In late April and early May, my VBS leaders and I began wrestling with what to do with VBS this year. We felt skeptical that things would be open enough for us to offer in-person VBS. We felt even more skeptical that people would come if we did offer it. So, we tossed around the idea of Virtual VBS. After a while, that started to feel right to us.
Our congregation had our virtual VBS two weeks ago and it was wonderful. It was truly better than I dared to imagine it could be. As I’ve reflected on why that was, I’ve come up with 17 keys that helped make our virtual VBS a success. Perhaps they can help make yours a success as well.
1) Don’t try to just do what you’ve always done online. Shortly after choosing to offer virtual VBS, we decided NOT to use the curriculum our congregation has ALWAYS done. We were acutely aware that virtual VBS was going to look and feel different than anything we'd ever done before. Rather than try to live up to everyone’s expectations of what VBS should look like, we decided to change EVERYTHING so that no one could have any expectations.
2) Decide what’s MOST important to you about VBS and then innovate ways to include those elements. When we did this, our informal list included ways to connect kids with each other, a focus on Jesus and Scripture, the music, and intergenerational connections. So, we knew that whatever we did online needed to address these four areas.
3) Use a curriculum as a starting point, even if you have to modify it. Our team toyed briefly with writing our own curriculum. I’m so glad we didn’t. Instead, we shopped around and found one that emphasized the things we wanted to and was designed specifically for the virtual space. We still ended up modifying it significantly but I’m so glad we had it as our starting point.
4) Do it as an event, rather than as a set of videos that can be watched anytime. Our families are overwhelmed. If we send them one more thing to do as a family I can almost guarantee it’s not going to get done in the majority of our households. Instead, figure out how much time your families are willing to commit to and then do Virtual VBS as an event, for that amount of time on Zoom or another platform that allows for interaction. Because we did Virtual VBS as an event, my 5-year old looked forward to waking up every morning for it, in much the same way that she would have been looking forward to in-person VBS.
5) Order t-shirts. I'll admit, when we first decided to do virtual VBS I could have cared less about providing kids with t-shirts. But my co-conspirators insisted on this and I’m so glad they did. There was something particularly unifying about having everyone show up online each day, all still wearing their VBS shirt.
6) Deliver supply bags. We wanted kids who participated in virtual VBS to still have the experience of getting craft and other supplies. So, we put together supply bags containing things we wanted to make sure EVERYONE had during VBS. We then delivered them to families the week before VBS.
7) Over communicate. During each of the two weeks leading up to VBS, we sent out weekly e-mails to registered families. During the week of VBS, we sent out daily e-mails to parents. We wanted to make sure they had the Zoom link, supply lists, and information about our service project right at their fingertips.
8) Be honest with your expectations of families up front. As a VBS team, we knew we wanted to offer VBS to preschoolers and kindergarteners. But we also knew that if these kids didn’t have a grown-up doing this with them, it would be a miserable experience for them. So we were honest from the get-go that in order to participate, any child in this age group had to have a grown-up with them.
9) Keep it moving. No one wants to sit through a boring Zoom meeting so keep things moving. Our kids were on Zoom for 90 minutes each day of VBS and we never did any one thing for longer than about 7 minutes. That kept things moving.
10) Keep kids physically moving, too. I was thankful that the curriculum we chose for VBS included yoga. That gave our kids a much-needed physical break. But because kids get squirrelly, we also intentionally made sure that every few minutes we were asking kids to get up, play a game, or shake the wiggles out.
11) Mute everyone while you’re singing, except for your leader. This may sound counterintuitive, but trust me. It just works better this way. With everyone on mute, you can encourage them to sing as loud as they'd like but you don’t have to deal with the inevitable delay that happens on Zoom. As you sing, use motions. Dance to the music. Make it fun. If possible, provide kids with the music in advance so they can sing it around their houses before, during, and after VBS.
12) Energy (or lack thereof) is contagious, even on Zoom! The kids will mimic your leader’s energy. So, no matter how tired you are, muster up your energy and fake it until you make it.
13) Check in with your leaders regularly & adapt. We asked our leaders to sign onto Zoom 15 minutes early and stay 15 minutes late in order to check in with them each day. We took their feedback and made necessary modifications along the way, recognizing that we were all in this – and figuring it out – together.
14) Utilize the Zoom features. Mute the kids when you don’t want to hear them talk. Unmute them when you do. Disable screen sharing except for those who need it. Use the chat feature (and disable it when you don’t want kids using it!) Use the breakout rooms so that you can alternate between large and small groups. Make multiple people co-hosts so that you can have several people admitting kids from the waiting room.
15) Have a tech person or team. Don’t saddle yourself or anyone else who’s responsible for VBS content with tech. Instead, have a tech person whose job is just to troubleshoot whatever goes wrong (because stuff will go wrong!) and play music / videos.
16) Do a rehearsal. I know it seems silly but it’s not. Rehearse with ALL of your leaders. Practice shifting hosting responsibilities, using the breakout rooms feature, sharing videos and muting and unmuting yourselves. Don’t assume that any of your leaders know how to use even the most basic Zoom functions.
17) Celebrate. Throughout the week, we asked families to take pictures of their kids participating in virtual VBS. Then on our last day, we put together a slide show and showed those pictures. We invited parents to attend our last virtual large group. We celebrated all that God did during VBS, knowing that God definitely did a lot!