Launching a kids learning lab

This article is featured in the Acting Missionally issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Start with mission

Susanna Wesley United Methodist Church exists to build diverse Christian communities where God's love is in action. Since the congregation's founding, we have, like our namesake, had a strong commitment to serving the children and families in our community. For years, our school-age ministry has offered both before and after school care and a summer camp for elementary students. Our early learning center recently expanded from preschool to include all-day childcare. Families need a safe and nurturing space for their children, perhaps during a pandemic more than ever. We know that creating that space is crucial for our congregation as we serve in God's kingdom. While many of the practices of our ministry have changed in recent months, our core commitments remain.

Listen to the community

Some weeks ago, it became apparent that this school year was likely to look different from the past. Our school district was planning to begin the school year in a hybrid model with students in their buildings two days a week and learning remotely three days a week. We began to wonder if the before and after school care we’ve offered in the past for children at the elementary school next door would make sense. We were hearing parents ask, "How am I going to make this schedule work for my family?"

We met with the principal to listen to the school's plan and ask, "How can we best serve our community this season?” This conversation helped clarify that there was a real need for families to have a place for their children on the three days a week they would be learning remotely. Children would have online meetings with their teachers, assignments online, and paper and pencil packets on those days. The expectation was for students to spend six hours each day on learning activities. It became clear that this year a safe learning space was needed instead of a traditional daycare program. Our listening to various voices in the community led to our decision to launch the SW Kids Learning Lab.

Program logistics

Children at our local elementary school are attending school two days per week and remotely learning the other three days per week. The district has divided the student body into an A group and a B group. Children attend our campus two to three days per week when they are not in-person at the elementary school. We have a large fellowship hall that can hold 45 student desks spaced six feet apart. We also set-up a second smaller area that can serve about 20 students on Wednesdays (when neither group is at school). This space allows us to offer daily child care for some children of school district staff.

We have set up a schedule similar to a school day. We open each day at 8 a.m. Children have the opportunity to eat breakfast when they arrive. Then at 8:30, they begin their learning day. They say the Pledge of Allegiance, and then connect online with their teachers. They work on most of their school assignments before lunch, taking breaks about every 30 minutes. After lunch, they have a little longer time to be outside. We're also creating opportunities for the children to enjoy read-aloud time in smaller groups, do some hands-on activities like art and science experiments and spend some time playing. Parents have been overwhelmingly thankful and supportive of helping to meet this need.

Build on assets

Our location right next door to an elementary school is a huge asset in making the Learning Lab a reality. We were able to partner with the school to provide meals for our program. The school loaned us desks and chairs so we could set up a more traditional classroom atmosphere. One of the most significant changes we have had to make is increasing our internet capacity and cleaning protocols. We also ordered some educational type supplies: school boxes with necessary supplies, dry erase boards, magnetic letters, simple learning games and puzzles. 

We also reached out to our congregation for donations of educational books and supplies. We were blessed to have a recently retired teacher who donated many usable classroom items.

It helped that we were already licensed with the state to provide care for children all day. We utilized the same staff that we had from our summer camp and added a couple of new staff members to our team. Our School-Age Director and Children's Ministry Director are collaborating to make this happen, and it has taken the leadership of both to begin this process. Our School-Age Director has been focused on enrollment, staffing, licensing requirements, and paperwork, while our Children's Ministry Director has concentrated on setting up the learning environment.

Follow the Spirit

The journey of the last several weeks has been both exciting and terrifying. We always hope to follow where God's spirit is leading and, in this case, it is into something brand new! We launched on August 31, and the first few days have brought continued opportunities for learning  both for students and for our team as they seek to provide the very best environment for children during this season. While there are still many unanswered questions, we have been problem-solving as we go and are ready to continue to follow God's spirit into whatever comes next.

Join us on Wednesday September 9 from 7:00pm - 8:15pm CT for a live webinar presented by Ministry Matters and Abingdon Press! 

Topic: Partnering with schools during COVID: Launching a learning lab

Panelists: Lia McIntosh, Jaymie Genovese, Andrew Conard and Justin Coleman 

Panelists will share briefly about their experiences in local churches from Kansas to North Carolina, and will answer your questions about how to do this work in your community.

Cost: FREE

Register here. We'll send you a Zoom link before the live event!

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