What is a Pray/erGround? 

By Corina Hurst and Rev. Marta Fioriti 

 A PrayGround or PrayerGround (whichever term suits you) is an intentional space within an established sanctuary or worship area created with the experiential needs of children in mind, (pre-Kindergarten through 3rd grade- although this is flexible depending on the needs of your kids). The goal of this space and all that it contains is for kids to be able to use it to experience and participate fully in worship alongside their congregational family, while expressing worship and prayer in a uniquely childlike way. Simply, it’s a space for young children to be themselves and be part of the church at the same time.

This is what we know about PrayerGrounds, they are safe places for children to be included in the whole worshipping community. Studies show that children learn to worship best when they are integrated in a multigenerational setting rather than segregated. Studies also show that when young adults have the opportunity to find their own church home, they actually don’t know what it means to worship or how do church in a diverse setting. Their entire childhood and teen experience was spent in a Sunday School classroom or youth room with peers. Creating a Prayground gives opportunity for kids to see the bigger picture - church is a family with people in all ages and places.

PrayerGrounds are spaces where children can be fluid, move around, and keep attention by hands-on activities. They are spaces that allow children to be a part, be heard, be invited to the sacraments and singing while providing a developmentally appropriate space. PrayerGrounds are an act of Christian hospitality, invitational, and deeply open and affirming of our youngest church participants.

We will also say that PrayerGrounds can also be risky. They can be counter-cultural to our traditional church experience, they can be jarring for some and exhausting for others. Sometimes the little voices, laughter and chatter of our young ones is not embraced as the Holy Spirit moving in our midst, but rather distracting to the meditative environment that some hope for on Sunday morning. These will be some of the things you will need to consider.

In a culture that encourages less family time, out-of-control schedules and a ton of media, this new way of doing Children’s Ministry offers sacred time for families to just BE together in the same space. It is an experience that focuses on people not programs. It is grounded in relational ministry and community-building. It is important.

You may want to ask yourself the questions: 

What is our value for Children’s Ministry?

How can we teach faith in the most impactful way?

How will our children learn about the beloved community?

In what ways will young people know God the best?

A PrayerGround might just be the right experience to help answer some of these questions around values and your vision for Children’s Ministry.

 How can it benefit churches? 

1. Special age-centered programming might be too daunting or not effective for faith formation in your context. It might be too much pressure on the community to recruit Sunday School teachers. This is an alternative.

2. Faith Formation in Christianity is grown out of creativity. Creativity is grown out of humanity’s commitment to imagination, story and artistic work. Artistic work is grown out of diversity and experiences. Our faith calls us to provide spaces of diversity for those who are directly impacted, the ones that create the space, and spectators of the space. This is how God is most known. If our goal and value is to know God, this is one way.

3. Your church will be vibrant and spirited. There are many ways to feel the Holy Spirit in worship: music, ritual, sacraments, spoken word. The church, though, will benefit from the energy and presence of the young. Even if it is only two or three children, their presence… This spirit and presence goes beyond that of special words at children’s time, or a giggle from the pews. It is genuine, and free to express how it may. There are no right or wrong answers in the Prayground space. It lets kids be real.

4. The activities at the PrayerGround are not merely “play” but “pray.” The hope is that the activities provided will be the same theme as the whole of worship. This will allow for discussion between parents and child, grandparents and child or other interested adults and child. This dialogue will continue the faith formation long after the worship service. Studies also show that children learn and know God best from their families and familiar adults that care. The object of the Prayground should not be to keep busy, quiet or still, but to provide ways for small people to enjoy and grow in faith and community at the child’s own level, in their own body and spirit.

5.  It teaches the whole community how to BE together in a different way. It teaches children how to pray with art and activity- not just with silence and spoken word. It teaches children to have some awareness of the liturgy. It fosters a love of creative and free worship, and can teach the value of being together in “Big Church”.

 What might you include? 

Many of these items can be placed out to use freely. The process of creating silently in the midst of worship is an act of prayer. Consider:

*  Small chairs and table

*  Prayer shawl and prayer beads

* A comfy rug or blanket (this helps define the space/area)

* Pillows

* Magazines and scissors

*  Chalkboard(s), chalk, whiteboards and dry erase pens

* Consider prompts, such as: “Draw what God’s love feels like”, “Draw or write something that symbolizes giving thanks”, or “Draw a quilt where each patch symbolizes something important in your family”.

* Faith based children’s books. Here are some creative examples: We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures, A is for Activist, The Action Bible, Seek and Find Bible Stories, Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Look and Be Grateful by Tomie DePaola

* Markers, crayons, paper, glue sticks, scraps & words to collage with.

*  Play dough, pipe-cleaners, foil or other items you can sculpt prayer.

* Small building materials (blocks or other) Coloring sheets or even word searches and connect-the-dots that are thematically appropriate for the sermon (Pinterest has some!)

* Tactile objects for focus: sandbox/table, water beads, stress ball or “prayer putty” (look for autism friendly sensory tools!)

* If you are outside: blankets, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, teepee or fort

*  A volunteer teen or adult to sit at the PrayerGround during worship (not as childcare, but to ensure safety and appropriate behavior while still enjoying the service themselves). You may like to encourage parents to sit nearby to help be responsible if there is a major meltdown.

 It should be strongly noted that objects in this space should be chosen with care and with the church experience in mind: some online resources can be found suggesting toys that are soft and don’t make noise, dolls, play food, and any other secular, but non-disruptive object under the sun. We want to disagree with this advice, and express that creative and sacred objects will offer so much more to the children of your community. These can be tools for greater understanding of what faith means and who God is.

