In no particular order, here are my tips for running a happy, nurturing, enjoyable nursery for all involved:
- You can make a slide out of a conference-size standard church building table by folding down the legs on one end and leaving the other up. If your tables are the current standard issue plastic top ones, the children won’t be able to pick up enough speed to require any kind of cushioning at the bottom.
- STRUCTURE. I know, I know, you like just letting the kids play and going with the flow. You don’t want to be “that guy,” the cruel drill sergeant. Believe me, I know, I’ve been there. The Primary President all but ordered me to take a highly structured approach when I was called to nursery and I am now a most zealous convert. You will not regret this:
- Have a schedule and stick to it. The children will learn it fairly quickly and begin to anticipate each part.
- The schedule should change pace often.
- Make “free play” with toys as short as possible. Just during the drop-off time, if you can get away with it. Yes, you heard me right! Free play with toys is chaotic and too quickly depletes your mental energy. It is also the time when children are most likely to have conflicts with other children.
- Have rituals and traditions for everything. This helps children know what is expected of them and have concrete, reliable things to look forward to. All this promotes well-being and happiness of the children and you. Events that can be marked by specific words or actions or little melodies are: clearing their place at the end of snack, sitting down for lesson, cleaning up toys. Anything that is chore-like–turn it into a little ritual game and they will focus more on the fun and familiarity of that then the chore itself.
The reason for structure is that there aren’t enough of you to do a man-to-man defense. You need to go zone. You need activities that involve and entertain many children at once, instead of trying to console each one yourself. Most of the following tips are ways to maintain structure.
- For lessons, they love mystery. Put something, anything, in a paper bag and make them guess what it is, or let each child peek in the bag one at a time. It’s like catnip, every time.
- Our current nursery leader has a wand with a bee on it that she waves over each child’s head while they’re eating snack, and she says “Busy busy busy bee, won’t you say your name to me?” Then the chlid says their name and then all the children have to say loud “welcome [name],” then quiet “welcome [name].” This glosses over the otherwise awkward scenario where you don’t know or can’t remember a child’s name, and the repetition helps everyone learn the names.
- Learn the Barney clean-up song: “Clean-up! Clean-up! Everybody, everywhere! Clean-up! Clean-up! Everybody do your share.” Works like a charm.
- Get the primary songbook CDs and a CD player (or better yet ipod w/speakers) so when you do singing time you aren’t doing solos. Primary might tell you that they’ll send the primary chorister in to do song time for you, but the reality is that there are lot of exceptions or running-lates, and you just can’t leave 1/4 of your entire nursery schedule to chance/whim like that. It needs to happen at the scheduled time and happen every time, so have a plan for doing it yourself.
- For song time I have cardstock sunshines mounted on popsicle sticks that I hand out to each kid when we sing “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,” ditto with star for “I am like a Star shining brightly,” and a set with a kid’s face that is for “I am a child of God.” They quickly feel familiar and comfortable with the ritual of passing them out and recollecting them, and it helps them look forward to those songs. It also clearly marks the boundaries between songs, which I think helps them feel like we’re not just singing interminably.
- BUBBLES. Get one of those machines that makes tons of bubbles for you. No matter how well-run and harmonious your nursery is, those last 5 minutes before the parents arrive will often seem impossibly long. Bubbles are a great way to “play us out.”
- For disinfecting the toys, which most likely is being neglected, I like to buy the Costco disinfecting wipes 3-pack (the store brand version of this). Not very earth-friendly, but it gets the job done. When I was Activity Day leader I had the girls wipe down all the nursery toys as an activity. A service project counts towards their goals, they enjoyed it, and for me as a leader it was ideal (easy to plan, is done at the building, cheap).
- They really like to sing “Wheels on the Bus,” but I used to edit it to mitigate the outdated gender roles in the original lyrics (mom says “shh!” while dad reads the newspaper). [evil grin]
- I’m an advocate of being ruthless in enforcing the rule that children must be 18 months to attend. Having parents of younger children attend with the child doesn’t help; if anything it is worse because it is that much more distracting. If parents think their child needs time to adjust or warm up to nursery, tell them that’s fine, but that process will start when the child is 18 months old.
- It’s a good idea to deploy some kind of semiotics indicating place and ownership when it comes to snack time, otherwise they tend to be messier and more prone to poaching from each other. If you want to get crafty: The nursery in our ward did the cutest thing. They took photos of each child, then printed them in color on 8.5×11, and laminated them, and then that was each kid’s reusable placemat for snack time. The children know which place is theirs (no reading skills required), and they feel important and recognized.
- The new nursery manual is very well done. Sadly, it wasn’t published yet when I was teaching nursery. It contains not only lesson plans, but general tips for success such as dealing with conflict and reaching children with special needs. Julie M. Smith posted a glowing review of it over at Times & Seasons with more information.
- A real above-and-beyond nursery takes extra care in creating a welcoming environment for children right as they’re arriving. This can be tricky when you’re dealing with a hectic hand-off of the room from another ward, but so worthwhile if you can pull it off. My own kids really, really didn’t like being dropped off to nursery until we switched to a ward that had a table with a colorful vinyl tablecloth and play-dough waiting for them when they arrived. A welcoming environment with a specific activity going on gives children something to go to, rather than just away from mom and dad.
Have fun! To me, there are few rewards as sweet as the moment when you’ve gained a toddler’s trust. It makes me suddenly mindful of all my unworthiness–that I’m an ofttimes messy, stubborn, prideful, lazy, unwise person–but with that humbling I am so inspired to want to be better. Cherish those moments and the honor it is to experience them.