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Children’s Ministry Design: Story, System and Surprise

First and foremost, a children's ministry must speak to kids. Here, how design can help facilitate that communication.

By Peter Exley, FAIA, and Sharon Exley, MAAE, ASID   •  April 1, 2017 2:58 pm EDT

Tags: children's space design, collaboration, experiential design, interior design,

Our colleague and collaborator, artist Molly Z., sets out to create spaces that are invitational, inspirational and full of imagery that children associate with meaningful moments of childhood. When

Molly tells others that she is an illustrator, people assume a “children’s book illustrator.” The reason the children’s book industry is so influential is because it combines unique artistic expressions with compelling stories, which engage a child’s imagination. And if a child is read to, a deep relational connection is formed, creating a positive memorable experience that often lasts a whole lifetime. Molly believes we should be applying illustration and story to children’s spaces. Instead of a child saying, “Read it again,” she wants a child to say, “Let’s go back next week!”

To be clear, Molly believes the goal is not to market or sell “God concepts” to children through art and design. The goal is to systematically use art and color and beauty to create spaces where kids are captivated and can delight in their surroundings. Children are naturally inquisitive, but they struggle to stay engaged in uninspired environments that are frequently the norm. Often using nature symbology, Molly Z. connects the generic indoor space to what she refers to as “God’s magical creation.” Her goal is to consider how a child’s surroundings influence their ability to explore, wonder and ask questions. When the environment includes art, interactivity and messaging, a child naturally considers it a place where they can actively engage. As a result, that one hour spent at Sunday School becomes associated as a place they love.

Children interact differently in spaces than adults. A good designer considers a child’s movements and play patterns when designing. An adult will admire a fountain, a child will jump and splash in it; an adult walks up to a desk, a child touches it with hands and feet; an adult sits down on a chair, a child climbs all over it. Skillful design understands how to create spaces full of interactivity and functionality for children.

What if your child’s experience in church became a directing influence for their future as adults who understand their gifts, serve their communities, love others deeply and treat all people with dignity? We believe good design combined with compassionate care has the power to surprise, to 
transform individual lives, and to build strong communities.

If you are wondering where to start, consider some of the talent in the congregation where you attend church. Oftentimes artists want to contribute. Simply invite artists to meet and bring their portfolios, so you can get a better understanding of the artistic talent available in your church. Consider working with an expert (architect, interior designer, graphic designer, or illustrator) to help define and implement your goals for the ministry. It’s essential to conduct workshops with creative professionals to help [your church clients’] places of worship develop inspiring, meaningful and functional spaces that tell stories that matter.

[Editor's note: Originally published in October 2016.]

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