How Do I Start My Atrium?

Congratulations! You’ve decided to start a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium in your school, congregation, or home! You have chosen an experiential, Montessori-based method of praying with children.

The atrium is a special place for your beloved children to encounter the Good Shepherd.

But where do you start?

It takes 3 critical elements to prepare a level 1 atrium for 3-6 year olds:

1. Adult Catechist

The adult (or teen!) who leads others in faith is called a “catechist.” In Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the catechist participates in an adult formation course to learn the method.

You can find Adult Formation Courses at the CGS USA website. The adult catechist learns how to:

  1. proclaim the scriptures,
  2. observe the child, and
  3. meet the child’s vital spiritual needs at their developmental level.

It’s not accurate to call the faith formation course a “training.” The course should feel more like a retreat: a chance to listen to the scriptures, pray, and grow in love and virtue.

Preparation doesn’t end with the course! Formation is an ongoing process. Observing other atria, reading books, and networking with other catechists are all ways to continue to “work the soil” of the catechist’s heart to serve children with joy.

2. Atrium: A Space for Prayer

How do you create a space that invites children to enter into the Mystery of God’s Love?

Ideally you will get a designated space to host your atrium!

Our small rural parish has a former school building available for catechesis, and so it was easy to convert one of the large classrooms into our level 1 atrium. Three years in, we continue to grow and are preparing to transform a second classroom into a level 2 atrium for next year.

Children (and adults) should walk into the atrium and be instantly drawn in. It should be clean and uncluttered, yet full of furniture and materials that are at the child’s physical and developmental level. Once children are introduced to a work, they can choose to work on it independently for as long as their hearts desire!

The best way to envision how to prepare your space is by visiting another atrium in person. You can also find photos or videos of atria online to see some options.

If you’re in or near the Diocese of Youngstown, I worked with the Diocesan Librarian to set up some sample atrium materials. Go check it out!

Do you have an existing atrium? Contact Meagen at learn@mustseed.org to share photos of your space and materials!

For example, CGSUSA offers a DVD with photos and videos of the original atrium in Rome. It’s smaller than you might think!

Personally, I started by raiding our parish storage closets for sacred artwork & statues:

The Good Shepherd carries the found sheep
Lovely icons or artwork at the child’s height

You should also ask yourself: how can I divide this given space into work spaces for children?

We didn’t have enough tables when we started a level 1 atrium at my parish. We collected carpet squares and cloth placemats in solid colors. It took practice and reminders, but children learned to take them out and put them away each class.

*Note: It is important to use solid or natural colors when possible to avoid distraction and over-stimulation for young children. Balance this with appreciation for the generosity of eager donors!*

Fast forward 3 years and a couple fundraisers later: Now we have new tables, chairs, floors, and rolling shelves to divide up the room! Many people have been eager to contribute to the transformation of the atrium. And we are SO grateful!! Our children are so joyful in this space which you have helped prepare for them.

But what if you’re not in an ideal setting?

Often, you may have to share the atrium space with other programs. In some schools, the catechist goes from classroom to classroom to offer Good Shepherd as a “special.”

If this might be your setting, check out this video of a mobile atrium:

3. Atrium Materials

In today’s world, the STUFF usually comes first: “Buy this kit!” “Subscribe to this tech tool!” “Our product will quickly solve your problem!”

This is not the case with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

The method greatly values the catechists creating the materials themselves. It may be slow work, but the children genuinely respond best to simple, handmade materials. When they know that a catechist or parent or parishioner made the materials specially for them, they respond with much more gentleness, attention, and joy.

You don’t need a room full of stuff to start a program! You can start simply with an appropriately sized prayer table, a Bible, a model altar, and of course a well-formed catechist.

After all, that is how Sofia Cavaletti got started in the very beginning:

Building atrium materials is like tending a garden: you should plan, but have to adapt to the organic conditions in front of you.

Just like a gardener, the catechist will plant new materials by presenting them at the right season. The catechist also observes when to prune items out to keep children from getting distracted or bored.

Wooden Liturgical Calendar
“Plant” your materials in the right reason to achieve the best harvest

Where do I start with materials?

I recommend starting with a prayer corner.

This should be a space that children feel “belongs” to them. Key elements include:

During atrium time, children can be encouraged to add their own “offerings” of prayer cards, cut flowers, or artwork.

Next: scripture booklets

The Word of God is the heart of the atrium.

In addition to the lovely Bible used in the prayer corner, scripture booklets are available for the children’s work.

Almost every presentation comes with a booklet that allows children to access the parables, infancy narratives, gestures of Mass, and more. All of them allow the child to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd.

Since most can’t read at this age, it is the work of the adult catechist to proclaim the scripture to them. We have teen and adult aides in our class whose primary role is to read the booklets to kids as they work.

CGS USA offers a lovely set of cloth-bound Little Gospels that reproduce the booklets from the original Rome atrium.

Booklets are easy enough to make with some cardstock, copy paper, and a long stapler. However, we found that nowhere in our entire rural County carried the right colors and sizes of cardstock that we needed for booklets. So we ended up buying cardstock in bulk online and now I have stacks to make YOU blank booklets as well.

If you can’t find materials for the blank booklets locally, we can help with material making supplies.

Third: Figures et al

Each presentation also has some physical work for the child to do to help meditate on the Word of God.

Often these involve figures or manipulatives (to use the educational term) that help bring the story, parable, or part of the Mass to life for children.

In our first year opening the atrium, I created a calendar of materials to make for each week. It did not mean every child was ready for that presentation, but it gave me a schedule to make materials throughout the year, so I didn’t feel pressured to have everything done before kids walked in the door.

Even in year 3, I keep up this practice of an annual calendar to check on one or two sets of materials each week. In other words, it’s NOT a “lesson plan” of what I will present to every child that week. Instead, it is a plan to weed the beds of my atrium garden.

In our first year, bought some unfinished wooden materials from Atrium Woodworks. Little did I know, within 3 years Mike Kwitowski would retire and I would be buying his inventory and building plans to continue offering these high quality products for other catechists!

See our collection of products previously offered by Atrium Woodworks

My ministry is to spread the joy of God’s call to greater love. One way we do this at Mustard Seed Training is making and selling unfinished materials for fellow catechists to complete. I would love to help you get started, too!

I am praying for your ministry of sharing the love of God and neighbor with children. Please be in touch about where you are in the process of developing YOUR atrium!

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