At Saturn Road Church of Christ in Garland, Texas, these church
folks know how to bring up babies right, and they've done it for
more than 35 years...
It's Sunday morning, and Jackie Brown is seated on the floor
behind a specially made half-circle table, singing about Creation
to her class of toddlers. One of her students, 1-year-old Hudson,
sits up very straight in his tiny bench chair, clutching a little
plastic fish in anticipation of the moment he'll get to dunk it in
the fishbowl Jackie passes around. Finally it's his turn. With a
dramatic flair, he drops the fish in and beams proudly as everyone
in the room applauds and exclaims. Then he forgets about himself
and cranes his neck to get a better look at what Jackie does
• • •
This is a typical Cradle Roll class at the Saturn Road Church of
Christ in Garland, Texas, and the teachers are teaching a class to
students most churches don't think about actually teaching --
babies. Saturn Road's philosophy is that just putting babies in
nurseries until they are 3 is a waste of time. So they start
teaching as soon as the children enter the church, even when babies
are just a few days old. Today, the teachers use singing, a
Creation theme, and lots of toys to teach Bible classes to their
very youngest church members.
The colorful room teems with life and children and toys. Bright,
colorful animal toys fill the shelves -- enough small toys so
children can each hold one for each lesson. For every two kids, one
adult helper sits in a regular chair behind the children. Jackie
and her helpers perform a carefully choreographed routine: When she
needs a toy, it's already washed and held out for her. Others turn
the lights off and on at appointed times, comfort any children who
start to cry, and sing the songs with Jackie.
"I'd never heard of anybody having classes for babies. Most
churches just baby-sit up until 3 years," says Karen Stafford, a
Cradle Roll coordinator who has now been teaching Cradle Roll for
28 years. "But I just loved it. I was amazed at what the babies
could learn. It's a whole new world to them. Everyone is so
excited. It's just a miracle watching them."
And what's clear to Karen is clear to any observer -- these tiny
babies are learning. Even the littlest ones kick their legs, bounce
up and down, sway side to side with the songs, and pay rapt
attention in class. For the older babies, once they can talk, it's
obvious that they're learning from their classes.
One Cradle Roll parent took his 9-month-old daughter to the
doctor and told him she said her first word: "Bible." The doctor
said it was too early for the baby to talk and that she was just
babbling. Then the father pulled out a book, and his daughter
pointed to it and said very clearly, "Bible."
"I stand corrected," said the astonished doctor.
The children also remember and anticipate the lessons, which are
based on repetition. When Cecelia Bingham, children's education
coordinator, borrowed the toy cars another Cradle Roll teacher used
in class to simulate driving to church, a 2-year-old asked, "Where
are our cars? We can't drive to church!"
Many have dubbed this hands-on teaching method with babies the
Palma Smiley method. Palma Smiley is an early education consultant
from Lubbock, Texas, who's been teaching babies since the '50s.
"The difference is that these [Cradle Roll] babies have a memory.
They can identify all the animals that go into Noah's ark. They
know what you're talking about. They know how to sit in class. They
know how to learn. They learn how to participate on a higher
A FERTILE GROUND
Cradle Roll began at Saturn Road back in the early '60s. One of
the program's coordinators, Martha Davy, still keeps an article she
clipped from a 1963 Parents magazine that says babies learn the
most in their first 18 months of life. When she read this, Martha
decided to enroll her 13-month-old daughter in the class for
18-month-olds, but the teacher said she could only join the class
if Martha came too -- as a teacher.
Martha enjoyed it so much that she decided to start classes for
even younger babies in 1970. And more than 35 years later, she's
still leading the program, which now averages 60 babies and more
than 35 volunteers.
Saturn Road is an ideal home for these Cradle Roll classes
because of its strong emphasis on Bible classes and its focus on
children. In the hour between the church's two worship services,
dozens of Bible classes meet for all ages -- everything from Cradle
Roll classes to classes for senior adults. More than 70 percent of
the 1,800 church members who attend services also attend Bible
"Bible class is really considered to be important," says
Cecelia. "That's where people feel like they get connected with
And it's obvious that children of all ages are a valued and
essential part of Saturn Road Church. During the a cappella worship
service, an entire section of pews is filled with youth, who pay
close attention to worship and clasp hands during the prayers.
