25 Things Every Children’s Worker Has Done

Inspired by James Ballantyne’s list of 35 Things Every Youth Worker Has Done, I’ve come up with a version for those of us who have the delight of working with the under-11s and their adults. Add your own in the comments!

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  1. Walked down the street to the school/village hall with some random assortment of items in your arms, like a paper dove on a stick, a box full of bubble wrap, three bags of Haribo, and 200 light-up Baby Jesus dolls.
  2. Been vomited on, caught in a poo-explosion, or peed on, by a baby or toddler, while you were in church clothes.
  3. Got really really carried away in the art supply store.
  4. Totally improvised a Junior Church/club/whatever session on the spot, because the group of kids who showed up were completely different from the ones you’d planned for.
  5. Had to find a way to diplomatically explain to the vicar that their 45-minute lecture on 18th-century church history might not have been what the school children were hoping for from their visit.
  6. Planned an All-Age Service that was a total disaster.
  7. Had brilliant parents, but also panicking parents, parents who try to feed their kid the “right answer,” parents who run away from church the second their child makes a peep, parents who play on their phones while their kid has a tantrum, and parents who think their kids’ whole spiritual formation is your job and not theirs.
  8. Tried to explain what you do to people at a party and been met with a sea of blank faces.
  9. Explained to your friends for the thousandth time why Saturday nights aren’t normal weekend nights for you and why you can’t be in the pub at 4 pm on Christmas Eve.
  10. Had to explain that this isn’t just “trying out whether I should get ordained,” but a valid ministry in its own right.
  11. Wondered if you should get ordained.
  12. Cleaned up a room that was an explosion of flour, water, juice, sequins, bits of fabric, glue everywhere, storytelling materials, and six lost jackets, in less than 10 minutes.
  13. Memorised the soundtrack to Frozen, without ever having actually seen it, and/or become an expert in Minecraft strategies without ever having played it.
  14. Had to neatly sidestep the “what does ‘virgin’ mean?” questions at Christmas.
  15. Had your whole view of the world, and God, changed and expanded by something a kid says or does.
  16. Cried because you love your job, and cried because you hate your job, on the same day.
  17. Had to justify to the PCC why there should be a budget for children’s ministry in the first place because no, “bring some crayons from home” isn’t good enough.
  18. Smiled through your rage when a parishioner compliments you on your ministry because you “keep the children quiet.”
  19. Wondered if the disciples spent this much time stacking chairs and setting up tables.
  20. Attended a funeral for a kid’s parent or sibling and raged at the universe.
  21. Had to lead a session, or a service, while your own relationship with God was messy and painful, and you weren’t sure how much of that to include or how.
  22. Realised you’d gone most of a year without actually being present in worship just as a worshipper, and maybe that’s why you’re burned out and angry all the time.
  23. Loaded the kids up with sugar, handed them back to their parents, and felt no remorse.
  24. Felt completely out of your depth.
  25. Felt like there’s nowhere else you want to be.

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New Christmas books!

Just in time for Advent, I’ve bought a bunch of new Christmas books for the resource centre. They should be here within the week, so pop in and check them out if you’re around!

For those churches in our Diocese who are far from St Albans – if any of these look good, email me, and we can send around an APB to Holywell Lodge staff for anyone who will be in your area in the next few days and can bring you what you’d like to borrow.

cover1So without further ado, here’s what we now have …

Lois Rock is basically the rock star of under-5s Bible stories and prayers. This collection helps adults and very young children together explore the wonder and mystery of the Christmas season through prayer. Perfect for a toddler group, a creche, a visit to your local nursery, inspiration for your crib service …

 

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Another Lois Rock one – I first discovered this when my nephew was three and I gave it to him as a Christmas present. What makes it special is that it includes not only the Christmas story itself, but a wonderful collection of folklore and legends surrounding Christmas. The stories come from all around the world, making it a subtle way of teaching diversity and inclusion, and Alex Ayliffe’s wonderful illustrations are simple and colourful, but include interesting details for children to spot.

