Children’s Spaces

Monday, November 13, 2017

“God has given us an imagination, and our imagination is really the principle tool from which all creativity and artistry comes from.”

Erwin McManus

When you think of a successful children’s space—be it in a school, a daycare, but especially a church—what images come to mind? An innovative jungle gym? A series of tables and shelves spilling over with craft supplies?

For Columbus, Ohio architect Dan Keiser, the image looks very different.

“When I think about a successful children’s space, the picture that comes to mind is the kid dragging the parent into it, versus the other way around.”

Design That Relieves the Pressure

Over the years, Dan and his team at Ohio architecture firm KDG have designed a variety of children’s spaces for churches and other mission-minded buildings. Every organization has its own needs and constraints, but there is one ever-present constant in all these projects: the check-in experience.

That experience, Dan says, is vital not only to how successful the children’s space is, but to the success of the church experience as a whole.

“Before you even get in the doors, especially as an outsider coming into church, there’s a bit of trepidation. Getting kids ready and getting them in the car is enough pressure. And if you’re waiting six deep in line when you’re already behind in getting to church…”

He laughs.

“Even 60 seconds standing there with a kid can seem like an eternity.”

Any parent who has shepherded small children through a Sunday morning can relate to the frustration packed into those few minutes of waiting in line with their child, perhaps following a difficult morning getting everyone dressed, ready and in the car, watching the seconds tick by as they miss precious time participating in the service, meanwhile trying to console their child’s anxiety over the impending separation.

That experience, Dan says, is where KDG always starts when working with church leaders to design a children’s space. Through talking with the clients, Dan and his team put themselves in the position of a churchgoer.

“If I understand as I drive in to park, where the entry doors are or where I go next, it eases the stress of being new or being late. The more intuitive the building is, the better it makes the church experience for everyone in the family.”

Supporting a Philosophy of Ministry

Dan’s approach to thinking about church children’s spaces has much to do with how he experienced church as a child.

“When I grew up in church, it was very much a ‘sit down and listen’ type of environment.” The way he remembers it, there was little attempt to connect to kids where they were or to engage them in a way they enjoyed, although, he laughs, “There were the flannelgraphs…”

These days, there seems to be a much more intentional effort being made to engage kids where they are. And that’s why Dan makes a point of establishing relationships not only with church leaders, but also with the children’s staff and volunteers who navigate those spaces on a weekly basis.

“When you get to drill down with the people who really interact with the children on a weekend, that’s where the rubber hits the road, in terms of design. We work hard to help them design a space that’s fluid with their philosophy of ministry, so our design can be extremely supportive of what they’re trying to do. Do the kids sit on the floor or in chairs? Does the lesson take place in person or on video? What happens after it’s over?”

All the hours of forethought, research and planning are decided in one critical moment: the moment when a child lets go of their parent’s hand and crosses the threshold of the children’s area. Whatever is on the other side of that threshold can vary, but the key is that the space be welcoming, fun, engaging. Ideally, it would be the child’s favorite part of their week.

Influencing the Third Generation

“A vision for the future helps us make wise decisions today.”
—Tony Morgan

Real success with the children’s space can impact the church over the long haul in surprising ways. A child’s experience within that space can influence their decisions about church and faith later in life.

Dan cites a study showing that “third generations,” whether they be in families, businesses or churches, are the most vulnerable link in a legacy. The first generation does the work of building the church, the second generation grows up seeing that work being done, but by the time the third generation comes along, the church has “always been there.”

“They just saw the benefit of it, so they weren’t as invested. So they’re not going to be as driven to keep it going. Our faith can be that same way—‘I grew up here, I didn’t have a monumental experience, it’s just what I’m supposed to do.’ As a result, it gets weaker, further away from the center.”

“We feel very strongly about trying to be an advocate of the spaces that sometimes get neglected. When I talk with leaders and see that the children’s spaces are a secondary focus, I say, ‘Look, these kids could be that third generation. The stakes are high. It’s got to be the best part of their week. They’ve got to be dragging their parents there.’ The kids’ experience is more than just daycare while the adults learn. If it’s a meaningful experience, that can determine how long the church lasts and how well it thrives.”