Teacher Tom Winkler prays about teaching children to take ownership
of God's will, and the evening theme is "What Children Need From
"That's the strength of this church -- the little ones and the
teenagers," says nursery coordinator Liz Robinson. "My 16-year-old
was the one who brought me here."
So how do the Cradle Roll teachers do it? To provide personal
attention, they divide the babies into three sections of 10
children or less: birth to 7 months, 8 to 14 months, and 15 to 21
"As soon as children turn 15 months, they move to the next
class," says Cecelia. "You're really teaching to a parade, as we
term it. That's why we use repetition -- it gives them stability.
The older ones know what the routine is, and they're starting to
respond. When the new ones come in, it helps them get in the mode.
The more experienced ones are examples for the younger ones."
The next step is getting down to the babies' level. The teachers
kneel or sit on pillows at specially made half-circle tables with
the babies arranged in jump chairs around the tables. On each jump
chair tray is a chewy animal toy and a key ring so the babies have
something to chew on and something to play with.
The Cradle Roll classes are taught entirely in song. "I'll never
forget the Sunday we began to sing everything," says Lois Whitaker,
one of Cradle Roll's founders. "The kids sat there and listened. As
long as we sang, they were fine. When we stopped, they were not!"
The songs are all written on laminated cards and placed on three
big rings so the teachers can flip through them easily and add and
delete songs as they wish.
Once class begins, the first step is to welcome the babies.
Martha sings each baby a little welcome song, using the baby's name
and looking at him or her through a cardboard funnel or something
with a mirror so the babies can see themselves in a kind of
Peekaboo game. One of the songs is sung to the tune of "Where Is
Thumbkin?" "Where is Susie? Where is Susie? Did she come? Did she
come? Come to Bible claaass. Come to Bible claaass..."
Martha has as at least as much fun as the babies with her
expressive singing and exaggerated gestures.
"You can't be dignified and teach babies," says Lois. "We open
our mouths up real big like a hippopotamus."
BACK TO THE BIBLE
After welcoming each baby, Martha reaches for the Bible and
encourages each baby to pat the Bible. Then she places the Bible on
a special holder where it remains throughout the rest of class.
Some of the older babies receive their own little Bibles. (Lois
recommends using black-and-white Bibles rather than those with
color pictures because little eyes need the stark contrast.)
Palma clearly establishes the need to make the Bible central to
the lesson. "If you don't tell a child about the Bible, he'll never
learn it. If you tell him about it, he will," she observes. "The #1
story across the board that parents tell me is that their baby's
first word is 'Bible.' That's because we point to the Bible and
have them pat it. To the parents it is the most exciting thing in
Then Martha sings about Creation, one of the central themes of
all Cradle Roll classes. It's a natural because children love
animals and flowers and, as Lois points out, Job 12:7 says, "Ask
the animals, and they will teach you."
On the walls of the birth- through 7-months class, seven numbers
represent the days of Creation, and the teacher illustrates each
with appropriate toys and props. The classes can touch on
everything from families, prayer, the five senses, to animals, and
the sun and stars. The Cradle Roll teachers are careful to apply
each lesson to the Bible. After each lesson, the teachers repeat,
"How do we know? Our Bible tells us so!"
VARIATIONS WITH A THEME
In these classes, volunteers have to be constantly ready to
comfort crying babies and then place them back in their jump
chairs. Most of the children, however, are watching Martha's
expressive face as she sings. They bounce and sway with the songs
and strain to see what she's going to pull out next. For each day
of Creation, she sings a little verse. For example, "Day Four, Day
Four," while she and the other helpers raise four fingers and wave
them back and forth, encouraging the children to join them. Then
she pulls out a black velvet glove with gold stars on it, and the
children bounce up and down with excitement.
There's a marked difference in the lessons for the babies 8
months and older just across the hall. Teacher Karen Stafford
employs active learning by having each baby smell and touch
something to illustrate each lesson. The teachers try to have
enough props so each child can hold his or her own, including
clouds made from old rinsed-out Clorox bottles so the babies can
chew on them and latex stars and fish for each child. Of course,
these have to be cleaned constantly! The children are moving around
in their jump chairs, and sometimes have to be encouraged to turn
back to the table. But for the most part, they're intent on Karen
in her bright suit as she holds a "cloud."
