How to conduct an Outdoor VBS

by Mimi Sanders

I love Vacation Bible School! I have vivid memories of my childhood which includes gathering on the church steps to parade into the sanctuary where we would recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the American Flag, the Christian Flag, and the Bible. We would hear our Bible story for the day, sing the songs of our faith such as the B-I-B-L-E, Deep and Wide, and Jesus Loves Me. During craft time we made biblical character masks out of wire coat hangers with panty hose and lions out of pasta noodles glued to a paper plate. Recreation involved playing Red-Rover or freeze-tag in the church yard. And who could forget snacking on circular shortbread cookies and cherry punch! I left each day feeling loved by my church and my God!

Today Vacation Bible School is much more sophisticated, but hopefully emblazons the same type of memories and love for Jesus for our children. When COVID-19 threatened to shut down VBS 2020 we had to reimagine, redesign, and restructure – quickly!  Many churches did a virtual presentation using take-home kits, some did traveling VBS at homes, and sadly some churches did nothing at all. 

Now we find ourselves in 2021 still challenged by COVID-19 and the requirements to social distance. One of the biggest issues is that of dealing with children and adults that have had enough of virtual learning. NO MORE SCREEN TIME!  So we find ourselves trying once again to reimagine, redesign, and restructure.

The core VBS team at our church has dreamed, prayed and brainstormed ways to get the “YES! We can do that!” answer from our church council. Our church building is located in metro Atlanta which is home of the CDC (Center for Disease Control). How can we hold an in-person Vacation Bible School that still follows the CDC recommended guidelines to keep our children, youth and adults safe as well as reach as many children as possible with the stories of God’s love? 

After hours of prayer and conversation we came up with two potential plans: 

  • One plan is to hold (potentially multiple) small-group, in-person, OUTDOOR Vacation Bible School experiences on our church property. We are currently planning two full weeks (Monday – Friday from 9:00 -12:00) where the children will come to the church building. Our plan to have drop-off and pick-up of the children in our large of our gym. While in the gym we can gather multiple groups of 8 children with 2 leaders while maintaining adequate social distance. Some of the questions have had to ponder are:
    • What if we hold assembly time in the gym, but without singing?
    • What if we use our outside areas as small groups gathering on our church  property? 

Following this plan will allow each group to stay in their pre-assigned area and have the activity leaders can rotate to them.  

 

The second plan is to hold a traveling, small-group, in-person, OUTDOOR Vacation Bible School experiences in the neighborhoods around our church and where our members live. Some of the questions have had to ponder are:

  • Would your members be willing to host something at their home? 
  • What about hosting VBS at a neighborhood clubhouse or a nearby park? 
  • Imagine driving the church van into the neighborhood and unpacking VBS in someone’s cul-de-sac!

 

So let’s walk through each activity and explore the options:

LEADERS – Each Activity Leader could have their own wagon or rolling cart filled with necessary supplies. Leaders would travel to each group on a pre-determined schedule. 

MUSIC – Singing presents the largest potential conflict, yet music is vital! Many studies and research discuss the danger of spreading a lot of aerosol particles and droplets into the surrounding air through singing. Our plan will be to provide the students with the Student Take Home- CD prior to VBS. Questions/ideas! What if we play the songs in their small groups, asking them to think about and speak the words, teaching them the motions, but not singing? The music can also be played in the background during craft time or recreation.

CRAFTS – We anticipate staging everything by day for each group. Each student will have their own kit of supplies (plastic sewing needle, yarn, bottle of glue, markers, crayons, scissors, paintbrush, and so forth.) We are going to have kids make a sit-upon during our first session. This craft will allow kids to have a place to sit. We would use it each day and send it home on Friday, our last day of VBS. Cokesbury VBS will provide directions for this craft.

STORY TELLING – This activity really excites us! Imagine sitting on sit-upons gathered in a circle to hear the amazing Bible story each day! The Bible storyellers could use puppets, costumes, flannel graphs or sound effects to share the Bible the way it was shared thousands of years ago – by word of mouth! There are lots of options for making this a safe and memorable experience.

SCIENCE – This activity station may be challenging, but we are anticipating using a table for each group. Our science station might need to be more demonstration than participation. Whether kids participate individually would depend on the experiment, the supplies needed, and the clean-up required.

RECREATION – The challenge here will be eliminating items that everyone would need to touch. Think of activities where they do not share an object, but their bodies are in motion – dance moves, animal charades, red light–green light, avoiding the lava hop, etc. Be cautious of your location. Are you close to a street or other potential hazard? Do the kids have room to spread out without disrupting other groups?

Being outside the majority of the time brings about other concerns. The most obvious is weather – so be prepared!

Take precautions for the heat!

  • Provide shade from a tent, trees, buildings, and so forth.
  • Make sure students bring their own refillable water bottles. Make sure their names written on the bottle.
  • Provide a 5-gallon water dispenser for each group.
  • Remind parents to apply sunscreen before arriving and have some on-hand for reapplying.
  • Suggest kids wear a hat instead or have them make one during craft time.  
  • Maybe create a cardboard fan during craft time, of if electricity is available, set up electric fans.

Take precautions for rain!

  • Is shelter available? If you have waterproof tents
  • Do you have adequate umbrellas or tarps?
  • Could you safely shelter indoors (this may mean assigning each group to a room in advance so they know where they go in case of pop-up storms.)

Other Vital Items to Keep in Mind

Reduce Points of Contact

We plan to have multi-age groups this year, where children from the same family will be in the same group. This can help reduce the number of personal contacts.

Secure your premises.

Is the property safe

Are there holes in the ground, ant beds, tripping hazards, traffic? 

Can children easily wander off? This would be a good time to recruit extra volunteers to sit along the perimeter and keep an eye on the entire group (maybe dressed in theme appropriate costumes!)

Do you need to raise the age limit of the children attending? 

Do you need an extra chaperone with each group?

Consider installing a temporary border with caution tape or traffic cones.

Bugs

We live in the south and mosquitoes are terrible!

Do you need to have your lawn or shrubbery treated before VBS? 

Ask parents to treat their children with bug repellant. 

Are ant beds in the grass that need to be treated?

Will the lawn be mowed before and perhaps during VBS week?

Injuries

Do you have a nurse available to assist with first-aid? 

What is the protocol for handling an injury? 

Does your leader have necessary forms for informing the parents?

Physical limitations

Can a child in a wheelchair or on crutches gain access? 

Restrooms

Where are they? 

Which ones should each group use and when? You may need to make arrangements for your custodial staff to be extra diligent with cleaning and restocking while everyone is on the property.

These are just some of the topics we discussed in planning for the YES! 

Think through each possible issue so you have a plan in place!

Celebrate sharing Vacation Bible School with the children in your neighborhood and beyond!

 

Mimi Sanders

Director of Children’s and Family Ministry

Tucker First United Methodist Church

Tucker, GA

 

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