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Creating the Perfect Place for Preschoolers

A dash of age-right hospitality can radically impact learning and faith for preschoolers.

What’s a bright spot in your church that can continually bring in—and keep—new families? Why, the preschool, of course! It’s true that people may seek out a church home at any age and stage in life, but the reality is many begin their search in earnest when their children are young. Parents of small children are more open to the church and are looking for the perfect place for their preschoolers’ faith formation.

How can you help ensure your ministry is that place? By opening your arms wide and offering hospitality that would make Jesus proud.

Radical Hospitality

“People are searching for churches that make them feel welcome and loved, needed, and accepted,” says Bishop Robert Schnase, author of Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. Robert serves the Rio Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. Robert goes on to explain, “Radical hospitality is the active desire to invite, welcome, receive, and care for those who are strangers so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves the unending richness of life in Christ.”

Radical hospitality is a concept Thom and Joani Schultz, authors of Why Nobody Wants to Be Around Christians Anymore, have also written extensively about. Underlying the concept is the idea that people are welcome just as they are. It’s a sense that permeates everything—from the registration desk to the take-home materials—that we’re all in this together.

“All of us desperately want and need to be accepted and loved unconditionally. Don’t you?” ask the Schultzes, who are also president and chief creative officer of Group. “So when others feel we judge them without accepting and welcoming them just as they are, they don’t want to be around us. They don’t get that baseline need of love and acceptance met.”

“Radical hospitality is accepting—no matter what,” reiterates Bill Ward, senior pastor for Providence Presbyterian Church in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

“Radical means ‘out of the ordinary,’ ‘revolutionary,’ ” adds Marilyn Sewell, author and retired minister of the First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. “So, what would it mean to receive someone—a stranger—with a presence that wasn’t just polite, but to receive the person with revolutionary generosity?”

Applying Radical Hospitality to Ministry

When we apply this concept of radical hospitality to every part of our ministry, including in how we minister to preschoolers and their families, it helps us create the perfect place for them. It’s easy to see how stressed, protective, loving, and overwhelmed parents will more positively respond to a church that practices radical hospitality.

“Preschool is a pivotal time in a family’s life,” says Rosanna Anderson, pastor of Fishers Island Union Chapel in Fishers Island, New York. “The wonderful thing about preschoolers is that they’re curious, and they’re old enough to begin to understand about worship.”

Treating even the youngest child with respect is part of radical hospitality, acknowledging that even though they’re young, preschoolers have the capacity to worship.

“Recognize that the child has a relationship with God,” says Rosanna. “Honor them as Christians who are part of a community of faith.” She believes Sunday school helps prepare preschoolers to have a meaningful relationship with God and the church. For instance: “Snack prepares children for the church worship service and the Lord’s table [communion]. We worship together in church, but Sunday school is a more intimate time. Children learn, ‘Jesus is for me. God is listening when I pray.’ ”

How do you incorporate radical hospitality in your preschool program? You let it soak into every aspect of your ministry.

Come Join Us

The first contact a family has with your ministry is key in welcoming that family and making them all feel comfortable. (This includes families who come once a month and regular attendees. Radical hospitality doesn’t stop when families make your church home; it’s woven into the very fiber of your environment and culture.)

“If someone walks into church with a preschool-age child, the frontline person (in our case, the greeter) recognizes this and addresses it in a positive way,” says Scott Moon, minister of the First United Methodist Church, Maryville, Missouri.

Scott explains that this key person can describe what the church offers and anticipate the questions a new family might have, such as, “Where do we go first?” Ideally, this frontline person can leave his or her post and take the family to check in, to the appropriate preschool room, and to introduce them to the teacher. Checking in children before parents leave is a crucial step, not only for their safety and security but also for parents’ peace of mind.

Three prechoolers enjoy snack at a table.Scott explains that in his church, the greeter also informs parents that younger children are welcome in the sanctuary but that the nursery and preschool room is an option for all or part of the worship service. In fact, during a recent renovation, Scott’s church opted to move the nursery closer to the sanctuary. Additionally, they have activity bags with faith-based coloring pages, stickers, and more available in the sanctuary for young children to use during worship. They also placed a rocking chair in an alcove near the sanctuary. Intentionally making your space welcoming, comfortable, and practical for families with small children is a key aspect of radical hospitality.

