If we ran every meeting as if a toddler would be present…

By Lenore Bajare-Dukes

set of colorful wooden blocks on a wooden floor with a set of toddler feet beside them.

Recently, I was sitting in the church office of one of my Primary Contact congregations, discussing curriculum styles with a religious education professional, when my colleague’s four-year-old child got up from the playing she’d been doing under the big table in the corner and asked her parent for help finding a hidden image in her drawing. We paused the meeting. My colleague turned their attention to their daughter’s picture, throwing me the kind of apologetic glance that many parents and other caregivers are practiced in making in such a situation. But honestly, I felt a little relieved to have the break.

My focus freed from our tight back-and-forth meeting, I turned my attention back to my body. I’d been getting antsy. What was that about? I had been getting tenser and tenser as the end of our meeting approached, with several topics still on the agenda. It felt freeing to take a breath and re-assess: what was necessary for us to decide right then? What questions should we write down to tackle in our next meeting? I texted my next appointment. I took a sip of water. By the time my colleague was pulling out the kid-friendly snacks (cueing me to bring out the granola bar in my own backpack), the anxiety had left my body. I proposed a plan for how we could use our remaining time. The meeting proceeded down a slightly different course than it would have taken - I think a better one.

It got me thinking. What if we just went into all meetings assuming a toddler would be present?

The thing about spending time with toddlers is that you get used to people expressing what they need with very little filtering for convention. (This sometimes frustrates adults who are used to driving things forward in a linear fashion and abiding by unspoken rules.) So in addition to believing that children’s needs are valid and worthy of attention, and that designing child-inclusive spaces is important for supporting people in many different life circumstances to fully participate in our congregations… I think those of us involved in Serious Adult Congregational Business have a lot to learn from how children’s spaces meet human needs.

So let’s imagine this toddler, with their physical and social needs out there in the open, entering into a space that’s already setting them up for success. And I don’t mean a space where we allow children, as long as we can continue to operate with business as usual, tolerating some interruptions and allowing their caregiver to come and go while the adults talk. I mean really slowing down to meet everybody’s needs, and designing the space in advance to have the best chance of meeting those needs. What would that space be like, for all of us?

Here’s what I imagine so far.

  1. We’d break for snacks. How many of us have been in a meeting where folks are getting hangry (hungry + angry) but pushing through anyway? Moving around for food or water can offer a release valve. It also can foster informal connections: high-stakes negotiators report that their most productive interpersonal breakthroughs often happen over coffee breaks in the corridors, when unexpected pairings of people can come together a little differently than usual.
  2. We’d get our wiggles out. Watch a toddler sometime: when they’re focused on a task, they hold their bodies still for that task; when they feel a need to wiggle, they wiggle; when they need to sit on the floor, they sit on the floor. When did most adults train ourselves out of paying attention to our bodies’ needs for movement? Years of positioning myself in front of the Zoom camera have reinforced a firm belief that humans are not meant to hold our bodies still in attentive poses for minutes on end. But it can look a little strange to just raise one’s arms for a stretch in the middle of a meeting when that’s not in the culture.

    How would you prefer to hold or to move your body in gatherings with others? What if we explicitly gave each other permission to meet our needs for movement?

  3. We’d have lots of crayons, comfy spots, and various activities in our prepared environment. Colorful markers for those who express themselves visually. Furniture arranged so folks feel physically welcomed and can feel connected to each other. We’d lay things out to welcome multiple forms of attention and participation (which involves asking people how they like to pay attention).
  4. We’d slow down when we need to…and we’d move from activity to activity to activity. The pacing of a toddler-friendly space is different: slower at times and more transitions at others. Maybe we’d design the meeting to flow between different modalities of engaging with each other. Maybe we’d start with a a pair and share check-in! Maybe to discern agreement and disagreement on an issue, we’d get people moving into a physical spectrum from one wall to another! Maybe we’d slow down with some silent time to doodle and think.
  5. We’d pause to talk about what we’re doing, and negotiate what we’re doing next. Being with toddlers involves a lot of explaining what’s going on and forecasting the next thing. How many of us need that moment to mentally prepare, adjust, transition?
  6. We’d explain things to people who don’t know them yet. There would be no shame in interrupting to ask what an acronym means!
  7. We’d play a little together. Play sometimes feels frivolous, but it can connect people with their own creative capacities and with one another in a powerful way. There are many play-based community-building practices out there. Check out the practice of InterPlay, the UUA's Deeper Joy project, or contact your Congregational Life staff person for some creative ideas!

And you know what? Whether a toddler’s in the room or not, it's probably still true that somebody in your meeting needs a bio break. Somebody's getting hangry. Somebody is wondering if there’s something you’re all not thinking of, and wishing for space to imagine it or name it. Someone’s attention span is a little short. Somebody’s short-term memory does better when they stretch. Somebody would speak up more, if they could only pause and prepare their thoughts.

As important as the business of doing justice, planning programs, and running church can be, we know that our faith communities are, first, communities. Humans do more creative thinking when our bodies’ needs are met, we make better decisions when we’re grounded in relationship, and we live into our highest values better when we’re opening to multiple ways of thinking.

In an age when many of us are building our gatherings from scratch (YouTube Video), why not pause to ask: what needs will be present in my next meeting - for bodies, for imaginations, for human connection and community? How can we design the spaces to meet those needs? A little bit of whimsy and delight seems to me an eminently worthwhile practice for accessibility and inclusion.

What do you think?

About the Author

Lenore Bajare-Dukes

Lenore Bajare-Dukes (she/her) is a facilitator, educator, and lifelong Unitarian Universalist. Prior to working with the Central East Region, she served as a lifespan religious educator in central PA, a coming-home to her spiritual community as part of a career in conflict transformation.

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