Vacation Bible schools offers families free, low-cost options for summer child care

Lucas Nelson reads a story from the Bible to a group of the older childen
Lucas Nelson reads a story from the Bible to a group of the older children atending vacation Bible school at Berean Baptist Church in Burnsville, Minn., on July 27.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Hundreds of kids in matching teal blue t-shirts stream into Berean Baptist Church in Burnsville, Minn., for vacation Bible school, or VBS. They’re greeted by church volunteers and guided to a large auditorium playing Christian kids music.

“All right everybody welcome back to the fourth and final night of VBS here at Berean. Who’s having the best week ever?!,” asks Derek Harper, a VBS volunteer. 

Kids cheer in response.

Over four days, kids aged four to 12 come every evening for a couple hours to dance, craft and learn about Jesus, like 5-year-old Rhett.

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Children attending the final day of Vacation Bible School
Children attending the final day of vacation Bible school at Berean Baptist Church in Burnsville, Minn., react with cheers to counselors on a stage on July 27.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

“I learned Jesus walked on water,” Rhett said.

For parents like Jennifer Smith, VBS is also a great way to get a break. She doesn’t have family in town, so her free child care options are limited.

“For me, it’s just really nice opportunity to be able to either have a break during the day, or in the evening,” Smith said.

As a stay at home mom to children aged 11, eight and five she said it’s hard to find time to go to appointments, get groceries or go on dates with her husband. And she can’t justify spending thousands of dollars every summer on camps to keep her kids busy.

She’s found VBS and church camps to be the answer to her child care problems because they fit with her religious beliefs and they don’t break the bank.

“Some of the other camps that are not church based, have gotten just so out of reach for so many people,” Smith said. “They’re so expensive.”

A child reacts by smiling
Children react with smiles and fascination as they watch the teachers on stage perform a song and dance that depict a Bible story during the final day of vacation Bible school at Berean Baptist Church in Burnsville, Minn., on July 27.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

This summer, Smith enrolled her children in five programs at different churches this summer and said she either spent no money or under $100 per kid for 3-5 days of half-day programs.

In 2022, the American Camp Association found the average cost of summer camp for American families around $180 a day — and that those numbers could increase as much as 35 percent this year.

At Berean Baptist Church’s vacation Bible school, Smith’s oldest child attended for four days for free. Smith’s family is Assemblies of God Pentecostal, not Baptist, but Smith said denomination doesn’t matter to her.

Tanner Pinkerman, Berean kids pastor, said it’s normal for kids from all over the community to attend.

“We want to make the event really accessible and easy for families to come,” Pinkerman said. “Those who are part of our church body regularly and those who have never walked in the building. I want it to be a place where they know that their kid is cared for, that they know that their kid has seen individually.”

A person poses for a portrait
Tanner Pinkerman, one of the leaders of the vacation Bible school at Berean Baptist Church in Burnsville, Minn., on July 27.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Of the 500 kids at this year’s VBS, Pinkerman said at least a third of them aren’t members of their church, and VBS enrollment has gone up consistently over the last couple of years. Regardless of their familiarity with Christianity or Berean, Pinkerman said vacation Bible school is a safe place for kids to come to feel cared about and for families to feel support.

“It’s a great opportunity to have different people come in to welcome them and most importantly, we’re here to show the love of Jesus,” Pinkerman said.  “God made love and we want to be able to show His love and His grace for all the kids that come so that they feel like this is a place that’s home for them.”

For many Christian families, vacation Bible school is a summertime staple. Bethany Winters and her husband volunteer at Berean’s, where their son attends. Winters said she wants to pass on the joy of VBS to her son.

“It’s one of those things that I remember growing up as a kid getting to go to VBS,” Winters said. ”And it was just some of the fondest memories that I had in summer.”

Counselors at School at the Church perform a song and dance
Counselors at vacation Bible school at Berean Baptist Church in Burnsville, Minn., perform a song and dance on stage on July 27.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Lifeway, one the largest Christian resource distributors in the world, creates commonly used VBS curriculums. In a 2018 survey, the company’s research center found 60 percent  of Americans remember going to VBS growing up and about half of the parents surveyed with kids under the age of 19 said their child has been to VBS.

“Families kind of plan their summers around it,” said Tai-Kristin Smedley, the kids and youth pastor at Mercy Vineyard Church in Minneapolis. “So if they go vacation, they know we'll be here for vacation bible school later on, and they’ll plan it intermittently with summer camps.”

Churches use community volunteers to staff their vacation Bible schools and use donations to fund the programming.

“It’s a safe place where kids are gonna get loved on and I feel like, just like in today’s world, we need that,” said Smedley.

Children attending Vacation Bible School
Children attending vacation Bible school at Berean Baptist Church in Burnsville, Minn., follow along with counselors on stage in a song and prayer on July 27.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

While many vacation Bible schools are half-days in the mornings or evenings, some offer full day programs like Ellie Lewis’ home church of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. She said having a reliable week of summer care for her kids is a real asset to her as a working parent.

“I can’t tell you the number of hours that I spend trying to line up child care for my children in the summer,” said Lewis. “So knowing that that week is always available — and it’s something my kids love, makes it really easy.”

Lewis paid around $150 for a full week of all day, all-inclusive church camp at her church.

Dusty Decker is the youth ministries pastor at Berean and also a pastor’s kid with fond memories of going to vacation Bible school. He said VBS is a place for kids to feel welcomed  with people who care about them.

“Whether you’re a small church of 20 people and you have five kids coming to VBS, or whether a church of two to three thousand, with 500 kids coming to VBS, you’re all doing the same work,” Decker said. “And that is reaching kids with the saving name of Jesus and letting them know that they’re valued.”

Kindergarten- aged children sit
Children and camp helpers bow their heads in prayer on the final day of vacation Bible school at Berean Baptist Church in Burnsville, Minn., on July 27.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News