Church “Pray-grounds:” Eight Stories and Inspiring Examples #kidmin

I first learned of the concept of a “pray-ground” in the sanctuary from the beautiful one built by Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, Minnesota.   It’s the first pray-ground I know of to get broad media attention and coverage. We’ll get back to Grace’s Pray-Ground, in just a minute, but first:

What’s a pray-ground? 

The name “prayground” comes from Rev. Catherine Renken, pastor of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in Kennesaw, GA who brainstormed with others when the prayground at Grace in Apple Valley, MN was being built. The name has caught on!

Though different churches have put it in to practice in different ways, a prayground is a place in the front of the sanctuary where young children can experience worship through age-appropriate worship materials and tools that will help keep them engaged in worship. My own congregation doesn’t have a pray-ground, but it’s a concept I’m interested in and so I set out to hear the stories and collect photos from some churches who do. Read on for eight different stories and photos as well as tips for getting going and links to products you might find useful.

  1. Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Houston, TX

Submitted by Elizabeth Grasham, Solo Pastor

 
  • How long has your prayground been in your sanctuary? 1 year.

 

  •  Tell us a little about your prayground. Where is it located in the sanctuary? What types of activities does it have? What ages use it? It is located on the left of the sanctuary (sanctuary is shaped like a cross).

 

  • What process did you go through to decide whether or not to have a prayground in your sanctuary? I talked about it with church leaders for over a year; discussed with elders the details; got approval from the worship committee; purchased all items with Board Chair
  • What things have you learned in the process of developing or maintaining your prayground that you think might be useful to others who are considering the same thing? Make sure kids know what behavioral expectations are; Ask parents what they need or don’t need; take away any toy that might click or clack.

2. First Presbyterian Church, Hays, KS

Submitted by Becky Rogowski, Coordinator of Faith Development

  • How long has your prayground been in your sanctuary? Since September 2016
  • Tell us a little about your prayground. Where is it located in the sanctuary? What types of activities does it have? What ages use it? Front of sanctuary to the side. It has soft toys and two tables and chairs. Bumbo seats and baby “rugs”. Baby “cradle”. Puzzles, books, crayons, paper. Ages infant – kindergarten was the intent.
  • What process did you go through to decide whether or not to have a prayground in your sanctuary? Research, presented to session, approved and put in. We wanted to be intentional about including young worshippers and their families.

 

  • What things have you learned in the process of developing or maintaining your prayground that you think might be useful to others who are considering the same thing? Sometimes people sneak loud toys from the nursery in. Our elderly and hearing impaired members have been very resistant to it and that’s an issue we are currently working on.

3. Kingo Lutheran Church (ELCA), Shorewood, WI

Submitted by Carolyn Karl, Director of Cross+Generational Ministry

  • How long has your prayground been in your sanctuary? Since November 2016
 
  • Tell us a little about your prayground. Where is it located in the sanctuary? What types of activities does it have? What ages use it? We removed two pews in the front of the sanctuary and put a throw rug, kids table and chairs, paper and crayons, and soft containers with soft toys. Generally, kids under 5 use it.
 
  • What process did you go through to decide whether or not to have a prayground in your sanctuary?  The staff, Pastor and Council worked together to come up with different options that were presented to the congregation. The congregation was asked to contact the pastor with questions, and a few concerns were raised. After people saw it in practice, the response and support has been overwhelming.
 
  • What things have you learned in the process of developing or maintaining your prayground that you think might be useful to others who are considering the same thing? When considering where to put it, we spent time sitting on the ground and looking at the view from each location. We moved two pews and moved the very large communion font to provide a clear view of what is going on during worship. (The communion font blocked the view of the altar for the kids but we didn’t realize it until we got to their level). We also chose the location so it is close to the musicians, which the kids love to look at and interact with during worship.

