

There are a few mistakes in this labyrinth. Maybe they remind you of times when things have gone wrong, and you’ve had to try to fix them.

Maybe they remind you that our lives, and ourselves, aren’t perfect, and that’s okay.

A labyrinth is a place to spend time walking with God. Take your time. Pause. Breathe. Pray.

I’d like to make my own, since I don’t live in your Diocese or I want to use it without having to play far ahead. How can I do it?

Here’s the tutorial I used. The total cost was about £50.00 – two dust sheets, duct tape to hold them together (I didn’t spend time sewing, like in the tutorial), paint, string. I had to adapt it slightly because I used two dust sheets and that meant the circle had to be an oval instead.

Mothering Sunday Write-Up

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A reader in our Diocese has shared a wonderful All-Age Mothering Sunday service they did yesterday – please do take a look, and share it if it’s useful to you.

Many of these ideas could also be used at other festivals throughout the year.

All-Age Prodigal Son Prayer Stations

On Saturday, I was asked to lead an hour and fifteen minutes of worship at a retreat/meeting day for the Readers in our Diocese. The ideas I used were supposed to engage the adults present on the day while also inspiring them with things they could take home and use with children in their churches. So they had to be TRULY All-Age!

I led about half an hour of worship at the beginning – the slides for this can be downloaded by clicking here: Readers Retreat Day. For the story, I used Bibliologue, which I’ve written about on this blog before. The song I used is a Hebrew melody, using language from Isaiah as a prayer for reconciliation – appropriate to the story of the Prodigal Son. If you don’t know it, you can hear a tinny recording of me singing it in my office here. The two parts can be sung together, as well – I had the congregation try this. The Lego prayers referred to in the slides can be found here.

Then we had about half an hour to explore prayer stations, which I’ve detailed below. During this time, I played my YouTube Lent playlist, to create a contemplative atmosphere.

In putting together the prayer stations, I was loosely guided by three things:

  1. The different parts of the story. Some had quotes on them from the story to show a focus on that particular element. Some were more general.
  2. The four spiritual styles detailed by Dave Csinos in his book “Children’s Ministry That Fits,” and based on work by several others: Word, Emotion, Symbol, Action.
  3. A model from a colleague who told me her prayer life operates in three ways – inward (ourselves), outward (others), and upward (God). (She may have got this from someone else – if so, please let me know!)

At the end, I gathered the group back together and talked about how the Prodigal Son is an apt parable for Lent – it shows a time of alienation, ending in reconciliation. Just like the son and father are reconciled at the end, we are reconciled with God at Easter. I read the following from an essay by Debie Thomas on the “Journey With Jesus” blog:

“How exactly did Jesus spend his time?  Was he tempted 24/7?  Did he walk for miles each day, or camp out in one spot?  Where did he sleep?  What was the silence like, hour after hour after hour?  Did he break it up by humming, laughing, or shouting?  Did he star gaze?  Play with birds?  Chase lizards?  As the days stretched on and on, did he fear for his life?  Question his sanity?  Wish to die? Mark — given, as ever, to brevity — leaves all of these questions unanswered.  But the few details he does include in his account are telling, and they give us much to cling to as we face deserts in our own lives.  I’d like to focus on three:

  1. Jesus didn’t choose the wilderness.
  2. The struggle is long.
  3. There are angels in the desert. “

Then I said that we are still in that desert time of Lent, but we know Jesus is with us even there, even in the desert. We closed with this wonderful video and some wondering questions.

So now, on to the prayer stations …

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I focused several stations on the opening part of the story – the idea of leaving home and going to a distant land. Here, I invited people to think about those who are forced to leave home because of war, and to reflect on what they would bring if they had to leave home quickly. There were then ways to take action on refugee issues.

With children, I might not provide a “donate now” text code.

You can download the leaflet here.

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Lots of people wrote prayers for countries where they had connections, or where there is violence. When I’ve done this with children, they often pray for the places their families come from, or places they have been on holiday.

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This was a very popular station. The cardboard outlines of people are available from Baker Ross, and are a very flexible resource to have on hand.

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This was also a very popular station … I can’t imagine why!

There is not just solemnity in the story, but also rejoicing. So I thought of the image of a party, and went with cake and balloons. Participants were asked to think of something that was going well, and write it with a Sharpie on a balloon. The balloon was left on the altar as an offering of thanksgiving, and then people served themselves cake.

I provided one cake that was Gluten/Dairy free.

readers13One thing I learned … make sure you have a plan for what to do with all the balloons afterwards! If you’re not able to pop them afterwards (we had lunch, then a Eucharist, so I couldn’t), bring a big bag to carry them out in! I did multiple trips to the car, and my back seat is now full of unpopped balloons …

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For people who prefer contemplative silence, we had a side chapel available, with the words of reassurance given to the older brother – “child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” – and some glittery candles. These are electric candles, also available from Baker Ross, and great for staying safe with under-5s. Older groups may wish to use real candles, but still make sure an adult is on hand.