 

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As Elena Pasquali’s simple yet beautiful text tells the Christmas story, Giuliano Ferri’s illustrations tell a second, unspoken one – that of the peaceable kingdom. Bit by bit, the animals gather together around the manger. Lions and lambs lie down together. Bears and donkeys gather in peace. At the end, the text of Isaiah 11 connects this imagery to the prophesy of God’s Kingdom, where “they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”

 

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Another one that combines the Biblical Christmas stories with folklore and legend, this time aimed at older children. Here’s what the publisher says: “This beautifully presented volume of classic Christmas stories from around the world is written for children aged 7+ to enjoy reading alone, or for reading aloud in a classroom setting or with family sitting round a log fire! A mixture of stories from the Christian heritage and more secular tales, these retellings all evoke the true spirit of Christmas around the world. Included are Nativity stories from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, the stories of Baboushka and Papa Panov, Fir Tree and The Nutcracker. The whole collection sparkles with colourful and detailed artwork from Jane Ray.” (It’s also worth pointing out that Jane Ray’s Mary and Joseph look genuinely Middle Eastern.)

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I’ve been an adult for a while now, but this book still sends a shiver of wonder up my spine whenever I read it. It’s based around the Mexican community in the American Southwest, and the tradition of Las Posadas – when Mary and Joseph go around the town looking for a safe place to stay. Here’s the publisher’s summary: “This year Sister Angie, who is always in charge of the clebration, has to stay home with the flu, and Lupe and Roberto, who are to play Mary and Joseph, get caught in a snowstorm. But a man and a woman no one knows arrive in time to take their place in the procession and then mysteriously disappear at the end before they can be thanked. That night we witness a Christian miracle, for when Sister Angie goes to the cathedral and kneels before the statue of Mary and Joseph, wet footprints from the snow lead up to the statue.”

I’d love to hear your recommendations for the Advent and Christmas books we should add to our library – do leave any thoughts in the comments! And let me know if you’d like to borrow any of these.

 

 

What about the boys?

Today being International Men’s Day, it’s a good time to talk about boys.

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Many churches, when I’m working with them on Junior Church, Messy Church, etc., will ask, “what about the boys?” When I ask for more information, they’ll say “they can’t sit still, they charge around, they make noise, they’re loud – how do we engage them in Junior Church or worship?”

Now, I’m firmly of the belief that we shouldn’t structure our children’s ministry around “boy stuff” and “girl stuff.” We should include a range of activities for different interests and levels of activity – some girls will be very fidgety, some boys will happily sit still and read for hours. And of course in any mixed-age group, age will play a huge role – a 9-year-old boy will be much more able to sit, listen, and participate in long discussions than a 6-year-old girl will.

So when we talk about “what about the boys?” in our children’s groups, what we’re really asking is, “what about the fidgety, physical, noisy children?” And they may be mostly boys, but if we phrase it as simply “a boy thing,” then a fidgety, physical girl may get the message that her way of being a girl is “wrong,” and a quiet, calm, boy may get the message that his way of being a boy is “wrong.”

So let’s take that “what about the boys?” question and ask … “what about the fidgety, noisy, physical kids?”

I have a group in my church right now that is about 80% fidgety, noisy, physical kids, and 20% kids who want to talk for ages.

This is a tough combination.

So yesterday, when a Sunday School session had turned into a total disaster, I found a moment during activity time, got down on the floor with some of the more fidgety ones, and we had a chat about what they needed.

When they said “Sunday School is BORING,” I said, “okay, how can we make it less boring for you?”

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Here are some of the things we’re going to try:

  1. A physical opening time. We’re going to start not by sitting for quiet prayer – that will come second (kids do need silence and stillness). But we’re going to start with making the sign of the cross (in the Diddy Disciples way, with words to go with it – “God be in my head, my heart, and all around me, Amen”). We’re then going to stomp out a rhythm to accompany reciting the books of the Bible (I did this with them once, when we were talking about the Bible being a library and having all kinds of different stuff in it, like poems and stories and rules and prophesy, and now a few of them have got obsessed with it and beg for it to be included every week, and I’ve given in). We’ll then have a physical opening to prayer (the “Gathering Song” bit from this Diddy Disciples session – you can speak the words if you’re not a confident singer) and then sit for some time of peaceful stillness.
  2. More games in response time. I tend to have a variety of activities out – kids can choose to do art, or play with spiritually imaginative toys, or play with the storytelling materials. So there are options for getting physical. But they’re not officially organised. These kids said they wanted to do games together. So we’re going to try a few over the next weeks (anyone have a good physical game for the Joseph and his brothers story?)
  3. Fidget toys. This isn’t news – in fact, during the disastrous session yesterday, one of the things I tried was handing out things for them to fidget with. But we had a LONG conversation about what the fidget toys were for, and what kind they could bring in – they wanted to bring in iPads, or things that could fly up to the ceiling of the room. So we set a few rules. YES, you can bring in a fidget toy from home. But it needs to be quiet, it needs to stay in your hand so it doesn’t distract others, and it needs to be something that settles your body so your mind can focus on the story, not something that is going to focus your mind on the toy itself. I passed these guidelines on to the parents after church, so the parents know that yes, I did tell them they could bring toys in, but so that the kids can’t go “Margaret told me I could bring my iPad to Sunday School next week!” This will hopefully also help the more fidgety ones to listen with more patience to the ones who like to talk things out.
  4. Physical engagement with the story. We do a bit of this already, but I need to step it up. So next week, based on a suggestion from the Spiritual Child Network Facebook group, I’m going to hand out Lego and we’re going to build the story as we tell it. Diddy Disciples is also an incredibly physical form of storytelling, and can work with children over the age of 5 as well as under. I’m also going to try having them use their bodies to make tableaux of each scene in the story as we tell it, and, in the spring, try taking them outside and walking around different places in the church garden and porch area, for different parts of the story.

