"Families spent time doing the crafts and talking about the Bible story at home. While the length of camp time was shortened, the faith formation time lengthened - a win all around!"
Taking VBS Outside the Box
St. Paul's is a vibrant, historic parish whose VBS participation had become so small we cancelled it the past two years. No scheduling changes – time of day, length of program, or week of the summer – seemed to make a difference to these dwindling numbers.
This year we did something completely different: we brought our entire VBS off-site and "on location!" Yes, it took coordination and lots of pre-planning, but what program doesn't? Our good news is in our numbers: we had 15 children and six adults participate. The total cost for this year's program (drinks, admission prices, supplies for take home crafts) was a little less than what we have spent on previous years' programs.
VBS On Location
Our VBS met Monday through Wednesday from 10:00-1:00 pm, with families meeting us each day at a different location. Children ranged in age from 3 to 10. Participants brought their lunch, and St. Paul’s provided drinks with a special treat at the end of each day. Two of our sites charged an entrance fee, so the church subsidized the cost.
Day One: Our first day was at Norfolk Botanical Gardens for the Godly Play Creation Story. We spent time in the butterfly garden where the children could hold many different types of butterflies. We listened to the story on a shady boardwalk. Finally, we spent time together in the children’s section where they were able to get wet and participate in some fun garden crafts. As families left, each child received a bag to take home and decorate, using the fabric markers provided. Also inside were craft kits to emphasize the Creation Story. I suggested crafts be done sometime that afternoon or evening as a family.
Day Two: The second day we met at an environmental center where the children and parents heard the Moses in the Bulrushes story. They spent time swimming and had a tour of the environmental center. I switched up my original plan as I found it worked better to let the children swim first, take the tour, hear the story and then swim some more. Each child received a zip top bag with two Moses crafts to do at home.
Day Three: The third day we went to the Zoo. We had planned to hear the Noah story. Unfortunately we had a heat advisory that day. In communicating with parents beforehand, we decided to go anyway but not hear the story - too long and too hot. The children were able to get wet in the fountains and as we walked around the zoo, we talked about Noah. Children received a zip top bag with several craft items (an animal face mask, a small water animal toy and a Noah’s ark with animal stickers to place on the ark).
Final Gathering: We will have one more get-together, which will be a beach day at a parishioner's home. We'll hear the Godly Play Jonah story, we'll all swim in the Chesapeake Bay, and the church will provide pizza and drinks.
Setting up an off-site VBS took coordination and prior planning, as well as families who were willing to think outside of the box. That said, the benefits were unexpected and fabulous! Parents told me they loved it because there seemed to be less time commitment and thus less stress. Our VBS combined the summer fun of a trip to the Zoo with faith formation, allowing families to feel as though they could pop in.
Families spent time with their children doing the crafts and talking about the Bible story at home. While the length of camp time was shortened, the faith formation time lengthened - a win all around! Finally, parents loved getting to know one another and want to continue to meet on a monthly basis doing some type of activity together. How wonderful for each of us to meet one another, learn about those we didn’t know, and form community. With little to lose, thinking outside the VBS box provided multiple opportunities to grow.
Vicky W. Koch is the Director of Children and Youth Ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Norfolk, VA, content manager for our church Facebook page and a Certified Spiritual Director. She is a widow and has two children and two grandchildren and recently completed the Camino Ingles.