Preschool Redesign on a Dime

by Johanna Townsend

The Early Childhood Center at our church had never been appropriately decorated for preschoolers since it was built 25 years ago. The original white lack luster walls and a resource room (more correctly defined as a junk room) filled with shelves of outdated curriculum, discarded toys, and cast-off AV equipment ineffectually greeted all who entered. The Early Childhood Center badly needed new interior décor and I, a new grandmother, passionately advocated such a redesign anticipating the impact it would have on visiting and currently attending families.
As I began to dream, a plan emerged. I called together a focus group of church leaders that included artists, builders and craftsmen. The group met to discuss the redesign idea and after pizza was shared we a toured the Center. Following the tour, we assessed the need and developed a strategy for accomplishing the mission. Suggestions were welcomed and notes taken of all of the advice that was offered. I suggested some might be interested in participating as a project volunteer and was pleased that a few in the group agreed.

The makeover included seven rooms, a resource room, two bathrooms, plus two hallways. The overall theme became Finding God in Everyday Surroundings. We choose separate themes for six rooms: beach, park, zoo, farm, under-the-sea, and a construction site. The two bathrooms and halls would be transformed into different modes of transportation.

After cleaning out junk from the resource room, that room was reconfigured into two areas with a pony wall placed through the middle. One area became a changing room equipped with a rocking chair for nursing mothers and the other was configured as a resource room complete with coffee station for the ministry staff. New book shelves were built and donated for both sides of the wall which provided additional storage space.

After the room designs were determined, an internet search was launched which led to the discovery of several companies offering prepared packets of themed templates. We purchased three: the park, under-the-sea and the zoo.

All of themes could not be purchased so we created details for the remaining rooms. I am not an artist but I found ideal items related to the themes by searching online and incorporating ideas from coloring books and wallpaper samples. I pieced these ideas together and printed them onto overhead transparencies to complete each remaining theme. This process was time consuming yet enjoyable as each room environment began taking on a life of its own.

The project still lacked the volunteers needed to draw and paint the murals. How were we going to recruit enough volunteers to accomplish the task in a few weeks?

We had hoped to feature a video that was a spinoff of the Extreme Home Makeover TV program down to the segment of moving the bus but were unable to get church leadership on board. Instead I was given five minutes during each Sunday morning service to promote the project. Undaunted, I prepared my presentation. I explained to the congregation that volunteering for this project did not require artistic talent just the ability to color between the lines of a coloring book. Flexible volunteer working schedules were offered and each volunteer was given the freedom to work whenever they were available. 40 persons signed up…young and old. As promised, we built the project schedule around their availability. Scheduling was complicated with people signing up from morning until evening but the only person affected by the unusual schedule was me and I was up for it.

The first week we tackled the early childhood hallway. It was an ugly green color with huge blotches of orange stretching up from the bottom of each wall. It gave the appearance of flames coming from hell! Needless to say it was unappealing, even frightening. I determined each wall could be turned into a means of transportation with a highway on one side and a train route on the other. The green areas were transformed into hills which covered the ugly orange flames and then one side became a highway (using yellow file labels for road dividers). The train track route was made with tongue depressors.

At the craft store I found wooden appliqués of cars, trucks, a train engine complete with train cars, airplanes and a blimp. These were painted and glued to the walls. Clouds were added to the sky and voile’ we had an eye- appealing transportation area. In the sky, a scripture was added to each wall and on the train cars Jesus loves me this I know was stenciled. One volunteer was so excited about the project she made a train depot complete with the church name and placed it appropriately at the end of the train line.

The transportation walls were completed in one week and the oohs and aahs of children and their parents created the inspiration needed to motivate the volunteers to complete a new room each week. We planned to complete the remodel in the next six weeks.

During the process we determined each room needed three other design features: a scripture which complimented the room theme, at least one three-dimensional object and individual pictures of children who attend our church would be placed near each classroom’s check- in- station.

