I was in Argentina traveling on an overcrowded bus. I stood wedged between an older woman with strong body odor and a younger man whose clothing stuck to his body. I had a strong desire to get off of the bus as soon as possible. Even though I needed to travel several miles, I convinced myself it would be good for me to walk.
The bus driver suddenly threw on his brakes. We were thrown to the floor like rag dolls. I was sandwiched between the odoriferous woman and the sticky-bodied man. How I wished I had gotten off at the last stop.
We sometimes place children in uncomfortable situations. Then we are surprised when children want to get off. A child’s experience at church is just as important as an adult’s-perhaps even more important when you consider the long-term impact early impressions have on a youngster’s understanding of God and the church. When children receive “leftovers” from the facility banquet table, their experience may not be much more than a ride on an overcrowded, stinky bus. What can we do to make the “ride” more comfortable for children? Listed below are several suggestions that can make for a smoother ride.
In Argentina, people pack into buses like sardines. Space between people is nonexistent. The smells and sounds can be overbearing and produce anxiety. But children respond to a lack of space even more dramatically than adults do. Some children become overactive and destructive. Others become reclusive and quiet. A few simply refuse to return. The need for adequate space for children is of the utmost importance if we are going to draw and keep children and their parents in our churches.
Minimum square footage: In most states, the minimum space requirement for schools and child-care centers is 35 square feet per child. Violations of this minimum can cause classroom difficulties.
I visited a church that had run out of space for their Sunday school classes and had created a classroom for children in a closet. The children had approximately 10 square feet per child. In some churches, there is no other option. But in this church, the adults had a large sanctuary. Yet their children were crammed into small, undesirable spaces.
Adults who are capable of dealing with space restrictions are often given larger spaces. Children less able to control their responses to limited space are given smaller spaces. I am not advocating that the adults of any church be crammed into a tiny classroom. But when churches are faced with space limitations, the children’s need for adequate space must be considered.
Creative Space Usage: What do you do when there is simply not enough square footage per child? You get creative! We faced this problem when our early childhood program had outgrown its facility. Because we live in southern California, the weather is nice most of the year. We decided playgrounds for the children would give us the additional space we needed and enhance our program. We built two small playgrounds for our toddlers and preschoolers. During our fullest hours, we divide each class into two groups. One group plays on the playground while the other remains in the classroom for the lesson. We have virtually doubled our classroom space. And the children have a playground-a plus to any children’s program.
There are many ways to create additional space without building a new building; it just takes some brainstorming and the support of the pastor. Some churches build lofts on which children can read while others play underneath, develop outside areas adjacent to the classrooms, partition fellowship halls to accommodate children’s classes, reconfigure patios to fit the needs of kids, and convert office spaces into classrooms. The key is to assess your current and future need for space and begin to dream. As you do, uninviting space can become useful space for children.