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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Prayer Board for under-5s

This is an idea I got from Ann Sharp, the Early Years Advisor for Chelmsford Diocese. It can be used in Toddler Group worship, in the creche on Sundays – and, with a few “special occasion” additions, at baptisms and weddings with little children present.

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Toddlers and little ones may have little patience for sitting still and listening to wordy prayers. Using pictures and movement, we can help them connect to God through prayer in a way that works with natural toddler-ness instead of against it.

Ann also pointed out that toddlers love choosing things, and they love sticking things onto boards with velcro. And the ones are are in Nursery or Reception are probably doing lots of this during the week, so they already know how it works!

I made one myself, in less than an hour and a half from start to finish. I only had to buy the foamboard and velcro, so it cost me less than £10 to get the materials. Many churches will have much of this stuff already in situ.

You will need: a laminator, laminating pouches, a colour printer, A2 foamboard, velcro (I used strips, to cut to size), scissors, Pritt stick.

I decided to use “LET US PRAY” as the centre image, to help teach them the language we use in church every week. You could use “PRAYER BOARD” or “TIME TO TALK TO GOD” or any number of things. I flanked the LET US PRAY image with a group of children and an image of the Holy Spirit.

I used Google for images (See Educational exception to copyright law here).

Then I chose the images for the prayers themselves. I decided on:

  1. A church (I used a picture of our own church, which the children would recognise)
  2. A family (I might replace the image I used with one that includes grandparents)
  3. A group of children playing (I deliberately chose one with children of different ethnicities)
  4. A child looking sad.
  5. A child holding a pet.
  6. The earth.
  7. A row of houses (I used a street in our parish – check local estate agents’ websites)
  8. A child in bed with a thermometer in their mouth and a teddy bear.
  9. A gravestone with flowers on it.

For each image, I came up with one or two sentences to go with it:

  1. We pray for our church, St. George’s. Help us to know you here and everywhere.
  2. We pray for our families. Help us to take care of each other.
  3. We pray for our friends and teachers and schools and nurseries and toddler groups.
  4. Help everyone who is sad or lonely or scared.
  5. We pray for our pets and all the animals.
  6. We pray for everything in the whole wide world and universe.
  7. We pray for our homes. Make them places where everyone is safe and loved.
  8. We pray for everyone who is ill or feeling poorly.
  9. We pray for people and animals who have died. We miss them even though we know they are safe in heaven with you.

I printed out the images and prayers, cut them out, and stuck the prayers on the back of each image. Then I laminated everything and cut it out again.

I stuck the central images to the foamboard with Pritt stick, and cut velcro to size in several rows around it (checking with some of the bigger images that there was space between rows)

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This is another reason why strips of velcro might be better than dots – they’re bigger! Very small children might not have the hand-eye coordination to match up small dots of velcro.

When this was done, I stuck the other side of the velcro to the backs of the laminated images, and we were done!

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How to use it: I’m planning to put all the images in a drawstring bag, and bring it out with “I wonder what’s in here … !” Under-5s love seeing what’s in the bag/box/etc. They can then choose one to put up, hand it to the leader, who reads the prayer on the back, and hands it back to the child to put on the board. Your group may not have the attention span for all nine prayers every time, so you may only have four or five per session. That’s fine!

If you use the same closing words every time, such as “Lord, in your mercy / Hear our prayer,” you may want to add those to your board.

This could also be something an older group of children/teenagers could make for your younger group.

More about spiritual play, with adorable photos

Some of you might remember this post from March, showing J, the son of one of our Diocese’s curates. J spends a lot of time hanging out at church with his dad, and has started “playing church” at home, including processions.

J has now had a birthday, and some parishioners have made him vestments. His dad has given me permission to share these photos. Unfortunately, there isn’t a replicable pattern available for these vestments – however, I imagine if you have a keen sewer or two in your church, they could probably figure something out, using Nativity costume patterns for the alb and making a chasuble pattern from scratch (it’s basically a circle).

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Here you will notice J has graduated from a soup ladle to a broom for his processional cross.

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J is using the soft “My Mass Kit” from the Diocesan Resource Centre – this is available for you to borrow!
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J’s dad has captioned this one, “ready for Walsingham.”

What strikes me about these pictures is how well they illustrate the concept of enculturation, which you may have heard me talk about if you’ve come to some of our training events.

