If you minister to at-risk children, you already know that many suffer from food insecurity during school breaks and on weekends when school is not in session. Your ministry has probably found ways to help them get food during those times. You probably also offer Bible classes, church activities, faith based tutoring, day camps and even sleep away camps to help them learn more about the life God wants for them and to provide safe, productive activities to fill their time.
Have you thought about what they do during those times when they are not in school or doing something with your ministry? Many of these children do not have the things they need in their homes to fill their time in productive, safe, healthy ways. During COVID we began putting together special tote bags that were given to each child served by a local urban ministry. We have since assembled similar bags for children with special needs living in a country that does not provide an education for them and for children who are refugees from the war in Ukraine.
We have been able to purchase reusable tote bags in bulk on Amazon for about $1 a bag. Recently, a group of women who enjoy sewing made us beautiful reusable totes from scraps of fabric. Reusable totes work better than grocery bags because they can withstand the wear and tear they might receive over the course of several months.
What goes in the bag depends upon the goals you are trying to accomplish. We tried to put in a mixture of things they could do indoors and outdoors. For children with special needs, we made sure to include some special adaptive materials like loop scissors and triangular crayons. Whenever possible, we add a few activities related to the Bible. We also include instructions in case the child can’t think of a productive way to use the items. For example we include a sheet of fun math games and the dice needed to play them. Or a note pointing out that sidewalk chalk can also be used to make drawings on some of the paper we provide.
If we know the ages of the children we are serving, we make sure the bags are age appropriate. For example, we don’t include safety scissors for toddlers. We also try to provide activities that are safe for little ones who may not be adequately supervised. As you put together the bags, it can be helpful to try to think not only of the positive ways the various items could be used, but also negative ways children may use them and try to circumvent any possible problems.
It is also important to note that we include activities we normally do not recommend for use in Bible classes for children. For example, we strongly suggest banning coloring sheets and worksheets in Bible classes. For home usage though, a Bible coloring book can be relaxing and reinforce stories or verses and fun worksheets can help them practice basic school skills. (Note: We try to find worksheets that have an element of fun to them. As noted earlier we also include activities and games that encourage practice of school skills without the children necessarily being aware that is what they are doing.)
For younger children, children who are developmentally delayed and children with special needs, we include things to help them improve motor skills. Things like Bible lacing cards, pony beads and chenilles, origami instructions and paper, even safety scissors and things that need to be cut out to be assembled can help them improve fine motor skills. Jump ropes are great for working on gross motor skills. You can even include instructions for jump rope challenges or games that encourage gross motor skills like balancing on one leg, hopping, skipping, etc..
Art supplies are great for helping children express their emotions – even without instruction to do so. They also allow them to explore their creativity. We provide crayons rather than markers, because they tend to last longer. We give glue sticks instead of glue for the same reason. Make sure to include lots of plain typing paper and various pieces of colored construction paper they can use. Play dough is great for fine motor skills, creative expression and stress release. If you include cookie cutters, make sure they are the plastic kind that don’t have sharp edges that could cause injuries. (Note: In situations where we know the children are adequately supervised, we like to include those little water color sets with brushes. You can find them in bulk on Amazon for a little over a dollar each.)
When possible, we have a children’s book drive before we deliver the bags. The children receiving the bags are then allowed to pick out several books they can have to encourage them to read. We also have provided NIrV and children’s Bibles for them to read as well as suggested reading plans that focus on story heavy books in the Bible as well as books like Proverbs that are very practical.
Finally, since we usually create these as a support service to our partner ministries, we are often aware as to whether or not the primary ministry provides food, how much and how often. If we believe the child may need some little extras, we include an orange and apple, cereal bars and fruit gummies with vitamin C. It’s not optimum for the healthiest diet perhaps, but adds some vitamins and minerals, calories and fiber to their day.
Taking the extra time and effort to create home activity bags with lots of reusable items and resupplying them periodically can give at-risk children things to do that will help keep them occupied in positive ways. It can make a huge difference for many children.