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For those who pray best by talking and sharing with others, the Table Talk sets are great! These are available to borrow from Diocesan office – we also have special sets designed for use with Messy Church and for use with teens. Because this was a bought rather than custom-made resource, this prayer station wasn’t specifically about the story. But the fact that it has questions about the nature of God, and friendship/relationship, means it addresses some of the same questions the story does.

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This station was about the story as a whole – and again, all these resources are available from Diocesan office. We had fuzzy felt, “The Lost” storybag with its wooden figures of the story, and the wonderful knitted pigs made for us by the Mothers’ Union. I printed out a copy of the story and encouraged people to read it and play with the materials.

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And finally, there was a very general open-ended art table, with some ideas to encourage people who might feel stuck when told to “make anything.”

Many of these ideas can be adapted VERY easily for use with other stories – and could be used in Junior Church, Messy Church, All-Age Worship, and more.

 

Christmas Concentration

Who remembers playing concentration as a kid?

The rules were so simple – you mixed up the cards and set them out, face-down. You took turns turning over two cards; if they matched, you got to keep them. If not, you had to turn them back over. It’s gently competitive, hard to cheat at, can be played over and over without new equipment, and boosts memory and concentration skills.

It’s also a great way to reinforce the imagery of Bible stories.

A few Bible-based “concentration” games exist, like this one from Orchard Toys, or Alphabet Alley’s “Bible ABC” matching game. (Conflict of interest alert – I own Mustard Seed Kids, the source of that second link.)

But why not make your own? With card, an internet connection, a printer, scissors, and some glue, you can make unique concentration games for any Bible story or festival that has a variety of interesting images.

Here’s the set I made for Christmas:

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If you want it to last longer, you should laminate the cards.

As always, when working with images, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. First of all, I’m not an expert on “fair use” of images – obviously, nobody’s making money off this set I made, but if you want to be on the safe side, use Wikimedia Commons for pictures that are free to use, or get a subscription to a clip art or stock photo site.

Secondly, I deliberately used photos for many of these to make the images more vivid – paintings are wonderful (see my previous post for some ideas on using paintings in Junior Church) but photos can help remind us that these were real people! (As can paintings that creatively re-set Bible stories in modern settings … but I’m getting off topic). The image of the shepherd is a modern Palestinian shepherd, and Mary is from the film The Nativity (it’s the same actress from Whale Rider.)

Thirdly, I included a few images they won’t already be familiar with, in the hopes that this game will inspire questioning and learning. The rose is not something we normally associate with Christmas. The blog, “The Jesus Question”, has a wonderful explanation of how rose imagery is used at Christmas by both Catholics and Protestants – with pictures, song lyrics, video clips, and more. The writer there says:

“There does arise one cohesive ‘Christmas Rose’ image: A plant (the Tree of Jesse, …), springing up from Israeli soil. God is the seed, Jesse and others (Abraham, Moses, David, etc.) are the roots, Mary is the stem, and Jesus is the crowning blossom. All the people in the lineage of Christ helped bring him into the world and make up this giant, leafy, flowering plant. And now non-Jews are being graciously grafted in (Romans 11).”

This game could also be included in a children’s corner in church, or as an activity in Messy Church, or as a prayer station in All-Age Worship …

What other festivals could you make concentration games for? What images might you use?

Harvest Prayer Stations

We had our Harvest Festival at my church last Sunday, and we added a few prayer stations. Some were inspired by Mina Munns’s work on Flame Creative Kids .

This is a congregation that doesn’t get up and move around. So we’ve learned that if we want people to engage with prayer stations, we need to find places where they’re already naturally walking past them in worship. We had:

  1. An All-Age Prayer Station at the entrance to the church. This created a visual focus as people came into the church – something to signal a) a shift from outside towards sacred space, and b) the theme of the service. The rug is one we use in our Under-5s Sunday School and our toddler groups; it’s from Hope Education.

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2. An Under-5s sensory prayer table in our Pray and Play area. There are touch-and-feel books about Creation, a tub full of plastic toy animals, and some bread and fruit to try. (There was a bin discretely present, as well, as toddlers don’t eat neatly.) We used a low table, so they could reach.

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3. An All-Age (in practice, it was mostly 5-to-15s who used it) prayer space near the candle stand. People walk past the candle stand on the way back from communion, and often pause to light a candle. We’ve found people will sometimes engage with another prayer station in this space, at that time. It’s also near where the children sit together for the Liturgy of the Word in our All-Age services, so they used it a lot during that time, when “sitting still for talking” became too much and they needed something to do with their hands to help them engage.

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The tree outlines and the leaf stamps are from Baker Ross.