Enculturation is “the gradual acquisition of the characteristics and norms of a culture or group by a person, another culture, etc.” It’s not education – the passing on of knowledge, facts, etc. It’s not entertainment – “the kids loved it!” It’s a process of being alongside someone as they acquire a particular way of life. It’s what makes us feel part of a group.

It’s how we start to feel like a “real member” of something – whether it’s a fandom, a supporter of a particular football team, a resident of a new place we’ve moved to. We learn “how we do things here, and why.” And John Westerhoff argued at the Household of Faith conference in 2013 that it’s how we make Christians. We show them, through received ways of being and doing, what it means to live out our baptismal promises.

Enculturation comes from a shared set of values, a shared authority, a shared tradition, and a shared story. Christian values – feeding the poor, caring for God’s creation, praying for each other, sharing in the Apostle’s teaching and fellowship, etc. Christian authority – for Anglicans, it’s the three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition, and reason, with the words and actions of Jesus being our paramount authority. Shared traditions – our worship, our ways of celebrating and remembering and drawing close to God (note how J stands at the altar, arms in a toddler version of orans position). And our shared story – that Biblical journey from “once upon a time” to happily ever after, that is full of exile and loss, return and redemption, that tells us of a loving and faithful God who would die to save us and all creation. Being a part of all this is what forms the basis of a Christian life.

Where in your church are opportunities for children to become enculturated? For them to learn by doing, alongside people of all ages, what it means to be a Christian?

And if there aren’t any, where’s a place where that can start?

Starting Rite

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One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years has been Starting Rite: Spiritual nurture for babies and their parents, by Jenny Paddison. Jenny has also come down to do some introductory training for the Diocese at two of our events. Starting Rite is a 5-week course based around play and conversation, introducing parents to concepts of Christianity and encouraging them to engage with and bond with their babies.

It can also be used as a baptism preparation/follow-up course.

Here’s what the publisher has to say:

When Anglican priest Jenny Paddison became a mother, there were numerous activities for new parents and their babies on offer: baby yoga, baby massage, baby swimming – but nothing from the church.

In response, she created this five session programme that connects with the immense sense of wonder and joy that new parents experience and provides spiritual nurture from the outset, recognising the innate capacity for spirituality with which we are born.

Starting Rite is designed specifically for babies up to a year old and their parents. It provides a complete practical companion to offering the programme locally, including story scripts, simple songs, ideas for multi-sensory play, as well as lists of equipment needed and how to create a welcoming atmosphere. It explores Christian themes though activities like peek-a-boo, blowing bubbles and splashing in water.

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Starting Rite enables local churches to offer a welcome to all new parents, and can also be used as a baptism preparation course.”

Starting Rite is excellent for reaching out to unchurched people. It’s a great place to start if you have few or no children and want to make your first steps in children’s ministry. Or it can be a fabulous way to refresh and expand on existing baptism or toddler group ministry.

Feedback from Jenny’s sessions was very positive, but a lot of people said, “it’s a lot of work to put the resources together to run the course – and a lot of money.”

So, very slowly, but surely, I’ve started putting the resources together. By the end of this year, I hope to have a set of 5 boxes, plus the book, available to be borrowed all together by churches who want to run this course. We’ll then get Jenny down to do some proper training on the course and address any questions or concerns you might have. So WATCH THIS SPACE, and if you’re not subscribed to Children’s Ministry News, contact youthoffice@stalbans.anglican.org to be sure you hear about the training when it’s scheduled.

New books!

I’ve just bought some new books for the Diocesan Resource Centre – they’ll be officially catalogued soon, but you can borrow them informally immediately if you want.

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Diddy Disciples is a wonderful resource to help you worship with babies and toddlers. You can use it on Sunday mornings in the creche, or in toddler group, or anywhere else you meet with this age group. It’s very user-friendly for the adults, and physically engaging for the kids. You can find out more (and see sample videos and materials) on their website.

The Story of King Jesus, by Ben Irwin is a beautiful re-telling of THE WHOLE BIBLE, from Genesis to Revelation, in child-friendly language. Full of awe and wonder, this book is especially good for situations where you might only have one or two sessions with a particular group – school visits (“this is what the Christian story is”), holiday clubs, etc – though of course it’s great for Junior Church, Messy Church, etc. as well.

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Outdoor Church, by Sally Welch is a terrific and accessible resource for helping churches connect with God’s creation.

It’s ideal for rural churches, but her introduction includes ideas for how to make it work even in churches with very limited outdoor space (or none at all – suggestions are included on how to bring the outdoors in).

