My Time in the Parent Toddler Atrium

June 2023

by Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a journalist, catechist and mother. She has been on the board for the Center for Children and Theology since 2015 and is delighted to step into a new role this year as the communications director for CCTheo’s work on the Christian Parenting and Caregiving Initiative. She lives in Washington, DC.

What if the simple, utilitarian act of washing hands becomes a mindful ritual and meaningful act of prayer? And what if an 18-month-old is the one who teaches us?

On an ordinary day, I wash my hands countless times without thinking about it. But this ordinary act was transformed when I set up a handwashing station in the parent-toddler Montessori atrium at my church, a space designed for children 18 months to three years old, with their caregivers alongside to observe them. It was a thing of beauty to watch toddlers carefully pour water into the bowl, submerge their hands, smile, feel the water drip down their fingers. They would rub the bar of soap and marvel at the soap bubbles.Their parents would look at them, maybe really seeing them for the first time that day. This was not a rushed handwashing that needed to happen so they could move along to their next task. This was itself an act of awe and wonder. It was one of the many mindful moments I had the joy to observe as they artfully unfolded in the toddler atrium I hosted for two years.

I set up a parent-toddler atrium in 2017 with the help and training of Davette Himes, who is a pioneer in this work, having developed and piloted a highly regarded, holistic ministry to parents of young children with support from her diocese. She has worked with parents and toddlers in the atrium for nearly 15 years at her parish in Alexandria Va. Davette is grounded in theory but also immensely practical with a passion for evangelism, outreach and accessibility. She showed me why the sensorial act of hand-washing is appealing for toddlers. And even better, she showed me how to easily and affordably set it all up with a couple of trips to IKEA and local thrift shops. 

In a few weeks, with no budget, we had a lovely, working parent toddler Montessori atrium in downtown Washington, DC. Parents registered their children for weekday morning sessions. Within a month, we were fully enrolled. None of the families who attended the weekday toddler class had ever been to our church before. Some of those parents came from different faith traditions, some from no faith tradition. All of them were drawn to the beauty of a time where they could explore faith with their young children. 

Caregivers brought their toddlers to this unique space where they could pause, put away their phones, and observe the awe and wonder of their marvelous young children.  The parent-toddler atrium at my church thrived for two years until changes in our church and my own life put things on hold in 2020. It is my hope many more children and families will be able to experience this deep and richly impactful way of being family.

Davette Himes has been at the forefront of developing programs for parents and toddlers. In 2009, CCTheo sponsored a conference with Silvana Montanaro, the creator of the American Montessori Institute’s training for working with children 0 to 3 years old. Montanaro spoke of the developmental needs of the youngest children in the church and the “Catechesis of Parenthood.” From that grew Davette’s work to create a welcoming, age-appropriate space at All Saints Sharon Chapel in Alexandria, Va., inviting parents and toddlers to have that “serene enjoyment of God” together, during a time when they might normally be relegated to a nursery. 

Davette’s work with parents and toddlers is informed by Montessori principles, neuroscience, child development and years of practical experience. Over the years, a diverse group of parents and caregivers (myself included!) has traveled from all over the DC metro area to join Davette on weekday mornings or at summer day camps, and her parent-toddler atrium is a powerful tool for outreach and evangelism, garnering recognition and support from the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. 

With CCTheo, Davette offered the country’s first Parent Toddler Course in July 2016.

CCTheo is glad to offer the  Parent Toddler Course in person again this year from July 24-28 in Davette’s beautiful atrium at All Saints Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Va. The course is for trained 3-6 catechists, allowing Davette to focus on how the essential announcements of our faith in the 3-6 atrium can be adapted for toddlers at home.

This training changed my journey as a parent and a catechist. I hope you can experience it too! Parents, grandparents, catechists, and clergy – all are welcome to join Davette in serving toddlers and their parents in these early years.

Click here to request a video introduction to this work from Davette. 

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