Looking Out for the Littles: 4 Ways Churches Can Care For the Preschool-and-Under Set During the Pandemic

Simple ways to build faith and support parents with young children
toddler on couch

By Rev. Corinne Freedman Ellis

As a mom of a 2-year-old and a pastor to children, youth, and families, I’ve been thinking a lot about the spiritual lives of young people over the course of the pandemic. My congregation, like many, has been fully virtual since our governing board took a vote on March 13. We’ve only had a handful of in-person, outdoor, physically distanced, masked meetings. Other than that, it’s Zoom or YouTube for us! 

I find myself grieving the experiences my daughter would be having in church right now: singing hymns with folks spanning ages 1-94, playing in the sanctuary “prayground” with her toddler pals, getting up the courage to come forward during the children’s message, and running between people’s legs during coffee hour are just a few. The preschool-and-under set are especially tough to engage right now. They’re not going to sit through a virtual worship service. They can’t really learn on Zoom. Even in-person events are tricky because their behavior is unpredictable. Masking and social distancing are not anyone’s favorite activities, but for some toddlers, they are downright impossible. 

We’ve had pretty good success keeping upper elementary kids, junior highers, and high schoolers engaged. But what can we do for families with younger children (I call them “littles” for the sake of simplicity here) who still want to nurture their growing faith in the midst of everything? Here are a few ideas from my own congregation, colleagues, and friends who are parenting littles.

Check in with the parents. 

They’re probably not okay. While parents of littles don’t have to worry about the distance-hybrid dance or homeschooling their kids, they do have to worry about childcare for kids with a lot of needs. Whether parents are sending their littles to daycare and heading to work, attempting to work from home with littles in the house, unemployed and staying at home with their littles in a way they had never planned for, or any of the other myriad situations families are dealing with, they are under a lot of stress. I highly recommend this article from the New York Times about the mental health crisis facing parents right now. Managing pandemic risk is a tricky calculation and so is 24/7 parenting a toddler without the usual supports, resources, and activities. A quick text to let parents know you’re thinking of them is an incredible gift. So are “no strings attached” emails—notes of support without the expectation of a reply. These parents may not be able to reach back out right away, but speaking from my own experience, they receive each communication as the true blessing it is.

Provide families with at-home resources because they’re definitely looking for new activities.

I never anticipated spending this much time with my daughter. It’s wonderful, it’s challenging, and it’s requiring me to think outside the box. She’s grown from a 19-month-old burgeoning toddler to a full-on 25-month-old chatterbox since the pandemic began, and I sometimes have trouble coming up with new, engaging, and affordable ways to keep her busy. 

  • We have dropped off Sunday School bags to households with kids in 5th grade and under, including littles, and they’re super simple and cost-effective. Coloring sheets (ours are from Illustrated Ministry), markers or crayons depending on age, and stickers. They are all invited to check in on Zoom if they want to, but the bags have everything they need to tell the stories and learn together off-screen as a family. 
  • This is also a nice time to recommend Bibles to families, or to purchase and send them to families if your congregation has the resources to do so. My favorite Bible for infants and toddlers is the Frolic First Bible. It highlights 10 stories from the Hebrew Bible and 10 stories from the New Testament. There’s no White Jesus, the theology is progressive, and each story comes with a one-sentence takeaway that makes it easy to absorb. My daughter is obsessed with it right now, especially the page about Jonah and the parts with “Yee-zis”. I love the Growing in God’s Love Story Bible for ages 3-4 through about second grade. It tells 150 Bible stories in kid-accessible language, and each story includes reflection questions around the themes Hear, See, and Act. 
Share guides that talk about current events in age-appropriate ways.

Many parents of littles are just starting to think about all the big conversations that they’ll need to have with their kids. For many families, these conversations are happening by necessity because of the reality of daily life. And for most families, these conversations are happening outside of the usual supports of daycare, early childhood education, or preschool. The church can be so helpful in providing some structure and support for families. 

  • Regarding the pandemic, here’s a free printable children’s book that helps explain this strange new world in kid-friendly terms. 
  • Here in the Twin Cities, race, racism, and antiracism are part of daily life. I recommend Antiracist Baby as daily reading for parents and littles alike—it reminds us of the essential principles of antiracism while showing our kids beautiful babies of all races, at a time when most of our in-person social circles are limited to people of our own race. 
  • Raising White Kids is important reading for parents of white kids, especially white parents of white kids, who need a framework for how to begin talking with their children about racial identity and what it means to work on antiracism. 
  • And I highly recommend that clergy and faith leaders subscribe to an easy resource mailing list to occasionally receive updates about the latest resources for children and families, especially if that’s not their main focus.
Remind parents that they are enough and the church is here for them.

I can’t tell you how much guilt I’ve heard parents express and have felt myself during the pandemic. I feel guilty about the balls I’m dropping at work because it’s hard to track a to-do list while also parenting a toddler much of the time. I feel guilty about all the calls to friends I have yet to return because I can’t find a spare moment. And of course, I feel guilty about not nurturing my daughter’s spiritual life because more immediate needs always seem to creep in first. Parents of littles probably aren’t making it to online or outdoor worship, and they’re probably feeling guilty about it. Remind them that God doesn’t keep score, and neither does the church. The support of community and the grace of God are here for them no matter what.

A Little Goes a Long Way

Pandemic times are hard on everyone. I know how hard it is for clergy to pastor and keep track of their congregations right now. My prayer is that one of the ideas from this list makes it easier for you to reach out to the littles in your congregation—a little really does go a long way!

About the Author
The Rev. Corinne Freedman Ellis serves as Minister of Congregational Life at Macalester Plymouth United Church in St. Paul, MN. She loves the parts of ministry that lead to discipleship and transformation, which means she especially loves working with children and youth. Her only new pandemic skill is drawing Elmo with uncanny accuracy.

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