A New World View

Your culture is also key to providing preschoolers with radical hospitality. This means you’ve carefully thought through what a preschool environment looks like—from the perspective of little ones and their families.

Where Preschooler Thrive

Preschoolers thrive in an area that’s neat and uncluttered. Clear organization relieves stress for children and their parents. Light-hued walls are soothing. Clean windows allow natural light. Child-size furniture is an important way to communicate your care and investment in preschoolers. An area rug and a quiet corner with comfy seating provide a soft place for Bible time and worship, especially if your flooring is hard and cold otherwise. Finally, your team’s caring and compassionate attitude sets the ultimate tone of environmental hospitality.

“When we think about Sunday school, we often come with preconceived notions of what we think children should do and be,” says Pradnya Patet, professor and former director of children and family ministries at the United Methodist Church in Maryville, Missouri. “Is that faith formation? No, it’s not; not if children have to sit a certain way, and be quiet, and act a certain way. Let children be children.”

Pradnya’s Preschool Ministry

I got to observe the many ways Pradnya strives to make her preschool ministry perfect for little ones and their families. On a sunny morning, she welcomes preschoolers into her room by name. Veronica Romig and her mom, Julie, sit at a low table eating a snack with Andrew Wilmes. Two-year-old Shayde Spire is usually in the nursery next door. But today she wants to stay with her brother, Krede. Even though the preschool class is for 3- to 5-year- olds, Pradnya says it’s okay.

Pradnya sometimes has a volunteer greeter as children walk in. “The greeter asks children, ‘Would you like a hug, a handshake, or a high-five?’ ” Pradnya explains. “Kids can choose any of these because not everybody likes to be hugged. We’ve learned that at a young age, [this show of] respect is important. It’s the child’s choice.”

In the center of the table, a bright red plate holds cookies cut into fourths and slices of apples and glazed donuts. When young Hans Randall and Hinton Hamilton enter the room, Hinton doesn’t want to stay. But then he eyes the snacks and decides to sit at the table while his father says goodbye.

The atmosphere in the room is casual, calm, and child-centered. Children can take off their shoes if they want and put them in their cubby. The teacher purposely keeps the lights off, so sunshine illuminates the room.

It Takes Effort

The church has worked diligently to create a child- and family-centered environment. “We ask, What does it mean to be a church family?” Pradnya says. “One thing families do together is eat. And the snack is a big part of our preschool area. That’s where the best conversations happen because children want to tell you about their week.”

Preschooler and volunteer place a sticker on the attendance board.As preschoolers eat and talk, they each choose the special job they’ll fulfill that day. Each child has a role, such as a greeter, acolyte, prayer helper, story helper, or sticker helper.

“If we all have jobs,” says Pradnya, “then that makes us important in the family. Having a job is a privilege.”

While his friends finish eating, Krede performs his job. As the sticker helper, he places a sticker for each friend who’s present.

Children used to put up their own stickers, but Pradnya explains that this changed because “we wanted to create a community. This approach lets children recognize our friends who aren’t able to be with us.”

Krede places stickers, and notes that he doesn’t see Maverick Sandusky-Ury.

“Maverick isn’t here,” says Pradnya.

Conscious Discipline

Pradnya, who holds a Ph.D. in family and child development and is a professor at John Tyler Community College, is quick to credit Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline model for many of the approaches she uses with children. Pradnya says she’s adapted the Conscious Discipline model for her class, which recognizes three basic brain, body, and mind states of being that are likely to produce certain behaviors in kids.

When it comes to volunteers, Pradnya says, “We want you, your faith, and your dedication to children just the way in which you bring it. We can share resources and ideas and grow together.”

