Important: You'll need Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) clearance to work with children. Contact your school for details.
The National Curriculum encourages primary schools to visit local places of worship and this can also be beneficial in Secondary RE and Citizenship. This is a wonderful opportunity for you to make contact with hundreds of local children, so getting it right is very important. This article offers a simple checklist of things to think about.
Before the event
If you find working with young children difficult, ask someone else to do this! Your Sunday school teacher / children's worker, if available, is a great port of call, and a face that the children may already know. You could also do a double act if this works for you.
Find out what the purpose of the visit is. It might be a vague 'just to look around', which is a frequent response when I ask. Try to narrow it down: What is the exact aim of the visit? What information are you coming to find out and what experiences would you like the children to have? Are there particular curriculum-related aims of the visit?
Will the children have a worksheet to complete during the visit? If they don't, it may be worth sitting down with your children's leader / Sunday school teacher and designing one, drawing the children towards the areas / artefacts they need to look into. For example, if they're learning about initiation, it will be the font; if it's the curriculum focus to do with architecture, the pulpit, altar, sanctuary, etc.. Do this in consultation with the school, if possible.
Find out if it will help if you 'dress up', i.e. wear your 'Sunday clothes'. These can be a useful teaching / learning area in themselves. See this assembly: 'Why Do Vicars Dress Like That?
Are there any disabled children or special needs children in the party? If so, is your building user-friendly for them? (You may need to switch on your hearing loop, for example.)
Find out if the children need to look at the artefacts used for communion: chalice, paten, etc.. If so, get them out and lay the altar as you would for a service – children love looking at all the cloths, and learning about flies trying to get into the wine!
Go through your talk in advance, making it as interactive as you can. Be critical of your approach: how frequent are the changes of pace, how often will the children be actively involved, how well will this event stimulate the able and the less able?
On the day
Begin your time with the children by being quiet and getting them to think about the building. How does the building make them feel? You could introduce the word 'architecture' at this point, asking if anyone knows it.
Explain that you'll only answer each question once so they have to listen closely! If it's asked a second time, let the children answer.
Does your church have mice? Spiders? (I had a whopper under the altar.) Children love to look into nooks and crannies to see the less well-known side of the building.
Any anecdotes such as getting locked in or funny things that have been said and done in church will add spice and interest, as will any practical activity such as baptizing a doll. You might also like to get out your baptism register and let the children find themselves in it!
Does your church have an organ? If so, if one of the teachers (or you) can play a little: this helps the children enormously to 'feel' the worshipping side of the building. Many of them may not know what a church organ sounds like.
Think carefully about language level. Be simple but not simplistic – read some child psychology and don't speak using concepts that are beyond the children's comprehension. Teachers can advise here.
If you have a parish church, make sure you ask the children who the church belongs to: they are often amazed to find it's there for them!
Let the children have 20 minutes or so to work independently in the building. Encourage them to lie down and look at the ceiling, to look behind the altar, to go to areas that are traditionally 'out of bounds'; but do be safety-conscious.
Is your church open during the day? If it isn't, think with your PCC / elders about opening up, so that enthused children can then bring their families in when the building is quiet.
Contact the school to find out how the event went from their point of view. What could be done differently to make the next time more child-friendly and curriculum-appropriate?
Ask if the school would like you to visit the classroom to answer any further questions and look at the children's work. This might be a good opportunity to ask about getting some of the children's own material into the parish magazine if you have one.
Ask the children if they could change one thing about the church, what would it be? Be brave enough to take the answers seriously. You could even act on them!