Today we’re going to be getting into the specifics of how I keep my kids occupied during church services each week.
Why should I bring my kids into the church service just to entertain them with toys?
Let me start off by saying (as I did in my previous post, Making Sense of Church with Kids) that snacks and entertainment are not the end goal, here. The goal is to end up with kids/adults who are attentive, interested, and engaged in the church service.
Here’s a rough idea of the progression we’re going for:
- Comfort: In the early stages of our kids’ lives (or whenever we first introduce church to them), we have to help them to be comfortable in an environment that’s likely much different than any they experience any other day of the week. So, we teach them to play/talk quietly, and yes, we use snacks and toys to distract, entertain, and keep them busy.
- Early listening/understanding: After our kids are more comfortable in church services, and developmentally ready to understand more of what’s happening there, we can start moving away from entertainment and distraction, toward listening and understanding. In this stage we’ll use intermediate activities, like tallying different words the preacher uses (as I explained in this post), to help kids pay attention. We’ll also narrate different parts of the service to help our children understand what’s happening and the reasons for different elements of the service.
- Engagement: At this point, kids are actively involved in church services, either by being attentive listeners, participating in prayers, reading scripture, collecting offerings, or performing some other function to help the service run smoothly. At this point, parents are offering support and training to help their children succeed and understand that everyone has an important part in the Body of Christ.
Of course the divisions between these stages will not be exact or clear-cut. Every child is different, and their levels/areas of interest will differ. E, my 3 year old, has always been quite interested in what’s going on in church, and he’s always loved just being in the sanctuary. A, my 16 month old, on the other hand, hasn’t displayed the same level of engagement with church. We just have to meet both kids where they are, and help them move forward toward our end goals as well as we can!
So, in the rest of this post, I’ll be going into more detail about how we are working with our kids to help them be comfortable in church.
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For us, church service spans our morning snack time. Even if it didn’t, all that sitting in one place means kids are going to feel hungrier than they usually do, because there’s nothing to distract them from the rumbling in their little tummies. The only thing is that you never realize how noisy a snack can be until your toddler is noshing like gangbusters during the congregational prayer. So, here are my suggestions for church-appropriate edible treats:
- Alternative snack containers: absolutely no chip bags or cracker wrappings. You can go with resealable plastic bags, but reusable snack bags are quieter AND ecofriendly! We also LOVE our RePlay Recycled Snack Stacks. They’re super cute and stackable for multiple snacks in less space, and they’re small enough that little hands can hold them quite well. They will make noise if you drop them on a wooden pew, though, so beware.
- Spill-proof water bottles/cups: Unless you want to make countless trips to the drinking fountain, or love having your kid complain about being thirsty all.service.long, spill-proof water bottles and cups are church essentials for kids. (You might want to throw one in there for yourself, too, especially if you’re a pregnant or nursing mama.) For Baby A, we love the Munchkin Click-lock cup with the weighted straw. For E, we love the Munchkin Miracle Stainless Steel 360 sippy cup.
- Bamba snacks: Honestly I’d never heard of these until a few months ago when it was time to introduce Baby A to peanuts and I read that these were a great snack for babies/toddlers. He LOVES them, you guys. They look like cheese curls, but the only ingredients are peanut paste, corn grits, palm oil, and salt. I could feed these to A all.day.long. and he’d be happy (I don’t, though.). I’m not including an Amazon link to these because they are MUCH cheaper in store. I bought the Osem ones in my local grocery store many times (in the international food aisle with the kosher items) for between $1.25-$2 a bag, and then found out that the Trader Joe’s brand Bamba snacks are cheaper at only $.99 for a 3.5 oz bag, so we stock up whenever we get there (sadly, we live an hour away from the closest Trader Joe’s). They’re actually not loud to chew on, and as long as you put them in a different container, they aren’t too noisy for church!
- Cheerios: These are classics. They’re allergy friendly (my kids could eat them even when they were gluten/dairy/egg/soy/legume free), easy for babies to grasp and chew, and they don’t make too much noise as long as you keep them in a reusable snack bag.
- Fruit bars: I like That’s it bars (no added sugar–the ingredients are just apple and one other fruit). I will say that E doesn’t like them, but A loves them, and I think they’re pretty yummy, too. If you like fruit leather, you’ll probably like these bars.
- Clementines: They’re seedless and easy to peel, which is a plus because the peeling is fun for kids and keeps them occupied even before they start eating! Just remember, you need your reusable snack bag to store the peels in until you get out of the sanctuary!
- Pouches: Both of my boys LOVE little squeezable pouches. We usually buy GoGo Squeez Organic Fruit & Veggiez pouches, but if you don’t like the disposable pouches, there are quite a few reusable ones out there. I have mixed feelings about the ones I bought, so I’m not going to recommend them, but here’s a review of 5 different reusable pouches to check out!
Most churches would rather you didn’t have any food in the sanctuary at all, so if you do give your kids snacks during the service, have your kids stay in one spot next to you while they eat, clean up after yourselves, and nix things that are super crumbly or that can’t be cleaned up easily with a wet wipe.
Little ones, and possibly some of the adults in your life, have a hard time sitting still with nothing to do with their hands or feet, and that’s perfectly normal. It just means that you may need some toys to give them something to do. And you guys, even if your kids are a little bit older (old enough to listen and understand the sermon), they may still need something to occupy their hands while they listen. I taught kids in grades 5-8 in various combinations for 11 years, and one thing I learned was that a lot of kids need to keep their hands busy in order to help them listen better. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true.