What are some specific things you can do:

1.  Use doodling or drawing to “create” your prayers.

2. Invite kids to pick an image or characteristic of God and meditate (or practice sacred quietness) while they doodle.

3. Use markers to draw and color your prayers.

4. Start with a picture of Jesus or a heart. Allow God to speak to you through your drawing.

5. Children can simply lie or sit still.

6.  You may encourage prayer as an act of listening. Music or sounds of nature can help you to express things in your heart that words wouldn’t.

7. Use pictures from a magazine, make a collage of the people you are praying for. Remember to incorporate the prayers you have for them. Purchase eco friendly balloons. Write prayers in words or images on helium balloons and then let them go. This can be a neat way to intercede for someone you don’t even know. Or think about the person finding the prayers you let go and how it might bless and encourage them! Build a “House of Prayer” using wooden blocks. Gather large or small rocks.

8. Paint praises on them or anything else you’d like to express to God in a public way. Chalkboard paint is super fun!

9.  Construct a large wooden cross and paint it with chalkboard paint.

10.  Invite children to draw and write their prayers on the cross. You may want to cater your PrayerGround to the theme of worship: If your worship service is on love, make hearts the focal of the PrayerGround.

11.  If your worship service is on communion, invite children to decorate a community tablecloth and place crackers and grapes in the center for them to munch during service.

Below are some more examples: 

Saving grace = “signs” that save like: the cross, the Christian fish, peace signs.

Community = hand garland, invite children to draw their hands, cut them out, decorate and pin them to a line with clothespins.

Peace = peace doves with a small green pipe cleaner as the olive branch.

Water into wine parable = with clay invite children create little jars (of wine of course.)

Prayer = before worship, make “prayer pockets” out of paper plates. Invite children to decorate them and with small pieces of paper write or draw their prayers and place them into the pocket. They can take them home and continue to use them.

Advent = candles. Invite children to make their very own felt Advent candles.

Lent = Decorate an “alleluia” banner to hide or bury, with symbols of abundant life, celebration and newness! Offer felt letters, markers, watercolors, sequins and ribbons.

Stewardship = reminder magnets. Buy business card magnets, and plain business cards. Place the cards on the magnets with some type of stewardship message around personal gifts. Invite children to decorate the magnet and then take it home for their family fridge. It’s a reminder of how we might save and then give at church.

Where should you start? 

Make sure your congregation is aware of any changes you are hoping to make and consider starting slow! Try once a month (Communion Sunday is a great choice if your church takes communion once monthly). Summertime is another great opportunity to begin. Also, it is important to set an expectation for everyone involved that children will be asked to be respectful of the space, but not silent or still. There will be noise, there will be movement, there may be some things you don’t expect; the important thing is that your leadership sets an example that is affirming to the nature of kids, and that the culture begins to say “Kids are a blessing, not a distraction”. I like to place an image of a child making the “shhh” face in the area to have a visual reminder for young children, but don’t feel that you need to recruit “sound police”. Inviting families to a part of this ministry days before your first Sunday with a letter of explanation and expectations is a good idea. Over-communication is key. Over the first few weeks and months, take pictures, post on Facebook or other social media and publish notes and stories in your church newsletter celebrating the new ministry for young people.

You can probably expect some pushback or criticism if this model is very new for your church, but when you frame kind and loving behavior towards our children (OUR not THE) as a matter of hospitality and grace, you will grow as a community. You may also experience some hesitation from parents who worry that their child will be bothersome when given freedom in worship: that is okay. Families can participate in their own time, and if kids are more comfortable in the pews with family, offering activity options for kids to take to their seats is still a good start.

How do you know it is right for your context? 

Just because it is hard, doesn’t mean it’s wrong! There will be some kinks and roadblocks. Many churches of all sizes struggle to organize a robust and meaningful Sunday School program on Sunday morning. In addition, sometimes the program that is created lacks passion and enthusiasm from both the volunteer teachers and parents. It often feels like offering a glorified childcare, just so that parents can worship solo. If you are struggling to recruit regular teachers or to fill up age-specific classrooms, this might be an awesome option for your context. Marta created a PrayerGround for the first time when worship attendance ranged between 150-200 and when the attendance of children on Sunday morning ranged between 15-20 (pre-K-5th graders). This was not enough children to divide into a successful Sunday School program, yet, too many children to not offer any type of ministry for this age group.

Marta started with one PrayerGround inside the sanctuary. A space in the back side of the room that over-looked a beautiful Glen. That first Sunday there were a lot of kids- 10-15. There was spirited noise. In the weeks following, a PrayerGround was put outside during the early morning worship. These times allowed for less work in begging adults to volunteer, and put more responsibility on the parents of the young children. If your parents and the other adults of the church are willing to shift how they might worship with young children, while holding space during this important season of their lives, then this might be right for your context.

Who are we? 

Rev. Marta Fioriti is an ordained UCC minister, Gen Xer and now serves as a solo pastor at Black Forest Community Church, UCC, Colorado Springs. Mama of three and passionate about multigenerational worship in large, medium and small churches. “I believe an idea like PrayerGrounds are the next wave of Children’s Ministry. This type integrative experience will be what keeps families engaged and attending church- in addition to truly teaching faith and deepening the idea of the beloved community.”

Corina Hurst has been working in children and youth ministry in a variety of diverse settings since 2013. She is a millennial, passionate about creative and relational ministry, and serves Broadmoor Community Church, UCC church in Colorado Springs. “ When we can help facilitate an experience where entire families and congregations are learning and experiencing together, everyone wins. The #1 goal of faith communities should be radical inclusivity, and Praygrounds are a seed to grow this dream.”

For other examples and resources check out: http://www.traci-smith.com/church-pray-grounds-eight-stories-and-inspiring-examples-kidmin/ https://graceofav.org/prayground/ Still have questions? Contact us! pastormarta@blackforestcommunitychurch.org churst@broadmoorchurch.org