Instead of wishing you’d done it right the first time, how can you effectively plan and communicate your children’s ministry needs during a building phase in your church? And after building, how can you make your facility first-rate?
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I’m not a prophet, but one of the most important aspects of my job as a children’s ministry leader is to plan for our ministry’s future facility needs. I’ve discovered that many churches across America usually make the mistake of building a new expanded worship facility, then almost as an afterthought play catch-up with the children’s space needs.
Here are 12 basic tools that can help you.
TOOL #1 — Start with prayer.
“Pray for wisdom, clarity of direction, finances, professional contacts, encouragement, endurance, and teamwork,” Pam Forbes, the children’s minister at Pantego Bible Church in Arlington, Texas, advises. Pam’s church is in phase 1 of their building project. She says, “Develop a prayer support team. Building is a huge responsibility, as well as an awesome opportunity, to more effectively impact kids with the love of Christ.”
TOOL #2 — Involve everyone in dreaming and planning — including the children.
“Ask the Lord for wisdom and guidance,” says Pat Collins, the director of children’s ministries at Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, whose church recently completed a building project. Pat advises, “Then ask your congregation for a lot of input. A building is a building, but the people make it a church. The congregation owns the church, and they need to own the process, too.”
The building committee at Pat’s church worked hard to include all the areas of the church — the ushers, women’s ministry, men’s ministry, children’s ministry, and more. A staff member from each ministry area served on the building committee so everyone’s concerns were represented.
TOOL #3 — Keep good attendance records.
If you have an accurate measure of what your attendance is over a long period of time, it’ll be easier to project what your attendance will be in two, three, or five years. Also, break down your attendance into age divisions. For example, measure your nursery, preschool, and elementary attendance for each worship service or education hour. Take these measurements during your busiest months (avoid Easter or Christmas) and average the results.
TOOL #4 — Know the adult-to-child ratio in your church attendance.
This ratio is the key to accurate prediction of future space needs. Our church has a ratio of 2-to-1. That is, for every two adults in a given worship hour we have one child in our ministry during that hour. So when we expand to a 1,200-seat auditorium, I can accurately estimate that we’ll have 600 children in each service. We have to plan for these 600 children when we build our education facility.
TOOL #5 — Know your square-footage needs for each age level.
The space needs for a baby are different from a fifth-grader’s space needs. This is why you need to know the average number of babies, preschoolers, and elementary-age children that you have in each service.
Provide 35 square feet for every infant and toddler (under age 3), 30 square feet for each preschooler (ages 3 to 5), and around 25 square feet for every elementary-age child.
TOOL #6 — Incorporate your children’s ministry vision into the building plans.
The architectural firm AAA Church Building Services, Inc., states on its Web site that any church building program must begin with a ministry driven design. This firm stresses that “we are not designing monuments to our own creativity…The design must be determined by the ministries of the congregation…A church building is a tool for the church to use to accomplish the purpose for which God has placed that congregation in the world.”
“The senior pastor really leads the way,” says Pat Collins. “If your church has a vision statement that your pastor is sold on, and the church is behind it, figure out how you can reflect that vision through your building. As a church, know where you want to go and how you want to affect your community. Then design your facility to reflect that.”
Determine how your philosophy will impact every aspect of your facility. Itemize what your philosophy of children’s ministry is. With your team, brainstorm what you believe about effective children’s ministry. Then beside each belief statement, write what that’ll mean for your facility.
For example, if you believe children need a large-group worship celebration, request a large enough room in your facility that’ll allow for that. If you value recreation, then request a gymnasium, family-life center, or large playground to advance your mission with children.
If the vision for your ministry involves active learning where kids are moving around, noise can be an issue. Request special soundproof materials in your part of the facility so you won’t always have to silence kids’ hands-on learning. Or ask that your classrooms be placed far enough away from areas in the church that require more contemplative environments.
TOOL #7 — Make your children’s area child-friendly.
Don’t limit your future ministry by building the way church environments have always looked. Pat Collins’ church-building committee traveled to other churches to bring back ideas for their building. Pat advises, “Visit other churches, newer schools, and daycare centers. Check out designs for child development buildings or schools and daycare centers from your library. Get a perspective of what your facility could be, then adjust your plans to suit your needs and budget.”
Take your children’s ministry team to the best child-friendly businesses in your area, such as a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant, a Discovery Zone play place, children’s museums, or even children’s hospitals. Have your team walk through each facility and make a list of the top-10 child-friendly things they see. Discuss these things and brainstorm how you could use them in your new facility. For example, you may be wowed by the wild neon colors in a Discovery Zone or a skylight in a children’s hospital. The humor at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant may inspire you to create a Mount Rushmore mural with your church staff’s faces painted on it.