The use of props is critical to the Palma Smiley method. "What
we're doing in the birth to 21/2 years class is building a memory,"
says Palma. "If I say to you a cumulus cloud, you know what that
is, but a baby doesn't. So when you say that to a baby, you show
her a picture, you glue a cotton ball to a tongue depressor stick
and let her hold it. And you say, 'Thank God for the cloud.'"
The children are now holding up tentative fingers for Day One of
Creation, and Avery, a little girl with curly light brown hair and
a blue dress, leans delicately forward to smell a rose Karen offers
to her. "Thank you, God, for flowers," Karen sings.
Next door in Jackie's 15- to 21-month-old class, the children
sit in tiny cushioned chairs, and they talk to her. When she holds
out an apple, they identify it and she sings: "Oh, who can make an
apple? I cannot. Can you? Who can make an apple? Only God. 'Tis
When it's time for Day Four, one of the volunteers turns out the
lights so the children can exclaim over their glow-in-the-dark
stars. "Twinkle, Twinkle, little star," sings Jackie. "God has put
you where you are."
"The basic plan is the same for each age," says Martha, "but it
varies and it grows."
Using repetition is essential, according to Martha and the other
teachers. The children start to anticipate the next step, and they
use the motions at home. Parents are always approaching the
teachers to ask what this or that motion represents, and the
teachers will explain, "Oh, that fist is what we do when the
elephant comes out." Or, "That raised index finger is for Day One
GO WITH THE FLOW
In the Cradle Roll program, flexibility is a must.
"You teach children; you don't teach material, says Lois. "I may
stop in the middle of a song if I lose them. We've learned in
pacing to do something noisy and then something quiet. And teaching
babies requires more use of the element of surprise -- boxes that
shake and have little stars inside, bells to ring, stuffed animals
that move and make noises, real flowers to smell mixed in with a
bouquet of artificial flowers. A child will pay attention to
anything that holds his interest, and it's the challenge to the
teacher to hold children's interest," says Lois. "Like commercials
-- quick, action, lots of singing. If I stop, they all start
crying. As long as the mind is active, they're going to be
Always have bubbles nearby, the Saturn Road teachers advise.
Bubbles distract crying babies and can be used for raindrops and
bubble-blowing fish. "We're continually adding to our supplies,"
says teacher Karen, who pays for a lot of the toys she buys out of
her pocket. "It's just part of our ministry -- you've just got to
When Karen or Martha is behind the table teaching, there are at
least four volunteers (women and men) behind the babies cleaning
toys, picking up crying babies, and handing the teacher any props
she may need.
"Besides the teachers, you've got to have a lot of helpers in
case the children get fussy and want to sit in a lap," says
Cecelia. "That's a lot of what the men do, and the children really
respond to them well."
SPREAD YOUR NET WIDE
To have a ministry, you have to make sure new parents know about
your program. That means finding out who's expecting.
"I've tried to work it to just have a spy in young marrieds
[Bible study] groups," says Martha. "We have to keep eyes and ears
Once the teachers know a baby is expected, they spring into
action. For 30 years, the Cradle Roll program has sent the same
"children won't wait" card to new parents inside and outside the
church. The card contains information about Cradle Roll classes and
a poem about teaching children. But the teachers don't stop there.
Saturn Road has a shower or brunch for every family. Volunteers
make burp pads and blankets, and they take meals to the new
With nine new babies expected soon, Martha says, "You nearly
lose control, but we like to make a contact with the family if we
Volunteer Judy Jordan makes blankets for all the new babies --
both quilted and lightweight blankets -- with a heart patch on the
back with the baby's name and birth date.
"When my kids were little and someone took time to make me a
blanket, it was special to me," Judy says. "It meant a little
When the Cradle Roll volunteers bring meals, "It gives them a
chance to meet parents and have parents meet them. Then they say,
'We're really looking forward to having your child come to Cradle
Roll!'" Karen says.
