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/ 15 December 2017

The church as a toddler’s playground

On Wednesday, 21-month-old James climbed onto the coffee table for the first time, twirled around, then slid down again.

On Thursday, we found ourselves in Sheffield Cathedral. It’s a warm and welcoming building. I sat to pray. James sat in his buggy gazing up at the roof, slightly overwhelmed.

But not for long. He’d caught sight of the choir stalls. More interesting than a coffee table, he hauled himself up first one and then another, twirled around, then slid down. I lost count of how often. He watched the organist playing and, listening to the big sound, entranced. The communion rail was at a perfect height for a small boy to grasp as he carefully walked along the step. He ran down the slope for wheelchairs, and up the steps of the pulpit. He stroked the figure of Jesus carrying a lamb carved in wood into the pulpit. He likes sheep.

The whole experience was topped off with drinks and scones served by the Mothers’ Union, who were delighted to make a fuss of a small boy. This building was made for toddlers. James felt free to roam, free to be curious. And he was. We were not part of any programme – although a regular toddler group is run in the nave of the cathedral. We were simply visitors. We loved it!

Church buildings can be such special places for small children. They have high, often echoey, ceilings and long aisles like corridors. They often display a variety of light effects – stained glass windows, shafts of sunlight streaming through high windows, flickering candles. They are full of interesting and unusual objects which cry out to be touched and stroked, contrasting colours, distinctive and unexpected smells. In addition, there may be books to be sorted, music to be heard, space to run free. The added bonus of buggy space and a changing mat means more to parents and carers than it does to toddlers.

Small children are not just conscious of the building nor the people they encounter, they can also sense that a church building is a place where God is worshipped. This is where people pray, where they expect to meet God, where the love of Christ is proclaimed. Often adults with no religious background, accompanying a class of primary school children on a visit, will comment to me:

“There’s something spiritual here, I can’t quite explain it!”

Young children cannot articulate what they sense, but nonetheless, seem too to know that God is present. This is a welcome place, a holy place. Impressions formed now might stick with them for life.

When next your mind wanders during the sermon, cast your eyes around your church building. How might you exploit the beauty, light, interest, movement in your space to appeal to a toddler? Are they free to explore?

In coming to a tangibly welcoming, tangibly holy place of worship a toddler might experience God’s presence in a deeply impactful way.

And of course, there is never more room for imagination here than at Christmas time, when mangers, Christmas trees, and candles can all be thrown into the mix to give toddlers a real, multisensory experience of the church.

Ro Willoughby ministers to people of all ages at St Michael’s Highgate.
Image credit: Photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

About Ro Willoughby

Ro Willoughby works with children, families and people of all ages at St Michael’s Highgate.

Read more from Ro Willoughby

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