I was really really tired of cleaning up crayons. My Presbyterian church has a little tree at the entrance to the sanctuary with busy bags full of little coloring books and crayons, and we used to grab three or four of them on the way into Sunday morning worship. It’s a simple and inexpensive way for a church to help families keep young kids occupied and quiet during sermons.

But with my four kids, it still felt like a lot of work. My kids sat on the pew in heaps of crayons, looking for a certain color and then complaining that a sibling would’t share it. They would snap crayons in half. They would color on the oak pews. They would flip through the coloring books and color their favorites first, leaving the books with too many un-colored pages to throw away, but enough colored pages that my kids had trouble finding one they wanted to use. And then at the end of worship, we had to pick up the shrapnel, figure out what to throw away, and load everything useful back into the busy bags––ideally with an even mix of crayons in each bag––for future weeks.

Keep it Simple

Last fall, I was thinking about when I was a kid, how my dad always kept a folded sheet of blank paper in his Bible when we went to church. He would give me that paper along with a mechanical pencil during the sermon, so I could draw or doodle. Building from that, I finally figured out how to streamline the whole scenario for my kids, and it’s been a godsend.

I found a small zipper bag lying around the house, bought a pack of ten 4×6 white memo pads, grabbed a handful of pencils nubs, threw some pink eraser caps on them (Paper Mate arrowhead are the best by far), and threw the whole thing into my car. Now I carry that bag into church with me for my kids’ busy bag.

Problems solved:

  • Less distraction: everyone gets one pencil, everyone gets the same kind of paper, no one has anything to argue about.
  • Minimal waste: short pencils are harder to break than crayons, and I require my kids to use front and back of one sheet before they move to the next. If they don’t like what they did on a sheet, it’s only a 4×6 (not an 8.5×11) that gets thrown away.
  • Easy cleanup: at the end, I just pick up 4 or 5 pencils, pile the used sheets into one pile to recycle, and tuck everything else back into the pouch for next week.

This makes church so much easier for me that I can’t imagine going back to the old busy bags. And since simple drawing doesn’t really use the language portion of the mind, my kids can often still pick up some of what’s being said at church, even if they’re not quite ready to give their full attention.

(As an aside, we also go to Saturday vigil Mass every week, and we don’t use the busy bags there. The Catholic context is a bit different, as the more formally regimented liturgy leaves busy bags somewhat out of place. Also, the sermons are shorter, and the Mass has a number of responses that the kids can memorize and more easily participate in each week. In any event, I’m fine with my kids getting two different types of experiences–one where they need a bit more self-control, and another where they get a bit of help from the busy bags.)

The Habit of Simplicity

Along with the convenience for me, there’s another point about this simple busy bag that I value for my kids’ formation. Crayons are great, and we certainly have a heap of them for our craft table at home. But there’s a lot of power in learning the skill of being content with something simple as well. A kid with a pencil and white paper has great options: they can draw, write, or play a game, but they have to figure out how to do it themselves.

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers knew this: if you build your appetites around things that are good but also simple, you set yourself up for a much easier road to happiness. A pack of 64 different-colored crayons would have been a gift fit for royalty a thousand years ago, and I’m glad my kids have them. But in our society, kids aren’t going to learn habits of simplicity unless we foster them deliberately.

For that little half hour window on Sunday mornings, my kids practice building a skill and a habit that will serve them throughout life: being content with the very basics. All they need is a pencil, a blank sheet, and their imagination.

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