Pantego Bible Church’s early childhood area will include a “playstation” area that, according to Pam Forbes, “reflects the best of the indoor Discovery Zone concept combined with the best in quality children’s museums.”
Pam says that the playstation features…
- a thematic decor,
- a connecting minitheater for storytelling and videos,
- a two-story slide for children to enter the area from the second floor,
- touch-screen computers and hands- on learning stations,
- direct access to the outdoor playground that sports the same theme, and
- a miniature version of this area for children in the nursery.
Another part of child-friendly is to place things at a child’s height. Discuss with your architect how high the sinks, toilets, and drinking fountains should be in your children’s area. And don’t forget coat racks and even door knobs. You want your facility to say to children, “This place is for you!”
TOOL #8 — Draw from others’ expertise.
Tap into the expertise of your church members, such as artists, interior decorators, playground supervisors, child-friendly restaurant managers, fund-raisers, and more.
“The point person of our playstation design,” says Pam Forbes, “is in the entertainment theme-park business and has provided us an opportunity to attend a convention full of the most recent innovations in fun! He is developing ways to build much of the playstation with either donated or reduced cost materials…We also have on our team two outdoor playground builders who build internationally — and one has a degree in early childhood education. What a blessing!”
TOOL #9 — Make safety a priority.
“Security will be a high priority for us because our building will be separate from the worship center in a park-like campus setting,” Pam Forbes says. “A scan-card ID system is being developed with scanners at outside entry doors. No ID card — no entry.”
Many churches have moved to an enclosed children’s area with a primary entryway. The only people allowed to enter the education area are those with approved name badges — staff and parents. If you’d like such tight security in your children’s programs, work with your architect to limit entry points to your education area. Ask for a built-in registration booth at this entryway. Require windows in every classroom door.
Once your building is completed, maintain a safe environment. Eliminate all small choking hazards from nursery and toddler rooms. Don’t use outlet cover plugs (kids can pull these off and choke on them, too). Instead, install the new outlet covers that have a spring-loaded sliding cover (now available in most hardware stores). Anchor any free-standing large objects to the wall. Eliminate any sharp edges in the rooms (chalkboards with broken chalk pieces in preschool rooms are a no-no).
The National Association for the Education of Young Children has an excellent checklist to determine if your facility is child-friendly and safe. The Accreditation Criteria & Procedures book includes a section for checking the quality of features in your facility. See the “Before You Build” sidebar for ordering information.
TOOL #10 — Plan for flexibility.
Build classrooms that’ll enable classes to grow for years to come. “Our two-story, 41,000 square-foot children’s building will be a building that reflects great flexibility through the use of large group and small group spaces,” Pam Forbes says. “Strategically placed movable walls will either open up areas by age/grade level for celebration type activities or reduce space for shepherding experiences, as dictated by attendance and program changes.”
Whatever you do, don’t build a facility that perfectly fits your ministry model. That model may change in the future, and you’ll find that the facility is inadequate for your new model. Think big, rather than small, when it comes to meeting areas. Even in a large meeting area, you can use temporary dividers to break down the room if necessary.
TOOL #11 — Keep your facility clean.
Maintain a regular schedule of going into the rooms and discarding old and torn books, broken toys, and the junk that can build up. Buy nice storage containers for the preschool toys. Keep each room organized and maintained. Organize a regular clean-up day, and replace discarded toys and books with new ones. Sanitize your toys weekly. Use a Diaper Genie diaper disposal system in each nursery room to isolate the smell from diapers, and install automatic air fresheners in each room.
TOOL #12 — Add special touches.
When people walk into your children’s education area, is there something other than signs that tells them this is a place for children? Consider decorating your facility to communicate a look, feel, and atmosphere that says this is a place for kids. In our preschool rooms, we’ve painted murals about the days of Creation and Noah’s Ark. Upstairs in our elementary hallways, we’ve painted a continuous mural with an entire town, a general store, a forest, a town square, a church, and more. In some of the classrooms, we’ve allowed each child to make a footprint and handprint on the walls. Outside the nursery rooms in the hall, we’ve framed enlarged pictures of our children. We play soft praise music over an intercom system in the nursery area. These and other ideas help make these areas unique for children.
So use these 12 tools to add to your toolbox to build a first-rate facility for your children. Shouldn’t your children have the best you can give them? I think so. An amazing environment makes kids want to come back, and it helps your workers feel special too.
Dwight Mix is the children’s minister at Fellowship Bible Church in Lowell, Arkansas.