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Nursery cultivates affinity for Church

'First experience in the Church' is at once both fun and spiritual

Zac Smith and Sawyer Sarzalejo were at an impasse.

Tiny hands clasped over twisted strands of colorful metal wire, the two boys tugged at opposite ends of the same bead maze. Both 2-year-olds wore sweater vests.

Zac's mantra: "Mine."

Sawyer grunted dissent.

Zac Smith, right, intently observes as Hailey Wood plays with toys in the Nursery of the Riverside 5th Ward, Murray Utah North Stake. Nursery is where children get their first independent Church experience away from parents.
Zac Smith, right, intently observes as Hailey Wood plays with toys in the Nursery of the Riverside 5th Ward, Murray Utah North Stake. Nursery is where children get their first independent Church experience away from parents. Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Janeen Myers, a Nursery leader in the Riverside 5th Ward in the Murray Utah North Stake, blows bubbles in the direction of, from left to right, children Addy Rasmussen, McKenzie Dye, Sawyer Sarzalejo and Ruby McCardy.
Janeen Myers, a Nursery leader in the Riverside 5th Ward in the Murray Utah North Stake, blows bubbles in the direction of, from left to right, children Addy Rasmussen, McKenzie Dye, Sawyer Sarzalejo and Ruby McCardy. Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Nursery leader Teryl Call ended the disagreement by lifting Sawyer away from the bead maze. Hers was not a peacekeeping mission, though — Sister Call's intent was much more practical than that. She wanted to smell the seat of Sawyer's pants.

Olfactory nerves informed leaders of the Riverside 5th Ward Nursery in the Murray Utah North Stake that one of their brood had a diaper that needed changing. But Sawyer passed the sniff test, so Sister Call set him back on the floor.

In the brief moment Sawyer was airborne, Zac ran away with the bead maze.

Dayna Farr concentrates on coloring a picture during a recent Sunday in the Riverside 5th Ward Nursery.
Dayna Farr concentrates on coloring a picture during a recent Sunday in the Riverside 5th Ward Nursery. Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Sawyer didn't miss a beat in picking up a toddler tape measure to play with.

Sister Call moved on to the next child, methodically searching out the odiferous tyke who would get shipped off to Mom for a diaper change.

First Church experience

Before priesthood quorums or Relief Society, before Mutual or even Primary, there is nursery.

For children born into a member family, nursery represents a first opportunity for learning gospel principles outside the home.

"It's their first experience in the Church away from Mom and Dad," said Sister Margaret S. Lifferth, first counselor in the Primary general presidency. "When they go to nursery we hope that they'll feel the love of their leaders, be taught some of the very basic principles of the gospel, and start to feel the Spirit."

Hailey Wood pounds blocks into the holes as she plays.
Hailey Wood pounds blocks into the holes as she plays. Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

As important as the spiritual instruction occurring in nursery is the social acclimation taking place, the gradual process of helping children learn to be reverent and teachable.

"As a first Church experience, I think we truly try to give them 'the Church experience' in [nursery]," said Sister Vicki F. Matsumori, second counselor in the Primary general presidency. "We're trying to teach them things like sitting in a chair and listening to a teacher and raising their hands, a few of those basic behavioral things."

No child chimed in

January is the quietest month in nursery.

Children enter nursery at 18 months of age, and there they stay until the end of the calendar year in which they turn 3.

Because the oldest children have just migrated to Primary, January is when there is the smallest total number of children in nursery and the fewest children present who are old enough to talk.

The impact of teaching such a young clutch of children is at once simple and profound: the leaders do almost all of the talking and singing.

On a recent Sunday in the Riverside 5th Ward Nursery, Sister Call and her fellow nursery leaders Janeen Myers and Scout Whitney smiled, sang and hand-motioned their way through seven songs including such Nursery staples as "Popcorn Popping," "The Wheels on the Bus" and "I Am a Child of God."

Nine sets of little eyes and ears intently soaked in the scene, but no child chimed in.

'Behold Your Little Ones'

Sister Myers is an unabashed fan of "Behold Your Little Ones," the Church's nursery manual first published in 2008.

In addition to her current tour of duty, she also served in nursery when her now-married children were learning to talk — keenly qualifying her to compare and contrast old ways with the new. She views the new manual as possessing an elegant simplicity unbeknownst to its forerunners.

"The new manual is so good," Sister Myers said on a recent Sunday in nursery as she stood amid nine children hammering, bustling and otherwise playing. "It's simple, and for every single lesson there is a page of instruction, a color picture and a handout ready for you. You don't have to do a lot of busy work; it's all right there."

'Where are Brother and Sister Wilson?'

One night several years ago in Provo, Utah, a young father and his toddler daughter walked the halls of their meetinghouse. The father was a bishopric counselor and, on this night, the job of locking up the building fell to him. He peeked into each room as they went along to ensure the meetinghouse was empty and secure.

Sawyer Sarzalejo exerts youthful exhuberance as he catches bubbles in the Riverside 5th Ward Nursery.
Sawyer Sarzalejo exerts youthful exhuberance as he catches bubbles in the Riverside 5th Ward Nursery. Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

When the father opened the door to the nursery, the lights were off and nobody was inside. In one motion, he began closing the door and pivoted to continue down the hall, but his nursery-age daughter stopped him.

"Daddy, where are Brother and Sister Wilson?" she asked, a tinge of bewilderment in her voice.

The Wilsons were her nursery leaders. Because they welcomed her in the nursery every Sunday without fail, the young girl assumed Brother and Sister Wilson actually lived in the nursery's room.

'Even a 2-year-old recognizes that somebody loves him'

A challenge inherent in nursery's role of providing young children with their first Church experience is the anxiety some boys and girls feel when separated from both parents. Sometimes the solution is as simple as having a parent in nursery helping the child adapt.

"I think part of it is the fear of separation, but it's also about being in an unfamiliar environment," Sister Matsumori said. "So if Mom or Dad can stay with them for a while and help them become comfortable, I think it becomes an easier transition."

In other instances, though, a parental chaperone isn't enough to quell a toddler's fear. When that happens, nursery leaders are wont to work their special brand of magic, to help little ones feel truly welcome in nursery via basic fellowshipping.

Sister Lifferth recently witnessed a minor miracle along those lines in her home. The family of one of her married children was living for several months with Sister Lifferth and her husband, Dennis, while the young family's new house was being built. Two-year-old Jack, Sister Lifferth's grandson and one of the long-term house guests, was palpably afraid of nursery. But Jack's aversion quickly melted away thanks to the personal interest of a loving nursery leader, Michelle Behrmann.

"Jack was so frightened to go to nursery," Sister Lifferth said. "The thing that helped him the most was my neighbor [Sister Behrmann], who was the nursery leader, dropping by, visiting with him specifically. She wanted his picture to put on a chair so he would know where to sit when he came in.

"That kind of personal attention, even a 2-year-old recognizes that somebody loves him. I was amazed at how Jack warmed up just because of the efforts of a nursery leader."

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