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Summer religious education gains popularity

Children need religious education in the summer, too.
By Donald E. Skinner
Fall 2006 8.15.06

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During the winter the children’s religious education programs in our congregations are a beehive of activity. There are organized curricula, schedules to follow, special events, and lots of children and volunteers.

And then comes summer.

The tempo shifts. In smaller congregations RE programs may adjourn until fall. Or they may be reduced to one multi-age activity each Sunday. But more and more congregations are finding summer Sundays a great time to organize activities for which there isn’t time during the rest of the church year.

Take the summer program at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara in California. Five years ago it wasn’t unusual on some Sundays to have only five children show up. “People felt summer meant vacation from church,” said the Rev. Melitta Haslund, consulting minister of religious education at the 550–member congregation. But that was before “intergenerational Sunday School,” an idea that former Santa Barbara director of religious education Anne Anderson, who retired last year, thought might bring the kids—and their parents—back. It did. This past summer there were twenty or so children and as many adults each Sunday busily engaged in RE activities.

Anderson said that in 2003 she was exploring ways to revitalize summer Sunday school. “I looked around the congregation and saw that we had incredibly talented congregants. So we invited people to share their talents and their passions with the children.” People jumped at the chance, she said.

In 2006, for the fourth year, ten congregants were selected to prepare an RE program for each of ten summer Sundays. Topics included theatrics, cartooning, drumming, creating and walking a labyrinth, making artwork with natural materials, African folk culture, mapmaking, making a village out of natural materials, gardening, and the collective creation of an art piece.

Each program is connected to a UU value. For instance, said Anderson, the cartoonist showed how drawing a cartoon can bring out the strengths of an individual. Children got to draw their own cartoons and talk about them, and that led to a discussion about positive character traits. On another Sunday the children went to the beach and created ritual altars with natural materials such as driftwood and seaweed.

“Kids love it,” said Haslund. “Adults too, because they can come help out.” The RE hour begins with an opening worship that includes lighting a chalice. At the end of the hour there’s a closing ceremony.

“I see an increasing number of religious educators being asked to provide a summer program,” said Tera Little, lifespan RE consultant for the Pacific Southwest District, “and that tells me that just like with adult services, parents and children are saying we need great content in the summer, too.”

At the 250-member Shawnee MissionU Church in Overland Park, Kansas, three different weeklong day camps have kept children energized and involved in recent years. The first was “Character Camp,” which focused on character and values, using a curriculum from the Josephson Institute of Ethics. The camp consisted of role playing focused on citizenship, caring, etc., and helped children and youth think about how to behave in social situations. Shawnee Mission also built on its relationship with an urban Kansas City nondenominational church by holding another camp, Alike and Different. Kids attended sessions at both churches using a curriculum developed by the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. Another year, a third camp, Keepers of the Earth, focused on environmental issues.

Sara Sautter, Shawnee Mission’s director of religious education, said a major benefit of summer day camps is that more time is available to drive home important lessons. “A lot more can be accomplished when you have three- to four-hour chunks. And kids have time to socialize and build community.”

Jolinda Stephens, director for lifespan religious programming at the UU Church of the Monterey Peninsula in Carmel, California, with almost 300 members, takes her children outside every chance she gets, and that includes almost every Sunday morning in the summer. “There is some tentative research,” she said, “that seems to indicate that the younger years are the sensitive period for developing a love of nature. We are fortunate in that we are located on several acres of woods and the weather is wonderful year round.”

She has the kids find a space in the woods that is their own sacred space and then journal about it from week to week as it changes with the seasons. They have done plays about famous Unitarian scientists, including Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, and astronomer Maria Mitchell. They do nature activities drawn from the Kids’ Book of Awesome Stuff, by Charlene Brotman, available through the UUA bookstore.

“If I were to do a truly innovative summer program I think I’d try to recreate the summers of my youth for at least one hour a week,” Stephens said. “We’d just take the kids outside and say figure it out. Lie around and do nothing. Make up games. Get in arguments and figure out how to resolve them yourselves. Be kids with no pressures, no schedule, nothing you have to be or do or learn. Doesn’t that sound like the Sabbath to you?”

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