She believes in weaving the concept of radical hospitality rather than classroom management into Sunday school teacher orientation. Therefore, key features of her classes are related to routines. Activities occur in the same order each week: snack, music, worship, story, prayer, crafts, and closing. Young children like the consistency of routines. She uses songs and action rhymes at transition times. Pradnya also uses an age-appropriate, Bible-based curriculum that emphasizes experiencing Bible passages through dramatic play, building community by working together, and applying learning to children’s daily lives.

“Children learn what they live,” says Pradnya, referring to an example of when kids acted out the biblical account of Paul getting out of prison. “The idea isn’t so much that Paul escaped from prison but that he had friends who got together to make a plan to do that for him, just like we got together to make our story. The next time we talked about that passage, they remembered it because we hadn’t just read the story, we’d reenacted it.”

Faith and Childhood Development

Pradnya believes church and Sunday school can be the perfect place for preschoolers to thrive as they experience faith growth. She relates faith to child development.

“The younger you start, the better,” she says. “Early childhood experiences give kids a good foundation, a good footing to launch from. Think about faith and how it emerges. It goes back to how a child’s brain is developing. The limbic system [which controls basic emotions and drives] is developing. It’s a critical time in their lives.”

Next up, Pradnya’s group experiences a pleasant surprise. They were missing their friend Maverick, but he walks in with his mother, Andrea Sandusky-Ury, the volunteer who also teaches preschoolers with Pradnya.

“Maverick’s here!” Pradnya says. Everyone is joyful now that their Sunday school family is complete. Then the small room fills up with other assistants: Maverick’s 10-year-old brother, Ambrose, and Pradnya’s 10-year-old son, Matteo Paul. Veronica’s father joins his wife and daughter. Everyone’s welcome. The goodwill and caring evident in this small community is a key reason these preschoolers can’t wait to come back each week.

Active Bible Play

A preschool girl is participating in active Bible play by pretending having her arms across her chest.One of the best ways to engage preschool-age children in learning is to employ active learning, where kids can move around and get involved. That’s why fingerplays, action rhymes, and dramatic play are perfect for this age group for both girls and boys. Fingerplays or action rhymes are short poems where hand and body movements act out words being said. Classic examples are “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “This Little Piggy Went to Market,” and “Where Is Thumpkin?” Acting out the passage lets children experience it and remember key points while staying interested and having fun.

“I like fingerplays because they’re simple—usually just a few lines—repetitive, and they use actions,” says Debbie Clark, who taught preschool in the Midwest for over 35 years and used fingerplays during group time and transitions.

Fingerplays grab children’s attention and help them focus. Debbie recommends reciting fingerplays with her children but also using an echo pattern where you say the line and children repeat it. Fingerplays are structured perfectly for young children.

Bible fingerplays summarize events and point children to an important takeaway.

Following is a simple Bible story fingerplay from my book, The Giant Book of Bible Fingerplays for Preschoolers. This book features 101 Old and New Testament Scripture verses, stories, and corresponding fingerplays that can be said or sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques.”

Note that the left-hand side of the fingerplay contains the verse, and the right-hand side contains the actions in parentheses. The words correspond to the actions on the same line.

Bible Fingerplay

Three wise men came (hold up three fingers)
From the east, they (point to the east)
Saw a star (palm down above eyes, looking)
Shine so bright! (open hands and wiggle fingers)
Following the star, they (point to star)
Found the baby Jesus, (elbows clasped to rock baby)
Then each man (hold up 1, 2, 3 fingers)
Gave a gift. (palms upward, outward)

As a children’s librarian at the Maryville Public Library, Debbie now uses puppets and pictures, which add to a child’s understanding of the story. She sets the puppets on a table so children can retell and act out the story themselves. This type of dramatic play helps children experience a passage or story. And when they do this with another child, it also builds friendships.

And there are even more benefits to using active Bible play. Dramatic play has several benefits. It helps with language skills because children act out while retelling a story. It helps to develop a child’s social skills as he cooperates with others to tell a story. And, this type of play also develops a child’s imagination as she thinks about the story in her mind.

Amy Houts headshotAmy Houts is a grandmother, Joy Camp volunteer, and author of over 70 books including The Giant Book of Bible Fingerplays for Preschoolers.

Looking for more preschool ideas? Check out these posts!

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