Get Me to the Church (Play Area) on Time!
By: Janalee Card Chmel
More and more churches install soft play areas to help build community
Over the course of the last decade, Grand Rapids First Assembly of God has been remodeling all of the different facilities on its 330,000-square-foot campus, which is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Brenda Rijfkogel, the senior pastor's wife, manages all of the renovations and admits, "I'm not your typical pastor's wife. I don't sing, but I can knock a wall down."
Grand Rapids First was established over 80 years ago. Today, the church is debt-free and, according to Rijfkogel, it is using its many resources – human, financial and spiritual – to continuously meet the needs of its community.
Most recently, Rijfkogel decided it was time to update the campus nursery. But before doing so, she visited big churches in Chicago and Dallas to see what they offered children and families. Then, she visited a local mall.
"I was at the mall one day during a blizzard and I stopped at the playground," she said. "It was packed with parents and kids. I thought, 'This is something we need to look at.'"
The indoor soft playground seemed ideal for young children, and it offered the aesthetic that Rijfkogel also sought.
Fast-forward just a few months later, and the church opened its very own indoor play area called "Moose Mountain."
Rijfkogel reports, "People are going out of their minds with joy."
She added, "We've heard that children are getting their parents out of bed to go to church. We are seeing more parents on time and they even stay longer after church, which helps us create fellowship."
Play Areas: A Growing Trend in Faith Communities
"The rationale behind the church play area trend seems pretty obvious when you think about it," said Steven Wilson, Business Development Associate with PLAYTIME, LLC. "Nearly every church in the country is trying to recruit and retain families. Yet, today's busy families – and their less-than-enthusiastic children – often need an extra incentive to get to church every week. Safe, clean play areas seem to be the ideal attraction."
RiverGlen Christian Church in Waukesha, Wisconsin, is another example of success.
"RiverGlen is very much about outreach and family," said Anne Brooks, director of elementary ministries. "Our church playground is definitely a safe environment where kids can play and parents can drink coffee and minister to each other."
RiverGlen began in 1994 with just 24 people and no home to call its own. More recently, the church hosted 5,000 Easter attendees among its four churches in southeast Wisconsin. As part of a recent "Generosity Initiative," members of the church raised money that was used toward building new churches, ministries in Africa and even a new playground at the main church.
"People really sacrificed for this campaign," said Brooks. "They got rid of smartphones and televisions. They were sacrificing things so that we could give opportunities to others."
Brooks says that the indoor playground was the brainchild of senior pastor Ben Davis.
"Our senior pastor likes to go for walks in malls when he can't walk outside due to bad weather," explains Brooks. "He saw a soft playground at the mall and said, 'I want that for our families.'"
The RiverGlen playground is positioned next to a picture window that looks out across the church's acres of undeveloped property. The play elements include a large tree, fish, lily pads and a bear all situated on soft safety flooring.
With a coffee shop in the church, as well, Brooks has found that parents linger at the church longer and share their stories of faith while their children play.
"The kids love it," said Brooks. "Their imaginations go crazy! I've even seen some of them pretend to swim on the carpet. And the parents like the time to connect with each other. It's been a great addition to our community."
Play Areas Attract Families from All Over
"Our main goal is to help families thrive," said Diane Ingolia, hospitality specialist on the organization's Training and Knowledge Management Team. "We provide a place where families can bring their children and they know it's not going to cost them anything to play."
Ingolia laughs that the area is called "Kids Corner" because what started out as a "corner" has morphed into a tremendous play zone with a three-story slide, puppet theater, costumes, scavenger hunts, a soda shop, video cave, two birthday party rooms, a B-17 mock airplane and, yes, more!
One piece of Focus on the Family's play area caters to babies on up to 4-year-olds. Called "Camp What-a-Nut," the enclosed area features soft play elements similar to those found in malls.
"We have the squishy carpet, a turtle with big eyes, a bridge with a slide, canoe, log tunnel, two fish, a stump and a flower," explained Ingolia. "The area has a café door to keep the munchkins from escaping!"
Camp What-a-Nut also offers a diaper bag holder, shoe storage, stroller parking and benches for moms.
"That area is used by play groups, MOPS (Mothers of Pre-Schoolers) groups, YMCA day camps, church camps and birthday parties," she said.
Ingolia says it's a privilege to offer families a free place to play, particularly at a time when budgets are tight.
"We had a military mom here," explained Ingolia. "Her husband is in Iraq and she has four kids, but she can't afford to take them all to the zoo. She brought them here and they played for free."
Expense "Worth Every Penny"
Rijfkogel admits that there may have been cheaper ways to provide entertainment for children but she wanted the "wow-factor" that the soft play equipment offers.
"We have a wide-open glass entryway where the play area is located, so it creates that wow-factor even from the parking lot," she explained. "With more people on time to church and more people staying afterward, it's been worth every penny."