Previously, our community space was available for parents who needed to take their children out of the service, but this caused several problems. First of all, it didn't help the children to actually engage with the service - they were still expected just to sit still and be quiet in church, and if they misbehaved, they were removed. This sends the wrong message to children, telling them they are a distraction rather than a welcome part of the congregation.
Secondly, the community space has only secular toys in it. This didn't help create "sacred space" for the children.
Finally, the community space is at the back of the church. This means that parents who wanted to be prepared for having to take their children out needed to sit at the back. This meant the children were all clustered at the back. They couldn't see the altar, could hardly hear what was happening, and spent the whole time they were in church staring at the backs of adults' heads.
So we've made a welcoming space for children by the font - this will be available over the summer while there is no creche for the under-5's. If this experiment is successful, we will make this space permanent. There will still be a creche during the service, but the Pray and Play area will be available for the beginning and end of the service when the children are in church with their parents, and for any visiting children who don't feel comfortable going to the creche yet.
Now, I got a brilliant camera on sale yesterday (it was a £200 camera and I got it for £70 - woo-hoo!), so I've taken some photos of the space. I'm still figuring out the settings, so a few of these photos are weirdly dark, but you'll still get the general idea of the Pray and Play space.
A general overview of the space. Chairs and a pew are available around the edge of it, so parents can accompany their children. We have a variety of toys and books, all at child height, as well as a small altar with a cross, a chalice and paten, and a Madonna and Child icon similar to the one on the church's chancel.All the toys are quiet - none have bells or electronic noises that could be distracting. They are all made of natural materials. They all have potential for imaginative play, i.e., none of them can only be played with in one particular proscribed way. They relate both to STORY and to LITURGY.
A child's-eye view of the space, from the entry point.
Based on an idea found on the Spiritual Child Network's website, I've created flags for the children to hold at various points in the service. These flags have clear visual cues showing them what is happening at that point in the service. The children in the pictures are a mix of races and genders. From the top row, L to R, the flags are: singing, listening, waving (for the beginning and end of the service, waving hello and goodbye), passing the peace, praying, and going to the altar rail.
The altar cloth is green, to match the season. If the Pray and Play area becomes permanent, the colour of the altar cloth will change to follow the liturgical year.
The chalice, paten, icon and cross are as close to unbreakable as possible, so children can play with them.
The space has a clear sightline to the altar, so parents and children can participate in worship and see what's happening.
Our "Liturgy Box" contains the Church Set from Beulah. This includes people, of a variety of ages, genders and races, a priest with a robe and chasuble, an altar, lectern, cross, candles, font, water, bread and wine, and altar book.
The laminated card in front of the baskets has a dual purpose - on the front is an image showing the child what that basket is all about. On the back is an itemised list of that basket's contents, so children and parents can tidy up when they're done playing, and so church staff can know quickly and easily if any items have gone missing!
We have several copies of "Let Us Pray," our service sheet for children, and markers. To the left of the picture, you can see (L to R) our Good Shepherd Basket, our Christmas Basket and our Creation Basket.
The contents of our Good Shepherd basket.
The Jesus doll. During the programme year, he goes home with a different child every week, to show them that Jesus goes with them out of church and into their daily lives. During the summer he'll live here. (This is available from Articles of Faith.)
The Easter basket contains lots of symbolic imagery of resurrection - butterfly and caterpillar finger puppets, a lamb puppet, a stuffed baby bird, and a rabbit puppet - as well as more concrete images from the Easter story, such as an angel, a palm cross, a crucifix, toy bread and grapes and a plate, and a donkey puppet.
A Big Book on the Eucharist is set up next to the altar. It has clear, simple photographs and text, showing the different parts of the service. (This is available from Pauline Books and Media.)
We have toys that stand on their own as well as the baskets.
We have a book corner, with books that are Bible stories, prayers, and allegories. Each book is age-appropriate and beautifully illustrated.
There is an information sheet for parents, giving them ideas on how to use the space.
If you want to know where we got any of our resources, feel free to ask in the comments!