Building an Atrium Parent Community

March 2024

by Catherine Maresca

Based on a CCTheo Conversation in February, 2024

Since my work in the atrium began in 1981, I have been aware of Sofia Cavalletti’s efforts to deschool catechesis. Traditionally, catechesis has been done in the context of a religious school or a “Sunday school” hour in church. Following Maria Montessori’s choice, we use the word “atrium,” an environment where relationship with God is lived, both personally and communally.

Can we apply this approach to our work with parents? In my 40+ years of working in an atrium at Christian Family Montessori School, with sessions for enrolled students, a group coming in after school, and a group from the parish on the same grounds, these are some of the practices that have built community among the parents.

Prayer: In the 6-12 atria the children enjoy planning and leading a weekly prayer service. This can be five to twenty minutes depending on available time. The children leading prayer may invite their parents to join the group for prayer at the end of a session. In the 3-6 atrium prayer is observed primarily as the children work with the materials of their choice. Therefore we have invited parents to observe part or all of a session, 1-2 at a time, after the children are settled into a routine.

We also have seasonal liturgies, celebrating Thanksgiving, Epiphany, and Easter that all the parents are invited to attend. Liturgies are planned and led by the oldest children (usually 9-12 years old). These are not in church but in a space large enough for all the children and their parents to sit comfortably at or around a prayer table. While they are well-planned, and songs and readings are practiced, the liturgies are relaxed and informal. These are a wonderful opportunity to appreciate how children pray as a group, weaving songs, dance, gestures, readings and their own written prayers together.

These liturgies are followed by a potluck snack, further bonding the children and parent groups together.

Play: Does your church or school have a playground on the property? Before and after school, or a weekend or after-school session, our playground is a magnet for the children AND their parents. Children are happily sliding and climbing, while parents are chatting. As they get to know each other they arrange rides, playdates, and ways to support each other through the challenges of parenting from toilet training to college applications. They may talk about their school decisions, church dilemmas and opportunities, meals and music. The magic of this unplanned opportunity to bond has added to the blessings surrounding the atrium, stabilized attendance, and created a pool of adult helpers when needed.

Email: For many parents, the atrium is not a church or school they have a joined, but one activity among others they have chosen for their children’s growth and well-being. They do not expect to attend meetings, volunteer work, or otherwise add to their own busy schedule.

How can we best convey some beneficial morsels of news from the atrium that will be welcomed? I have been sending emails to our after-school group with the subject “Tuesday in the Atrium”. While honoring the children’s privacy in a group email, I share the focus of the presentations and children’s work. I may briefly introduce a theme that is seasonal, and mention a song the children are enjoying. The email includes an invitation to sign up to observe, and notice of any upcoming dates for their calendars.

Other ideas: There were about a dozen of us actively participating in this CCTheo Conversation. These are some of the beneficial practices they shared: 

  • Have one mandatory meeting to start the year, introducing the Eucharistic Presence of the Good Shepherd.
  • Ask parents to take turns helping in the atrium.
  • Have a ceremony with the children and their parents chalking the doors of the atria in the new year.
  • Prepare a service project for parents and children to work on along with an Epiphany potluck.
  • First Communion is a time when parents are motivated to attend the meditations with the children.
  • Invite parents to stop by and “meet” a new material – or one you will focus on in the coming weeks, such as the City of Jerusalem.

Instead of neglecting parents’ role in the atrium, or thinking of our communication with them as “parent education”, let’s promote a parent community in which prayer, communal support, and a growing experience of the children’s religious life is prioritized.

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