Submitted by Suzy Hutchison, Pastor

  • How long has your prayground been in your sanctuary? 2.5 years
  • Tell us a little about your prayground. Where is it located in the sanctuary? What types of activities does it have? What ages use it? The playground is in a clear area at rear, that would be a narthex if doors closed. Activities: books, coloring, cardboard blocks, magnetic boards, toy animals, dolls, farm set and a rocking chair. Children from 2-8 years use it.
 
  • What process did you go through to decide whether or not to have a prayground in your sanctuary? My first church council meeting they asked me to name one thing I would change. I said add space in sanctuaryfor kids to participate in child-like ways. They council got up from the table immediately and helped me carry things into sanctuary.
 
  • What things have you learned in the process of developing or maintaining your prayground that you think might be useful to others who are considering the same thing? In our set up, it has to be moved for coffee hour and because it is in the back, there needs to be an adult who keeps an eye on the door, so no one leaves unaccompanied.

Submitted by Karen Ware Jackson, Pastor

  • How long has your prayground been in your sanctuary? Almost 3 years.
 
  • Tell us a little about your prayground. Where is it located in the sanctuary? What types of activities does it have? What ages use it? It’s at the front of the church for a variety of reasons. First of all, because I want kids to be able to see and to feel engaged and I think that’s harder to do when they are hidden at the back, balcony, alcove, etc. Secondly, it’s there because that’s where the space was. If the space has to be in the back (or elsewhere) you just have different challenges to make sure the kids stay engaged. I have books, coloring, whiteboard, and various seasonal activities. I always have an activity that connects with the text which I introduce during the “Word and Wonder with All Ages” and then give the kids the materials to work on during the sermon.
 
  • What process did you go through to decide whether or not to have a prayground in your sanctuary? The Worship elder and I dreamed it up. Check out the video where I tell the story.
 
  • What things have you learned in the process of developing or maintaining your prayground that you think might be useful to others who are considering the same thing? You’ve got to keep people engaged. There will be challenges, but you have to keep talking about it. Keep trying. Keep lifting up the blessings. Keep writing. Keep having the pastoral conversations. t was the focus of my ministry for about a year. Now, it’s this lovely thing that everyone understands and supports. But it wasn’t always that way. It’s a constantly growing and evolving experience. I’ve come to believe that there is no “wrong way” to engage all ages in worship. Our PrayGround works for us, but I don’t think it’s the only way to do it and I don’t even think a “PrayGround” is the right thing for every church. You will make mistakes. Some things don’t work. But the effort will take you where the Spirit is leading. There are blessings and challenges about every set-up. Just don’t let the challenges win.

Submitted by Alina Gayeuski, Pastor

  • How long has your prayground been in your sanctuary? About 2 years.
 
  • Tell us a little about your prayground. Where is it located in the sanctuary? What types of activities does it have? What ages use it? It is in the back of the sanctuary, in a converted space for coats. It has books, coloring books, Melissa and Doug toys (some put out seasonally – like their Nativity set), soft blocks, stuffed animals, activity bags to take back to the seats – including Autism friendly bags. The age range of children that use this space is from a few months to about 4th grade.
 
  • What process did you go through to decide whether or not to have a prayground in your sanctuary? There was conversation among the pastoral staff team.
  • What things have you learned in the process of developing or maintaining your prayground that you think might be useful to others who are considering the same thingI think an important part for me has been to include seasonal toys and special need friendly toys as well. The first helps to keep that space changing with the rest of the worship space. The other helps us to be welcoming and inclusive of all people at all ages. We have had a good amount of positive feedback from parents who can be in that space with their children during some harder to focus times of worship (like the sermon). We have had a few noise complaints, but we simply suggested that they sit farther towards the front and that has alleviated the issues mostly. An advertisement for the space is a standard part of the inside bulletin cover welcome page.

7. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Peoria, IL

Submitted by Jenny Replogle, Co-Rector

  • How long has your prayground been in your sanctuary? 9 Months
 
  • Tell us a little about your prayground. Where is it located in the sanctuary? What types of activities does it have? What ages use it? The prayground is located where 2 front pews used to be located. Our sanctuary has a central altar (pews front and back), with a middle aisle on each side. The soft space is located in the 2 pews closest to the altar and pulpit. There are children’s tables and chairs, foam blocks, stuffed toys, and books. We always have coloring pages and sometimes a coloring poster. Ages 3-10 primarily use it.
 
  • What process did you go through to decide whether or not to have a prayground in your sanctuary? The church profile stated that the new rector should ‘make the changes necessary to attract young families’ and we have been working on that since we arrived. After being in the parish for a year, we realized that a lot of young parents sat in back pews and tried to keep their kids entertained and quiet, rather than feeling comfortable in the service. We talked to the vestry about the idea of a soft space, showing pictures of another prayground (that was presented in TYCWP) and explaining that kids were more likely to take in and be part of the liturgy if they were close to it. Vestry was very supportive of the idea, so we took out pews, ordered rugs and tables, and implemented the space.
 
  • What things have you learned in the process of developing or maintaining your prayground that you think might be useful to others who are considering the same thing? We learned that this was needed and longed for far more than was ever articulated, and people of all ages were very happy about it. We also learned that although we had a great deal of support from congregation and vestry, it would have been helpful to communicate to the whole congregation that this was going to happen prior to making the change. We haven’t had too much pushback, but that would have been helpful with the pushback we did receive.

8. Grace Lutheran Church, Apple Valley, MN
Submitted by Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, associate pastor

 As I mentioned at the beginning, Grace’s prayground is one of the first and most widely covered praygrounds I know of. Their website has an entire FAQ section where you can go and get answers to anything you want to know about it! Find it HERE.
What do you think? Would you like to have a prayground in your church? Let us know your thoughts or ideas in the comments. Let’s talk about praygrounds!
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For more on faith with children and families, check out my book Faithful Families. 
  • Glenys Nellist

    What a great post Traci! I am a huge fan of Praygrounds! It was very helpful for me to read the several examples and experiences you offered here. My favorite suggestion was too get down on the ground and view things at the child’s level to see what they see…love it!

  • Gretchen Pritchard

    Grace & St.Peter’s Episcopal, Hamden Connecticut:

    Ours is called the “Play and Pray” area and occupies one transept of our small cruciform church, which was formerly furnished with choir pews that went unused. We installed it in 2010, at my suggestion, shortly after the arrival of a young rector who herself had a toddler. It has pews along its back wall, wall-to-wall carpet with one step down about halfway between the back and the front, which provides a nice seating surface for kids four and up; a number of small chairs and tables, a rocking chair, baskets of (mostly) Biblical toys, a Jesus doll, a collection of picture books, and lectionary coloring pages. There are also Prayer Books and hymnals so that parents and teen companions can join in the service and primary children learning to read can begin to join with them.

    We do not impose an age limit on use of the space, nor does anybody seem to perceive it as a segregated “kids’ corner.” Some families always use it; others prefer to have their small children with them in the main pews, or walk them up and down the aisle. Our cohort of children who were toddlers when the Play and Pray was established are now in second and third grade, and several have younger siblings. Sunday school kids join the service at the Offertory and many of them gravitate directly to the Play and Pray to join their parents and little brothers and sisters, and also because it offers an unobstructed view of the altar and allows them to move directly to the communion rail after the Great Thanksgiving, without getting in line. As it happens there is also an exit door immediately next to the Play and Pray space, in case a child does become disruptive or needs to be taken to the bathroom.

    They are lively kids who know each other very well and feel totally at home in the space. Every once in a while they do forget to interact quietly. Only on very rare occasions does anybody seem bothered by this. It all seems completely natural and obvious and convenient, and as if we’d always had it, and not only that but how would we do church in a way that met the needs of young children if we didn’t have it?

    I’ll try to remember to take some photos; we have a few but they just don’t show what the space is like!