Finding volunteers like Judy and Karen isn't easy, and you need
a formidable volunteer base to create the kind of program Saturn
"Everyone is a volunteer!" Cecelia asserts. "It really is
incredible considering we have such a large program. Martha goes in
during the week to wash the linens and stock the snacks. Trish
Sparrow, one of the nursery coordinators, and her husband, James,
are so dedicated that they serve in the nursery every morning
during the first service, then teach a Cradle Roll class, and then
go to the second worship service. They just love these babies!"
The key for Saturn Road has been recruiting parents to help with
the program. Almost all the volunteers got hooked by sitting in on
classes to see what their babies were doing. They were so amazed at
the results that they joined the program.
"Once you get in there and see the babies are learning, you just
get so excited," Karen says. "You want to be a part of it...We
don't have a big turnover."
There are lots of husband-and-wife teams. Martha's entire family
helps -- two of her three daughters, Lori Deshong and Alisa Wimpee,
have been volunteering since junior high, and her husband, a
graphic designer, also helps with designing forms and letters.
"It takes a whole crew, all of your family working at it,"
Martha says with a laugh.
Cradle Roll also asks church members to volunteer for small,
specific tasks such as sewing diaper bags and pillows, building
chairs and teaching tables, creating bulletin boards, "reporting"
pregnancies, mailing brochures, taking meals to new parents, and,
of course, teaching and helping in class. This allows everyone to
help according to his or her abilities.
Once everything is ready, it's still a big leap of faith for new
parents to leave their little ones with someone else. So the way
the teachers greet their students is very important.
"You've got to show them that you care," says Karen. "When they
come in, we take the babies and give them a hug. We touch them,
call them by name, play Peekaboo with them. When they put the fish
in [the bowl], we clap for them and they're just so proud of
themselves. Even with little babies, we try to build their
They get excited about each baby that comes to the nursery or
class, even the difficult ones."You can't turn someone away because
you may turn them away from the Lord," says Trish.
Another key to parental approval is cleanliness. Every teacher
knows a story about someone who wouldn't join a church because the
nursery failed the smell test or the toys weren't disinfected
properly -- it's that important to parents, especially brand-new
"We're really hung up on keeping things clean," says Martha. "If
parents don't think it's clean, they won't bring their babies. I
had one mother who wanted to read all the labels on the cleaning
products! But she approved!"
Saturn Road is committed to its active learning program, but
that means lots of little latex toys to clean. Volunteers clean all
the toys before and after use, and only the teacher touches the
major props (stuffed animals and flashcards). Whenever a child is
allowed to touch a toy, that child is the only one to touch it, and
it's disinfected during or after class.
Another reality of safely working with children is that you must
screen your volunteers carefully. Saturn Road has a child abuse
protection policy that requires anyone volunteering with children
and youth to attend a one-hour training session, undergo a criminal
background check, and learn and follow Saturn Road's rules about
working with children.
"We want to protect our children as much as possible and we want
all the parents to feel comfortable leaving their children," says
All Cradle Roll volunteers are clearly identifiable with picture
ID badges, which are the handiwork of coordinator Susan Burns. When
the babies come to class, ID tags with a picture of the baby and
the parents' names are placed on the diaper bags and ID tags are
placed on the babies' backs. The teachers also pass out pagers to
parents, especially if they're visitors. The Cradle Roll staff can
reach the parent quickly if the baby cries for more than five
minutes. For visitors, the teachers can verify that they're taking
the right child because they match the pager.
Cradle Roll even has a special fire drill plan. If the alarm
goes off, the volunteers place five babies on a bed and then two
adults carry the bed out, rather than each person trying to grab
Cradle Roll teachers minister to parents as well as children.
The program has three primary objectives: to teach babies about God
and family, to help and encourage the family, and to reach out to
"For me, it's an adult ministry," says Liz. "It gives me an
opportunity to reach out to visitors. Unless you're in the nursery,
you don't know they're visitors."
Cradle Roll's success is all the fruit of its motto: "Train up a
child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not
depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6).
"By the time they're old enough to say words, they're saying the
words they learned in these classes, such as 'God' and 'Jesus' and
'Bible' " says Cecelia. "Some people say they really don't learn
much at this age, but, oh, they do!"
Julia Roller is a free-lance writer and graduate student at
Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. Please
keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject