In the Fall of 2020, as children returned to school online and many meetings settled into hosting worship on Zoom, the question of how to support religious education programs and community for children and families in meetings was on many minds. Local meetings did amazing things in the depth of the pandemic — care packages, calls and notes to young Friends and their families, outdoor programs when possible — even online Christmas pageants! The PYM Children & Families program was also experimenting, and Giant Children’s Meeting was born from both necessity and hope. Now we’re ready to discern what’s next for creating children and their families in our wider PYM community.
Thinking Outside the Box . . . in Zoom Squares
The importance of GCM to me is that it allowed children and families to be in community and connect in a new way while so many people were apart. It was wonderful to still be able to be together even though in person events were suspended. It helped PYM to reached new families of Friends who may not have been able to be a part of the community before.
— Crystal Hershey, Children & Families Program Facilitator
In more than one aspect, Giant Children’s Meeting was a new kind of religious education and community program. Hosted monthly online using Zoom, the intention of the program was twofold: first, to provide families of younger children — who were largely isolated at home that first fall of the pandemic — the opportunity to join a program that would also connect them in fellowship with other families. The second intention was to support Friends who were leading online children’s programs for their local meeting. We hoped that putting this program on their program calendar could be a welcome “break” once a month for those devoted Friends. The 9:00 AM start was intended to make it possible for everyone also to attend worship with their own meeting later that morning.
We called it “giant” because Zoom made it possible for anyone to attend from across the whole geography of our Yearly Meeting. And it got even bigger — the overall registration was almost 100 families from 37 PYM local meetings and four other yearly meetings. We also chose the language “children’s meeting” rather than “First Day School” because it was a space to nurture the spiritual lives and Quaker identity of young people outside of regular programming. Each 30-45 minute program for preschool and elementary-age children and their families featured a thematic program with welcome, sharing, story, wondering and a brief time of waiting worship, and song led by seasoned children’s program facilitators.
From September 2020-May 2022, a planning committee of Friends holding care for children and families in the yearly meeting collaborated on the program: Abigaile Brace-Higgins (Mickleton Meeting), Crystal Hershey (Mount Holly Meeting) who serves as the Children & Families Facilitator, Guinevere Janes (Media Meeting), and Melinda Wenner Bradley, Director of Programs. Staff are deeply grateful for the gifts of story, song, and laughter that Abby and Guinevere shared generously, along with hours of support with planning and facilitating!
Giant Children’s Meeting created a special virtual space for the youngest Friends to share some joy and connection, while living far from each other physically. It was inspiring to think creatively together about stories so relevant and relatable in the moment. Building songs that reflected the personalities within our ‘giant’ community was so uplifting! My family always felt a warm glow from the fellowship that lasted long after signing off.
— Abigaile Brace-Higgins, Mickleton Meeting
What we discovered in the two years of offering the program was how important it was not just for the children, but for the adults. Giant Children’s Meeting wasn’t just about stories and songs — it was about connection. Throughout the Fall of 2020 and the first year, we were frequently joined by adults who want to see how “it worked” to try a similarly structured online program for their meetings’ children. There were also adults who simply wanted to be with children — we were missing one another in our meetings, our neighborhoods, our families, and Giant Children’s Meeting extended across three or four generations some weeks, gathering us in ways we had not anticipated.
This past year, colleagues in Britain Yearly Meeting heard about our experiment, and decided to try it there, and closer to home it was delightful to read in State of the Meeting reports about the impact of the program!
Each 4th Sunday, the children were invited to join Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s wonderful online Giant Children’s Meeting. They connected with a community of about 30 other Quaker children in PYM’s geographic area. They seemed to really enjoy this time and the program offered.
Reflecting on the Need Then — and Now
There are PYM local meetings who stayed connected to families with children through the pandemic with an incredible effort of organization and love. Giant Children’s Meeting gave people another “place to go” when we couldn’t go anywhere, but as Zoom fatigue set in and then the world began to open for in-person activities in the spring of 2022, attendance waned and the planners became clear that it was time to consider the next iteration of a program like this.
Our goals had been to reach families, connect them, and provide a place for community that would also support the Friends providing care and program in their meetings. One of the possibilities the pandemic has left us to consider is hybrid (or blended) programming — we’re doing it for worship and business in many meetings, why not also consider it (where appropriate to the topic and activity) for children’s programs? Many meetings reflected in their 2021 State of the Meeting reports that they continued to offer programs online throughout the pandemic months — is there something to copy and sustain from that experience that might continue to nurture families, their different needs, and connection to each other?
The Sunday we read After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again), we invited families to bring eggs to share. The family from the UK asked the family that brought eggs they collected from their own chickens if Americans called 13 eggs a baker’s dozen? Watching the two families chatting back and forth with one another for a few minutes, I remember thinking that this was what Giant Children’s Meeting was all about.
— Guinevere Janes, Media Meeting
What’s next? Let’s find out together!
Regardless of whether you or your meeting participated in Giant Children’s Meeting, you are invited to fill out this brief survey and share your input for future programming. The image we used for Giant Children’s Meeting was a series of kaleidoscope shapes — like the different families and children in their Zoom boxes, they share some things and are unique in other ways. In our Zoom squares, we thought outside the box — let’s keep going!