What other suggestions do you have for engaging fidgety, physical, noisy children in storytelling, music, prayer, and response time?

And how do we put these ideas into practice in other contexts, such as All-Age Worship?

 

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.

Gifts of the Spirit prayers

I did this with Diocesan staff yesterday, with the idea that it could easily work with children’s groups.

Because it requires an understanding of abstract ideas and metaphor, it probably would work best with kids age 7 and up – into adolescence. It could also be used in All-Age Worship, if you could think of a way to include the tinies.

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You will need: a picture of a dove, coloured strips of paper, markers.

One of the readings for our service was 1 Corinthians 12:3-13.

So, using the “gifts of the Spirit” as my inspiration, I drew an outline of a dove on some A1 easel paper and put it in the middle of our worship space. Then, to begin our prayer time, I read the following:

God, you are three in one, and through your Spirit you have poured on all your people an abundance and diversity of gifts. Help us to know your Spirit, brooding over the world as a mother bird over her children, nurturing and inspiring, encouraging and guiding.”

Then I explained: for each question, if you would like to, you may write a response, using as few or as many of your papers as you would like. As I read the closing prayer, you may bring up your responses and place them around the image of the Spirit – perhaps as feathers, or as flames, or simply as prayers left before God. If you would like to keep your prayer private, you may fold your paper over, and I ask that everyone respects that privacy.

I read each of these questions and waited in silence until I could only hear 1 or 2 markers still scratching, before saying “Lord, in your mercy …”

What gifts are you thankful for from others today?

Lord, in your mercy …

All: hear our prayer

What gifts do the church, and the world, need today?

Lord, in your mercy …

All: hear our prayer

What gifts do your friends, family, and community need today?

Lord, in your mercy …

All: hear our prayer

What gifts do you have that you can use in your work and personal life today?

Lord, in your mercy …

All: hear our prayer

What gifts would you ask the Spirit to help you make more of?

Lord, in your mercy …

All: hear our prayer

Then I reminded everyone they could bring their prayers forward as I read the following, slightly adapted from Teresa of Avila’s famous prayer:

Christ has no body now but ours. No hands, no feet on earth but ours. Ours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Ours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Ours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Ours are the hands, ours are the feet, ours are the eyes, we are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but ours.

The dove, with all our prayers, remained there in the middle of our circle as we celebrated communion.

You could easily incorporate music into this prayer idea.

“It worked for us” – Messy Church edition

On Friday, I had the privilege of visiting one of the many wonderful Messy Churches in our Diocese. This one was at Kensworth, and is run by a team of volunteers, along with the Vicar, Nicola.Messy-Church-Event

Here are some tips I picked up. Very few are unique to this one Messy Church, but by showing how they work in this particular context, I hope I’ll nudge out some of the underlying principles that you might be able to apply to your Messy Church (or Sunday morning, or monthly Family Service, or …)

