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What church playgrounds can learn from amusement parks

Four innovations that can spark imagination and transform ministries.

By Reagan Hillier

Remember the anticipation and excitement of entering your first amusement park? “I’m going to Disneyland!” sparks the imagination for young and old in ways that “I’m going to the DMV!” never will. This excitement is what amusement parks strive to deliver upon every visit, and this doesn’t happen by accident.

The goal for amusement parks is to attract guests and increase attendance. Year after year they explore creative approaches and new strategies to bring in visitors. As a result, the amusement industry has had to be on the cutting edge.

Churches have something in common with the amusement industry: Both are relentless in the search for ways to attract people. Amusement parks do it to make money while the church does it to build its ministry and spread its teachings. Here are four successful strategies from the amusement industry that can be integrated into the church to maximize the ministry.

1. Family-centered

Today more than ever, the general marketplace is focused on families.

Baby changing stations in restrooms, kid’s menus in restaurants, themed carts in grocery stores and play areas in malls have all become necessity. This focus makes a family feel valued and want to frequent the location more often.

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This is certainly the approach of Six Flags, as they engineer a shift from a teen-dominated park to a family-friendly park. Six Flags now considers the family market central to its comeback, recording all- time high guest satisfaction scores while introducing rides and themed areas for younger children based on popular franchises like “Thomas the Tank Engine” and “The Wiggles.”

“We’ve got to jump into family waters,” says Mark Shapiro, chief executive officer, Six Flags. “Family is an added opportunity for us to expand our business.”

What is being done at your church to jump into the family waters?

Scheduling a family worship service is a great start. If the budget is available, transform the children’s area into a themed play environment or add a café to make your facility a gathering spot for families all week. “Providing kid-friendly themed spaces and play attractions are some of the best ways to show families that you care about their kids,” says Todd Schulte, vice president, Worlds of Wow, Argyle, TX. “It’s not just decoration, it’s a ministry tool.”

2. Intentional play

Have you ever sat down on a park bench, closed your eyes and listened to the sounds of children playing? You hear boys and girls laughing, shouting and running. Turns out there are science and health benefits behind this as well.

Through play, children develop valuable skills and knowledge including social skills (negotiating with peers), language (developing verbal and nonverbal skills), literacy (interacting with reading materials), as well as math and science (interacting with blocks, puzzles and toy vehicles).

The amusement industry is on the leading edge of integrating new forms of play into its facilities in support of intentional play. Today, technology is an integral part of most children’s lives and a medium through which they access entertainment and play. Technology, like radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, touch screen panels and interactive blasters are integrated to make the play experience more than just fun and games. Through this integration, facilities keep children entertained while promoting the development of problem- solving and communication skills as well as physical fitness.

What can this mean for local churches?

“Interaction needs to be fostered in the children’s department,” says Johathan Barnard, family pastor at The Rock, Castle Rock, CO. “Many kids do not naturally talk and connect, so you must be intentional with them. It is very important that kids connect with other kids at church. The best way that I have found to build this connection is through our play area.”

3.  Agritainment and natural play

Across the country, farm-based family festivals have grown so quickly and become so prevalent, a name has been created to describe them: agritainment.

This trend started many years ago with a pumpkin patch and hayrides. The popularity grew, so farmers began adding more attractions like corn mazes, petting zoos, haunted barns and snacks like smoked turkey legs. At a time when profit margins for crops have been slashed razor thin by rising costs, “you have to consider Agritainment,” says Kay Hollabaugh, president of the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association.

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Complementary to Agritainment is the Natural Play concept — incorporating natural elements such as gardens, trees, rocks, boulders and sand into play environments. Research has found that these natural elements make the play area more inviting to children and families, develops imaginative and social skills while encouraging physical activity.

4. Custom design

As the bar is constantly being raised for play attractions, amusement parks have had to become more creative in order to compete. To succeed, the new family entertainment center has to exceed the other facility across town, and they aren’t going to do this by ordering a one-of-a-kind attraction from a catalog. They achieve success by working with vendors and consultants that design custom attractions specifically suited to their needs and market.

Custom designed play areas allow churches to present its messages to children, act as an outreach tool and open the door to questions about the church and their faith.

Spring Baptist Church in Spring, TX, has created a loving, learning environment for the children, allowing them to develop an understanding of the importance of church. “The play area is already making an impact,” says Mark Harrison, associate pastor.

Church leaders can find ways to increase their ministry by analyzing successes other industries have had in reaching people.

Reagan Hillier is the president of Worlds of Wow, Argyle, TX.
[ www.worldsofwow.com ] and president of Faith Based Amusement Association. [ www.fbaa.tv ]

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