It Worked For Us: schools ministry, prayer space

Jane Hatton, one of the chaplains at the Lister Hospital, has lived in Knebworth for over thirty years. Serving on the board of governors of the local school – which isn’t a CoE school – and getting to know the staff, she earned the trust of the school leadership over time, and eventually felt she was able to suggest having a prayer space in the school.

In discussions with the school, it was decided that the space would be called “Soul Space,” as some people felt the word “prayer” carried specific associations. The space was designed to include information about what Christians believe about God, but not to proscribe these beliefs, and to allow children to participate fully without having to share a Christian view of God or the world.

For a short video about last year’s Soul Space, click here.

Jane told me she doesn’t feel like a natural with children’s work, so she surrounded herself with volunteers who felt more at home with kids – they came from St Martins church, Trinity Church (both in Knebworth) and from Bridge Builders, as well as chaplaincy volunteers and retired clergy.

Through a few planning meetings (one of which I was lucky enough to attend), a few themes were decided on, and activities from Prayer Spaces in Schools were chosen. “We wanted a mix of activities looking inward (to ourselves), looking outward (to others), and looking upward (to God),” Jane said. The volunteers attended the planning meetings and contributed lots of ideas.

One of the “looking upward” activities invited children to imagine they were in charge of the world. What would they change? What would stay the same? What questions do you have for God? Write them as a tweet.

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They were then invited to think about transformation, and change, and how the world should be transformed. A butterfly image was used to represent this. Click here for the resources for this activity.

IMG_20170718_113201The prayer space was scheduled to be open for two days in late July, so some activities focused on looking ahead to the next school year, and, for the Year 6 pupils, the transition to secondary school.

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The Calm Zone included space to write hopes and fears about the future, as well as Calm Jars (click here for more) and Bubble Tubes (click here) to help pupils relax.

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Pipe cleaner people, next to photos of every class in the school, were used to help children reflect on the school year that is ending, and pray for those who have helped them. For more on Pipe Cleaner People, click here.

Volunteers chose a particular corner that was “theirs” – they introduced children to the activity there, and were on hand to support and talk if needed. Two volunteers were “spare” – i.e., not assigned to a particular corner. Their job was to manage the timings and to jump in and help if needed.

For the running of the space itself, the plan was:

  1. Each class was split into two groups of approximately 10-15 pupils.
  2. Each group has half an hour to explore the space, while the other half does classroom-based activities – in this case, they were connected with one of the school’s values.
  3. Children can choose which prayer activities they want to do, but there should be no more than 5 children in each area at one time. So if an area is full, you pick another one and come back later.
  4. At the end of the half hour, children are invited to fill in a feedback sheet to say what they liked and didn’t like. This feedback is taken seriously in planning the next Soul Space.

Soul Space is now in its second year, and I had the chance to visit it last week.

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The powerful Refugee Rucksacks activity is an age-appropriate way to help children learn about and pray for refugees. It invited children to think about what they would bring if they had to leave their home because of war. It works well with this photo essay of refugees sharing what they brought with them, what they’ve lost along the way, and what they are hoping for in their new lives.

The final activity was Finger Print. It explained that Christians believe in a God who made each of us and loves each of us, and invited children to add their unique fingerprint to a large fabric print on the wall. There were also two prayer boxes available at this station.

The children’s feedback sheets were done in a way that new/non-readers could participate in, with a bit of adult help. The list of stations can help you find those activities on the Prayer Spaces for Schools website (you have to register to download the resources, but registration is free).

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Lessons:

  1. Relationship matters. Jane’s positive relationship with the school, over a period of time, made this possible.
  2. Helpers matter. Jane couldn’t have done this on her own. She assembled a team from the whole community.
  3. Choose a few things and do them well. There were four corners to Soul Space, each with a clear focus. They didn’t try to be all things to all people, and get overwhelmed.
  4. Have a plan for safeguarding. Obviously all volunteers need DBS checks, and the school needs to be given their names and their DBS certificates. However, in addition to that, children may reveal things in prayer that need to be passed along to the right adults in school. Check the prayers left after each class, so you know if a potential issue has been raised, which class it comes from. The teacher can probably identify the handwriting and pass it along to the safeguarding officer.
  5. Get feedback. The feedback forms can help guide future planning, can show the governors the impact the space has on the children, and can remind you that all your hard work was worth it!

 

Getting Started slides from 15th March

pray-and-play8When I run training sessions, I often refer people to this blog to get the slides I used – these are for the “Getting Started in Children’s Ministry” training held on 15th March 2017 at St Andrew’s in Biggleswade. Click on the link at the bottom to download.

Topics include:

Opportunities for mission and ministry

Creating a culture of welcome

A video clip from Rev on how NOT to manage change

Answers from lots of clergy and children’s workers on “what do you do when people complain about children making noise in the service?”

Baptism/Christenings

A resource list

Children’s corners (Pray and Play areas)

Getting Started