Accomplished artists were recruited to do the fine tuning of the project as those of us with big hearts but less skilled hands needed assistance painting the fine details of animals and other mural objects. Still other gifted volunteers helped us print the scriptures and an accomplished photographer took animated portraits of the children.

Resources were purchased which enhanced play areas for the children:

  • manipulative games and resources attached to room walls such as a Duplo bucket which stored building blocks and provided a wall surface to build upon
  • mirrors placed at eye level for walkers and crawlers to view themselves
  • library reading pillows (covered with vinyl) for each room made from extra large doggie beds or crib mattresses. (Vinyl is easy to clean)
  • a wooden reading loft was transformed into a covered wagon, using canvas paint tarps from a home improvement store. Complete with wagon wheels and a driver’s seat which served as the classroom library shelf, this was a popular addition.

Different 3 -D affects were placed in the rooms. We used pinwheels shaped as flowers, kites and fish suspended from the ceiling depending on the theme. The most creative 3-D item was PVC irrigation pipes painted, tied together, and hung from the ceiling representing an extension arm of the crane painted on the wall.

Affordable details were found which allowed us to further enhance the rooms: fish with rough protruding scales from the Dollar Store added tactile experience for the two year olds in the under- the- sea room, a Nerf tool box filled with soft tools was attached to the wall for the construction room, stuffed scarecrows and bales of hay for the farm room, oversized stuffed zoo animal pillows in the zoo room, and beach chairs, an ice bucket (for storing reading books) and a beach umbrella were placed in the beach room.

With the exception of the beach room the volunteer team completed five classrooms, the bathrooms and the hallways within six weeks as we had hoped. The last room was more difficult to complete for it not only was in an adjoining building but it had slump block stone walls which were a challenge to paint. The stone surfaces absorbed gallons of paint just for the background. We decided that a mural could be created by cutting objects from plywood which would then be painted and fastened with concrete screws into the block walls. When completed, the room sported a delightful array of cut-out people and objects assembled in a beach setting on two walls with a third wall hosting a boardwalk lined with store front businesses. Even after the long wait this room became a favorite of all who worked on the project.

Each week another classroom of children and their families were impressively welcomed with a brand new environment which created an atmosphere of high energy and excitement. What a delight it was to see the faces of the families viewing a classroom for the first time after its transformation! The camaraderie and sense of accomplishment felt among the members of the volunteer team that worked on the project cannot be adequately described. You just had to be there.

The overall result of the venture remains a church blessed with an age appropriate environment intentionally designed to cost less than $5,000 which included a $2000 climbing tree apparatus. The redesign will continue to bless families in the future and clearly portrays the message that our church values children.


Johanna has a heart for children! She has been blessed to minister to children for over 40 years, as a public school teacher, as the Director of Children’s Ministry at Newport Mesa Christian Center in Costa Mesa, CA., and now as the President of For Kids Only. She has a B.A. in English and a Masters in Theological Studies. Johanna helped design the original curriculum used nationally and internationally by Royal Family Kids Camps, Inc. to minister to abused and neglected children at camps world-wide. She has traveled nationally and internationally teaching training seminars for different Christian organizations such as Children’s Pastors’ Conference, TEACH, Latin America Child Care, Caribbean Christian Children’s Workers and Saddleback Missions Project. With a great love for missions and pastoral work, Johanna cherishes the friendships she has nurtured with missionaries and pastors. In 1990, Johanna received the Award for Excellence in Children’s Ministry at Children’s Pastors’ Conference. In 2005, she served as part of The White House Conference on Helping America’s Youth. In 2006 she received the Founders Award from Royal Family Kids Camp, Inc. In that same year she received the Orange County Probation Department volunteer award from the Board of Supervisors and was Alumnus of the Year at Vanguard University. Johanna enjoys spending time with her three grandchildren and ministering alongside her husband Jim.

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