Manna interview: Let’s take it outside!

1st December 2023


Julie Perry is the Children’s and Family’s Worker for the Parish of Minehead and runs a weekly outdoor Toddler Church.

How did you get started in this role?

I’ve been in the role for four years now. I have a background in childminding but no history of church work, although I have been a member of the church for some time. They created this role for me which was fantastic and I was given the freedom and encouragement to create what I wanted from scratch.

How did you get started?

The first thing I wanted to create was set up a Baby and Toddler Group as there wasn’t one. There was an after-school club at the time being run by the Exmoor Youth Project. I was clear that I didn’t want it to be a baby and toddler group in a church, I wanted a faith-based baby and toddler group and we soon ended up taking outside completely.

Why outside?

It became apparent before lockdown that people were worried about coming into the building but even before then I was taking steps to take it outside. I was always looking for excuses to take it outside because I really enjoyed it and the families really enjoyed it. I thought why am I fighting this, let’s take it outside.

Why do you think outside was so important?

For me, it is where I feel closest to God. If you are facilitating something like this, I think it’s important for you to be able to enjoy it so you can share that passion. The children’s reaction to it being outside has been wonderful and I always remember one of the mums saying to me, “When the children are outside there are no boundaries.” And that is true, you can take that as physical boundaries, or as boundaries as to what they can learn, how they can grow, and how their faith is developed.

Where do you meet?

We are lucky as we have the beach on our doorstep, safe parks and woods, streams, and more. And lots of families don’t drive so it is handy to have everything within walking distance. For safeguarding reasons, we hold it in a different location each week, which makes it a little difficult to promote but we benefit from a lot of ‘word of mouth’.

How many people come along?

Membership ebbs and flows, we recently had a lot of our toddlers start school and quite a few of the parents have left as they have found jobs. That has been just wonderful as we were able to be with them through the process with them and pray with them. And it has never been about the numbers. We’ve had some wonderful sessions with just three or four families. The emphasis is more on the relationships we can build with them. 

Do the families come to church?

Not necessarily but we have found it can be a stepping stone into the church family for some. I make it very clear to everyone coming along that this group has a gentle faith element. I would hate for someone to come along and not realise that, so I make it very clear that this is a Christian group and we will be talking about Jesus and the Bible.

What is that faith element?

One thing we have in each session is what I call our holy ritual. It can be as simple as having a moment of silence before snack time. It is an opportunity for children to learn how to listen and be calm. We did a session on Remembrance in November, which is not an easy topic for toddlers. They were engrossed in doing their fingerpainting poppies and we tried to help the children understand the meaning behind it by relating it to their lives, asking, “Have you ever read a book with a hero in it? Well today we are giving thanks for some real-life heroes”. You could see them mulling it all over. We then had a moment of silence and as we are outside that can be really powerful. Not only have we got a big group of children standing or sitting and listening quietly, but you also have the breeze blowing through your hair, a seagull squawking in the background, it’s like your senses are heightened to everything.

What do you think families get from Toddler Church?

People come to this, they build friendships, they come along to other things. It is comforting to know I am making a difference. It might be that they come along to something else we are running, such as one of our child-led services. It can be a gentle introduction to our parish. I know that I am making a difference as I know how much the children enjoy it but it is also nice to know that people are exploring their faith slightly further as well.

Will you be joining in with Eco Advent?

I am keen to incorporate it into our activities. I am holding a Messy Christmas Craft session at the end of November and I will be sharing it with the many families who attend. One of our activities will be crafting a stable they can then take home and use for Eco Advent. I also plan to use it in our weekly toddler church, so even if people can’t carry it on at home, at least they can benefit from it in some way.

Do the children get an ‘eco’ element from Outdoor Church?

With eco things, I think it is a chance to raise the children’s awareness of the outside world. What do we have on our doorstep, how can we look after it? We incorporate this into our activities throughout the year, whether that’s during Harvest with having a multi-sensory session on the Harvest of the Flock, with wool and crocheting, or even late October, when we hosted a pumpkin party. We carved pumpkins, cut up the flesh with other vegetables, and made lanterns and bread. The next day we hosted Fire Pit Friday and the children brought families and friends and were able to serve them soup, pumpkin seeds, and bread that they had lovingly prepared, surrounded by their pumpkin lanterns. It was very moving to see what they got out of that, knowing that nothing was wasted from the pumpkins they used.

We went into a garden centre as a group, bought seeds, pots, and compost, and planted them up. I took them home and cared for them, sent picture updates to our private chat group and the next week the speedy cress we grew went into our snack time egg and cress sandwiches.

A lot goes into your sessions

It’s difficult to plan something every week and although there are some things I do regularly I don’t always have a clear plan about what I am going to do. Sometimes I say, ‘I’m going to God it today’. I’m going to turn up and see what happens, but there is always something that transpires. Someone could point something out and we can be led by that.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the December 2023 issue of the Manna mailing.

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