I believe in free play for kids. I think every child needs unstructured time to develop their imaginations and relax their minds and bodies. Kids need time away from electronics. They need playgrounds and building blocks and clay and dirt piles and blank paper and paint and cardboard and drums and glue and glitter. I have girls, and we needed lots of glitter.
I also know, however, that preschoolers, and really even elementary-aged children, cannot be put in a church room and told to just relax, hang out and enjoy themselves without some type of structure and supervision. They need a little direction and a little programming to keep them safe and headed in a good direction. I have worked with kids long enough to know that left alone, the creative kids will glue something to the walls eventually or add pictures to the boring books that were unfortunate enough to get published without pictures. The young engineers will try to build a cathedral out of chairs only to have it topple on them or a friend. The child who had a bad day will hit the child who is smiling too much just to even out the bad feelings. The perfectionist child will try to make rules for everyone and eventually get hit or get lofted to the top of the chair cathedral and left there (I know this because I raised a rule maker, not intentionally).
Churches also need programming with a purpose instead of just free time alone. If we are reaching out to kids and bringing them into our buildings, we need them to know the basics: Jesus loves them and we love them. They were created as a child of God and given talents that they can use for the glory of God. They can serve others with their gifts and talents. They can change lives.
But how do develop children’s programming that reaches lots of children and helps them begin to understand their individual gifts and talents? We often don’t have the resources (money or volunteers or staffing) to plan too many types of programs for kids, especially during the school year. Adults are already often terrified to enter the children’s department for fear of being asked to volunteer. If we add additional programming, we may cause people to hide from us long term.
I am thinking about this because some children feel alienated from the programs we traditionally offer. I think of my oldest child when we were in a church that highlighted their junior camp for older elementary students. She stayed away from church for weeks before and after the camp because literally every other child but her went. She was not ready for a long stay away from home. She felt as if she was doing something wrong because she must have been created differently and God forgot to give her the gene that made her want to go to camp. I am not sorry I allowed her to stay home from camp. That’s not to say the church should not offer the camp or encourage the others to go. I think we just need to understand that even wonderful programs are not for everyone.
My other daughter was the same way about traditional children’s choirs. She hated being told she had to sit for 30 to 45 minutes and learn a song. It was torture for her. She is like me—no musical talent. I even lip sync from my seat in the congregation! I let her quit choir. She felt guilty as if she was failing God when others approached her about her choice. But God has given her other wonderful talents. She has the gift of laughter and making people smile even in tough situations. She loves animals and cares for the ones in need. She mentors younger children. She draws beautifully. I am not sorry I let her quit choir. Again, I don’t want to see choirs stopped. My oldest daughter is a musician who is going to major in music. Love it that we offer choirs and bands in churches!
So what is my point here? I keep thinking about a request I had from my church as an adult. It asked me to serve in the areas of the church where my passions and talents were. They asked us to identify needs in the church and the community that we may be able to fill using the gifts God gave us. Trust me, they do not want this writer to serve on the finance committee! Numbers scare me. And they do not want my best friend who is an accountant to serve on the committee writing the brochures. Words scare her. As a church, we asked adults to find what they do best and use that passion and talent to serve.
If we are doing that with adults, why are we still trying to fit kids into one box so many times? Why are we disappointed with the kid who won’t sing or won’t go to camp? Why do we pressure a child to be in the Christmas pageant when it clearly does not match up with his or her gifts and talents God has given that child? Why does the active kid have to hear the Bible story from a chair instead of from the floor where he can wiggle a little but still listen? God will use his energy for great things one day unless we convince him that he has no place in church unless he changes and learns to sit in the wooden chairs.
God’s gifts start showing up early in life. Offer children as many opportunities as you can to learn and grow. But I hope we don’t heap guilt on a child that just doesn’t fit into our favorite program at church. We need singers and the audience; we need artists and art enthusiasts; we need builders and those who worship in the buildings.