Each season has five sessions included, focusing on Bible stories and parables. There is an emphasis on COLLECTING, CREATING, FEASTING, and CELEBRATING, which allows room for people with different spiritual styles and gifts to participate. books3

If you would like to borrow any of these books, get in touch on cme@stalbans.anglican.org . And I’d love to hear your recommendations – what should we add to our Resource Centre to help your ministry?

Let Us Play …

This post, and the photos, are shared with permission of J’s parents. J’s dad is curate of a church in Hertfordshire.

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Here is J in the pulpit

J’s dad writes:

So here is J. – he is 20 months old. Since he was about 2 months he regularly comes to church every Sunday but also for some of the Daily Office. On a Sunday he sits near the back, but during morning prayer, and when the church is empty, he freely wanders around the church – access to all areas. He even helps with ringing the bell for worship.

What clearly fascinates him is the crucifer. He points out the cross (which he calls church) and all other crosses.

Recently he also insists on being followed by a book.

There is once small cross he loves to pick up and process around. He loves procession practice and at home he uses a ladle and a book when he plays. Interestingly, books like bibles and hymn books are always preferred to his own books when available. He also likes going into the pulpit. If the church could produce a daily office and gospel board book that would be great!

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J at home, leading a procession with a soup ladle for a cross.

He also loves hot cross buns, but not sure if that is linked to the cross on the top.

We want to enable him to pursue doing this … but at what age could he help out?

Maybe our next church will have to have a boat boy as there are no youth servers at our current church.

Here are a few thoughts I had when I read this:

  1. I agree it’s interesting he chooses Bibles and hymn books over his own books when they’re available. It shows that even at 20 months he somehow perceives a difference between “holy books used in worship” and “books read for pleasure.” Of course, there is crossover here, but as a basic distinction, it’s important. And there are of course ramifications here for our understanding of when to admit children to Holy Communion – if J can understand the difference between “ordinary books” and “God books,” could he understand the difference between “ordinary bread” and “God bread”?
  2. J has engaged with worship through nothing more than simply being exposed to it on a regular basis. Just like when we take children shopping, or swimming, or on train journeys, or to the doctor, and they begin to explore these experiences through play, J has done the same with church. And the same skills parents use in these other activities – helping explain what’s going on, making sure their children can see and participate – can be used in church.
  3. J’s understanding is age-appropriate. It is not abstract or verbal. It is sensory and imaginative.

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    J carrying the Gospel book in procession.
  4. If J loves processing, why not incorporate that into worship? Maybe get a selection of different small crosses, and once a month, or more often, invite any child who wants to to choose a cross and join the procession. There could be a special basket at the front where we leave our crosses by the altar.
  5. Very small children can help bring up the bread and wine, if an adult or teenager has helped them figure out how to carry it safely, and is available to walk beside them as a second pair of hands, if needed.
  6. These are also the sorts of things children can engage with through play in a good children’s play area in church. You can see some ideas here, and here, and here.
  7. Once children have been admitted to communion – whether at confirmation or before – the canons of the church allow them to serve as Eucharistic ministers and help distribute the chalice at communion.
  8. Now I really want to create a Gospel Book and Daily Office board book!

Estate agents and Christenings

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A year ago this month, I completed the purchase of my flat.

I got the card above in the post the other day.

On the back was a brief handwritten note from my estate agent congratulating me, saying she hoped I’d been happy in my new home, and to let her know if I needed anything.

And of course I was reminded of Ann, a woman from the church where I served as Children’s Worker for seven years, who lovingly wrote anniversary cards to the family of every child we baptised, until she became too frail to keep it up.

There’s something about the personal touch, about a handwritten card dropping through your letterbox, that makes us feel like someone’s gone the extra mile to care for us – whether that’s simply good customer service, like in an estate agency, or in the broader and more holistic relationship of pastoral care that churches provide.

So if you have an aging congregation, you don’t necessarily need to train them on Mailchimp and social media (though some of them may be more familiar with it than you are – you never know) – don’t forget that a simple handwritten card saying “we remember this important occasion in your life. We shared it with you. We’re here for you” can make a real difference.

A few tips on making the most of it:

  1. To make it easier, set up a system whereby as soon as a baptism happens, the date goes on a list, broken down by month. That way, the person writing these cards isn’t chasing down 35 separate pieces of paper every few weeks to try and get it done.
  2. Have a basic “suggested wording” (I’ve written one below), but feel free to add special details or memories.
  3. Remind them of what you have to offer them now
  4. Make sure the person/people writing the cards know who to notify when stocks are low! (A quick Google for “baptism anniversary cards” turns up lots of possibilities for you to choose.)

