Design Lessons Learned from Running a Children’s Ministry

posted by Jennifer Walker

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Through my time serving on staff at a local church in children’s ministry I learned the importance of space design for children’s ministry. What may be appealing to a child in a children’s facility may not be appealing to an adult. When designing children’s spaces, does a designer ask himself, “Would a child be drawn into this space?” or, “Is this space exciting?” So often the space is appealing to an adult but not to a child. Not only did I learn the importance of design, but also the challenges that come with sharing space and budgeting.

“… adults tend to gravitate toward formal tables and chairs to help them create order and control among the kids they feel responsible to direct. Children, on the other hand, seem to want enough energy and diversity in the layout of a room for them to take ownership of it …”

Designing Through the Eyes of a Child

It’s easy for a Sunday in children’s ministry to feel like just another day at school for a child if the interior layout and furniture of the classroom is uniform and structured. In teaching spaces for children, adults tend to gravitate toward formal tables and chairs to help them create order and control among the kids they feel responsible to direct. Children, on the other hand, seem to want enough energy and diversity in the layout of a room for them to take ownership of it and feel that they are at home. It is easy for an adult to forget who the space was originally intended for.

We asked a group of our fourth and fifth graders who were a part of our children’s ministry what they liked for their own space on Sunday mornings. They responded, “We like for it to feel cozy and comfortable.” With that in mind our team began brainstorming and we came up with ideas that would fit within our budget. Over Christmas break we had a ‘makeover’ completed in our fourth and fifth grade teaching and worship room located next to the third floor gym. This space originally was unfinished and looked like a garage with white walls, dry sheet rock and metal. We gave it the following updates:

  • Volunteers from our church took the time to come and paint the walls bright orange and blue.
  • A single wall in the back of the room was painted with chalk paint – this allowed our kids to freely share their thoughts, ideas and creative skills with others.
  • A blazing orange couch and comfy full body beanbag chairs were added to this room helping create a comfortable and cozy atmosphere.
  • A colorful variety of cabinets and seating was added.
  • The new foosball table was a big hit among the fourth and fifth grade boys and girls!

This space went through a drastic change from dull to vibrant. It had become attractive and interactive rather than an eyesore. The new fourth and fifth grade room was now a comfortable atmosphere for our kids, allowing them to open up in conversation during small group time with their peers and leaders. Our kids wanted to be in this space and felt ownership of it. Relationships and conversation deepened in this room. This is what a Sunday morning experience in children’s ministry is all about. 

Adults’ preference for a child’s learning space is not typically bright colors, a variety of comfortable chairs and games. At the end of the day, children’s ministry space is not about what appeals to the eye of an adult but the eye of a child. It’s an environment you hope kids want to come back to and be a part of on a Sunday morning. 

The Implications of Sharing Your Space

There are many positives that come with sharing space but also challenges. Sharing our church facility with a school was financially a benefit, allowing us to use this source of income towards maintaining our campus facilities. We also had a nonprofit coffee shop and café on our grounds that was a central congregating location for parents and children who attended the school. Net proceeds of the coffee shop are given to support charitable or community organizations in Austin and around the world. Those who were associated with the school and purchased items from our café helped keep it “alive” and open. Not only was sharing space with a school financially beneficial, it also served as a great outreach opportunity for those who were looking for a church home. This church facility served multiple purposes and was utilized to the max.

“If you decide to share space with a school, get ready to be flexible.”

There were also certainly challenges that came with sharing our sunday school classrooms with a school. Our children’s ministry team faced the challenge of wanting to make permanent changes to our sunday school rooms but adversely affect the way the school needed to use the spaces. Our team constantly ran into the question of,“ Who’s driving the vision of the children’s ministry: the school, or us?” We felt as if we were always making accommodations around the school’s needs, resorting to plan “B.” The school used the preschool classrooms, elementary classrooms and large group teaching spaces during the week. Here are some of the things we had to do to make sharing work for us:

  • Furniture and technology equipment placed in our welcoming foyer and teaching rooms for k-5th grade had to be put way on Sunday afternoons to prep for Monday morning start of school.
  • Our maintenance team reset tables and chairs in our preschool and elementary classes on Thursdays and Fridays to prep for Sunday mornings. 
  • On Fridays they also reset swings that hung from the ceiling of our special needs room.
  • Chairs and tables on rollers for the 3rd-floor fourth and fifth grade room were stored in the hallway due to lack of storage space.  This left the hallway looking cumbersome and messy.
  • Due to sharing spaces our children’s team of five became very mobile, using large carts to transport specific materials needed for Sunday morning teaching lessons and activities at the end of the week or first thing on Sunday mornings.

While we were limited on what we could do with our space, relationships and spiritual formation in the hearts and lives of our kids is where our priority was placed. 

From a design standpoint I would definitely recommend any children's ministry that is planning new facilities to think realistically about whether they will ever potentially share their sunday school classrooms with a school. If you decide to share space with a school, get ready to be flexible. The larger and more accessible the storage spaces you have available, the easier it will be for your ministry team to flip the spaces on a weekly basis. School classrooms often require very different sets of furniture and equipment that you will want to rearrange and/or put out of sight on Sunday mornings. 

Updating Your Space on a Limited Budget

“What small things can we do with our existing resources and current budget that can make a difference?”

We all wish money grew on trees and budgeting was not apart of our every day lives, but budgeting is a reality even in the world of children’s ministry. Due to our budget, we were unable to renovate our children’s space but had some ideas for decorating. At the beginning of each new year, our children’s team would set aside a day for brainstorming. One topic we discussed included interior design elements which were needed in order to help enhance the function and look of our preexisting nursery, preschool and elementary spaces. Our team learned how to think outside of the box and our director led with the mindset of, “What small things can we do with our existing resources and current budget that can make a difference?” Some of the small and subtle elements added to our children’s facility included:

  • decals for nursery, preschool and elementary teaching spaces,
  • staging and pipe and drape for kindergarten through third grade teaching stage,
  • t.v. and props for our preschool teaching room, 
  • hanging swings added to our “Pathways” special needs room, 
  • glass cabinets used for our “Shine” store, and
  • lights and lanterns in welcoming foyer.

Along with these small and changes to our children’s facility, we added many new elements to our fourth and fifth grade space on a minimal budget. Our children’s team learned how to make the most of our available resources. Small additions go a long way and can change the atmosphere of a space. Our parents and volunteers noticed and appreciated even the small changes. 

Remembering Your Mission

It’s easy for anyone to become distracted with the interior looks and function of a space, losing sight of the purpose of why the space was built to begin with; so, the fewer logistical hurdles you can throw in front of your ministry team, the easier it will be for them to focus on their mission. Relational impact and heart transformation in the lives of our kids was our ultimate goal. Ephesians 5:8, “For at one time you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of Light”. 

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