  1. Messy Church is held at the church hall, three miles from the church itself. Why? Because the church hall is just across the road from the primary school. Messy Church begins at 3:30 pm on a Friday. As Nicola said, “you can bring the kids straight from school, it’s Friday, it doesn’t matter if their uniforms get dirty.” You get messy-3to socialise with the other parents, and by the time you get home your kids have been fed and your Friday night is much more relaxed. By starting with the thought “what do our families need?” rather than “how can we make people come to church?” the job of getting people in the door is much easier.
  2. There was a broad variety of activities. We were doing the Lost Sheep, and there were art projects, cooking projects, and sensory tables. I ended up spending most of my time at a table with three tubs – one had slime, one had rice, and one had water gel beads. Toy sheep had been hidden in all the trays, and kids spent ages sifting their hands through and finding the sheep. (They also poured the gel beads in the slime, got rice in the gel bead tray, and made a proper mess). While we were doing this, messy-5we chatted about school and families and life, and also talked about what it felt like to get lost and to be found again. Another table made sheep biscuits, another drew pictures of themselves enfolded in the arms of God – and more. By providing a variety of activities, children of different ages, with different skills and interests, were catered for. Messy Church has lots of resources to make this easy for you, so do make sure you get their magazine and check their website regularly.
  3. The worship was real worship. The story was told clearly, and in detail – and the story is the centrepiece of worship. Kids relate to stories, adults need to hear them messy-1again and understand them in new ways, and they’re the source of all the symbols and imagery we were exploring during the free choice time.  If we gloss over the story, nothing else makes sense! And, importantly, the story was given CONTEXT. Nicola made it clear that this was a story Jesus told. Imagine a kid coming to Messy Church with little Christian background, and hearing “David was little and fought Goliath and won” … okay, who was David? Why should we care? Why isn’t Jesus in this story? A few sentences to explain where the story fits in can help. There were songs that are repeated every session, so people knew them, and a prayer written by the original Messy Church group.
  4. Adults participated in worship. The songs chosen were accessible for everyone – adults didn’t feel silly joining in. Beware “cutesy” songs, or songs that require participants to “perform” in a way that adults and older children might be reluctant to get involved in. Also, the fact that this Messy Church is in a pretty small space for its numbers probably helped the worship – in that adults and children had to sit together. You couldn’t have a situation where children sit at the front for worship and adults disappear to the back of the church, twenty yards away, to chat and look at their phones. How could you use your space to naturally push everyone together? How could you encourage adults to interact with their children during worship, to help them get involved? How could you use music and prayer in ways accessible to all ages?
  5. There were connections, and a pathway. Just like in Sunday church, worship included an announcement time. This Messy Church has started “Messy Holy Communion,” to help families make the leap to sacramental worship, and to connect with the church building three miles away. It was made very clear, though, that the next “Messy Holy Communion” WAS MESSY CHURCH – they were being invited to their community’s gathering, which would also include people from the Sunday congregation, not to something different and scary. Leaflets were placed by the door with information. There was also a signup sheet for “Messy Minus The Kids” – a social gathering for the adults, and a “Beyond Messy Church” youth group signup sheet. While a few teenagers were present as helpers, it’s good to have something available for your kids who feel they “grow out of” Messy Church and who don’t want to get involved as helpers, if possible.
  6. Finding the right balance between service recipient and community member. If your Messy Church was started by a group of volunteers from the original church, it’s easy to fall into an “us/them” mindset. “We, the church, are service providers – they, the families, are recipients.” This is important – you’re loving and serving your community, and as the volunteer leader Kathie said to me, “this is a place where the parents can relax and not have to do anything, just be taken care of. And they’re all doing the school run while we’re setting up, anyway.” However, you also need to think of long-term sustainability if your volunteer team is primarily elderly or could get burned out without new blood. Maybe a few parents could be encouraged to help once a term, on a rota, so not every one is helping every time. One dad in this Messy Church had taken the day off work to cook the dinner for everyone! Another mum said to me, “now, with my kids coming here, I can’t volunteer to help, but when they’re in secondary school I’d love to come back on my own and pitch in.” One thing that distinguishes a church from many other places in our lives is that it’s our community – we belong, and that means we’re part of making it happen. Providing opportunities for your “service recipients” to become “community members” is one of the ways in which Messy Church can be Church.
  7. There was a donations box at the door. Stewardship is another way in which Messy Church can be Church. If it’s our community, we support it in whatever way we can.

And a final note: None of this sprang up overnight – this Messy Church has spent years being developed, and there have been changes and adjustments along the way. So if you’re just getting started on your Messy Church (or family service, or holiday club, or …) journey, use these tips to help you build your own vision, for your own community and your own church’s gifts, and take it one step at a time! And as always, get in touch with me if you need help or guidance at any time.

UPDATE: I wanted to add a few comments from parents, which don’t fit neatly into the list above, but are worth thinking about.

“We’ve been to Sunday church a few times, but here it’s more relaxed and we know we’ll be made welcome.” (this is a very welcoming Sunday church, incidentally – but parents are always a bit nervous about their kids’ behaviour, and whether it’s okay!)

“We heard about it through a leaflet at school – and then a few of her friends started coming and invited us to join them.”

“It’s a real community feel here.”