One possible wording:

Dear Alan and Sarah,

All of us at St Martin’s send you our love on the anniversary of Jonah’s christening. We hope you have fond memories of this special day. We are praying for you, and Jonah, and Jonah’s godparents, as you all continue to journey together and grow with God.

We promised on that day to be your church family and support you as you raised Jonah to know and love God. We are always pleased to see you at worship on Sunday at 10 am or at  our Messy Church on the first Saturday of the month at 3 pm.

May God be with you and Jonah on this special day.

Love,

Revd Jane and everyone at St Martin’s

 

“But I’m Not Good With Kids”

Most of us will agree it’s really important that our churches reach out to children and families. But what if the thought of holding a baby terrifies you (“what if I just … drop it??”) or if, given a choice between leading a Junior Church session and sitting through every one of these Top 100 Bad Movies without a bathroom break, you’d be reaching for the DVD remote every time?crying-baby

The good news is, you don’t have to be good with kids to support children’s ministry in your church.  All ministry is supported by a lot of background work that makes the face-to-face stuff happen. Here’s a Top Ten list to get us started – feel free to add your own in the comments!

  1. Maintain an up-to-date email list of baptism families, and send them information of any activities your church is doing that are friendly for under-5s (Mailchimp can be useful for this – it’s a user-friendly way to send mass mailings, and the free version has everything you need).
  2. Keep an eye out while in charity shops for any toys or puzzles featuring Bible stories, in good condition, and bring them in for your children’s corner (if you have one) or your Junior Church.
  3. Make a knitted Nativity set (Parkinson’s UK has a pattern for £10) or knitted teddies for baptism families, or child-sized vestments for “playing church,” or …
  4. Be responsible for keeping track of volunteers, organising your Junior Church volunteer rota, and reminding them when it’s their week.
  5. Cook for Messy Church, or organise cooking teams for Messy Church.
  6. Help set up and tidy up Junior Church, Messy Church, etc – anyone willing to wield a broom, stack chairs, wash dishes, hoover up sequins …
  7. Distribute leaflets around town for your crib services, Messy Church, All-Age Services, holiday clubs, etc.
  8. Set up a standing order of £10 a month for art supplies, games, etc.
  9. Graphic design skills? Make leaflets and posters for your events.
  10. Be an ally to parents of young children in the service – remind other worshippers that babies and toddlers will sometimes fuss a little and it’s okay, or give an encouraging smile to a parent, or say “you’re doing really well” to a parent wrangling three children under 5, or smile and say “I’m so glad you’re here – it’s great to have the children in church.” Often, parents tell me that this is what made the difference between coming back to church or not!

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.

Toddler Group Inspiration – Small Saints

small-saintsA few weeks ago, I visited Ruth Harley’s  “Small Saints” toddler group in High Wycombe, along with one of our Diocese’s Children’s Workers. The group happens at the same time as a cafe in the church, so there were people of different generations using the church in different ways.

I managed to capture a bit of the storytelling – they were doing Jonah and the whale. Here are a few tips I noticed from how Ruth told the story.

  1. The children are involved – they’re touching the cloth and moving it. Under-5s are very physical.
  2. She keeps it short. The video is 90 seconds, and I’d only missed about a minute of the story. Toddler attention spans are not long.
  3. She asks questions. “What do you think happened next?”
  4. She lets the story be a story. She finishes by saying “that’s our story for today” – she doesn’t turn it into a moral. Children’s imaginations are sparked by stories – immediately repeating a moral can ruin the story’s power for them. (Wondering together about the story in an open-ended way is different, but difficult with a group primarily of 2-and-3-year-olds.)

Click here for the video.

Another brilliant thing Ruth did was have several of the songs in singing time be Christian songs that were sung to familiar nursery rhyme tunes. This made it much easier for the mums and dads to join in (and repeat the songs at home) since they already knew the music. Here are two.

To the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down”

God is with us when we sing, when we sing, when we sing,

God is with us when we sing, God is with us.

(repeat with “jump, stamp, clap, etc” – doing all the actions as you sing them. If you need to calm the children down, you can finish with “sleep.”)

To the tune of “Row Row Row Your Boat”

Worship God today, worship with a clap!

Joyfully, joyfully, joyfully, joyfully, worship with a clap!

(again, do the movements as you sing them – repeat with whatever movements you like, including suggestions from the children.)