Here are some suggestions:
A stuffed animal: Stuffed animals are great for babies and very young kids because they don’t make noise if you throw them, and they’re easy to hold. We love Jellycat animals and often use them, but a little pink pig from Bunnies by the Bay is Baby A’s current favorite.
- Crayons/Coloring books: These are classics! Just make sure the kids are keeping the crayons on the paper, not the pews!
- Magnet set: E received a Magna Carry Playbook Activity Set for his 3rd birthday, and it’s perfect for church! There are small pieces, though, so I wouldn’t recommend it for kids under 3.
- Water Wow! pads: These are reusable over and over again, and great for church! The only potential for mess is if your child unscrews the little “paintbrush” and spills the water out. For church we like the Melissa & Doug Water Wow! Bible Stories pad but there are many to choose from!
- Quiet books: Quiet books are awesome and I wish I could tell you that I’ve made some really cool ones for my boys, but the truth is that I’ve pinned a lot of great ideas on Pinterest and haven’t ever made any of them. But if you’re more ambitious (and more talented with a sewing machine) than I am, follow my Pinterest board here for ideas! Alternatively, you check out some of the great busy books available on Etsy by other talented individuals!
- Sensory putty: Putty can be great for keeping little hands busy (though kids who still put things in their mouths should probably not use it!). Emmett was given some Crazy Aaron’s Glow-in-the-Dark Thinking Putty by kind people who noticed he needed something to play with one week in church (I think it was about a year ago). He LOVES it! I don’t think he even remembers that it glows in the dark, because he uses it almost exclusively in church, but he just has fun squishing it around in his hands and taking it in and out of the little tin that it comes in.
- Notebook/pad: As kids get older, having blank (lined or unlined) paper will be useful if they would like to play the sermon word grid game, take notes, or even just doodle to help them focus.
Change of clothes
During the baby stage I always had an extra change of clothes (or two) in the diaper bag, because, you know, babies. But it was so sad to me when I’d go out of my way to put my kiddo into the most adorable church outfit ever, only to have him spit up all over everything 10 minutes later and end up in the extra onesie and sweatpants that were always floating around in my bag. I started packing an extra outfit that was also cute, and that helped me feel much better about it. Pro tip: For babies and toddlers, choose a cute onesie-style outfit as your backup church outfit. You’ll save space and it’s much easier to be sure you have everything you need!
Fast forward a few months to potty-training, and I still needed to pack an extra change of clothes (or at least clean pants and underwear) for a few months. But, remember, if you’re tucking a shirt in for Sabbath, that might get wet too, and depending on how bad the accident is, you could be in need of fresh socks and shoes. These days, E pretty much never needs a change of clothes, so I don’t carry an extra pair of pants to church for him anymore. May I just say that I am SO thankful that kid was an early potty trainer??
No matter what, it never hurts to pack a wet bag (my favorite are Logan and Lenora, but they’ve changed their designs since I bought my orange/white/grey zig zag bags), because it’ll keep icky wet things (cloth diapers, used wipes from when you cleaned your kid’s face in church, a half-eaten apple, etc.) from contaminating all of the rest of the great stuff in your bag.
So, what’s in my church bag?
Well, it’ll vary from week to week (and I’m hoping that I’ll be ditching the diaper bag and moving to smaller, individual Sabbath bags for the boys to carry in the next few months), but here’s what’s in my typical Sabbath bag:
- water for each kid
- a snack (or two) for each kid
- a pouch for each kid
- a touchy-feely book for A
- a Bible story book of E’s choosing OR a WaterWow! pad
- E’s MagnaCarry
- some crayons
- a coloring book
- coins for offering
- 2 diapers
- wet bag
- change of clothes for A
Want a simple, printable packing list for your church bag? I’ll send you one when you sign up for the Disciple Mama newsletter!
Of course there’s other stuff in my bag, too…all that junk that accumulates over time, and everyday essentials for me, like chapstick, lotion, my little purse, etc. You’ll need to personalize your bags according to what your kids enjoy, and what’s acceptable in your worship environment. Also, you’ll need to change up the bag fairly often to keep the kiddos interested. Some toys almost always work, others lose their novelty fast, so just pay attention to what needs to be rotated often to keep interest high!
Perfection is not required.
Don’t expect perfection from your kids, and don’t expect it from yourself. Navigating church service with kids isn’t easy. Now, please remember that my kids are still young, and they are far from perfectly behaved in church (even with good planning and a well-stocked church bag). We’re all in this together.
If you have to take your children out of the church service because they just won’t behave, it’s okay. My husband and I try to keep our kids in the sanctuary during church if we can, but there are definitely times (and plenty of those times now that A is mobile) that we just have to take them out.
We don’t take our kids out of the sanctuary into the mothers’ room to play, because toddlers are smart, and they learn very quickly that if they misbehave in church, they get to go play in another room. That’s not the message my husband and I want to send to our kids, so if we take them out, we hold them until they are calm, and then we go back and try again.
You know your children best, and you need to weigh your sanity against your goals for your kids. I don’t want anyone reading this post to feel that I’m trying to be prescriptive. I just want to help you to think through how you’d like your kids to relate to church services and develop an action plan for making clear, intentional progress toward those goals.
What’s in your bag?
I’d love to hear from you about what works to keep your kids on target in church! We can learn from each other if we share, so please leave a comment below with what works (or doesn’t work) for you!
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