One youngster brought her Barbie dolls to share with others. Another simply busied herself in the sandbox. Still others climbed like spiders on the slides.

All seemed to make new friends while their parents did the same while relaxing under nearby shade trees.

Such is the simplicity of the free, weekly outdoor summertime Playground Picnic events on Wednesday afternoons at First United Methodist Church, 618 Eighth St. in Columbus. At a recent gathering, though the thermometer rose to a nearly 90-degree reading, a solid breeze made it seem much more pleasant.

“Anybody interested can come,” said organizer Sarah Campbell, the church’s director of youth and children’s ministries. “We were just trying to think of things we could do that would be more family-oriented for everyone.”

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So far, child attendees have ranged in age from 6 months to primary-grade students. Most parents are in their 20s and 30s.

Gatherings begin at noon each Wednesday through July 26 and stretch until parents decide to depart, according to organizers. School begins Aug. 2 for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. students.

On a recent Wednesday, a gathering that attracted about 20 parents and children combined lasted at least 90 minutes before a few began leaving. Others lingered later over free sno cones of various flavors.

For their picnic spread on blankets in the shade, visitors brought everything from homemade lunches of healthy wraps to delivered pizza and to-go sandwiches.

First-time visitor Michelle Shanley found out from a fellow Moms Club member about the gatherings and also the church’s Learning Tree Preschool. She liked a recent preschool tour enough that her 18-month-old son, Conrad, will be a Learning Tree enrollee in August.

“I especially like that this (event) is held at lunchtime, and that this (playground) is all enclosed here,” Shanley said. “I can relax and enjoy my food. And I don’t have to worry about, ‘Hey — which direction did he just run?’ So, I think we will be back.”

Andrea Wagner brought her three youngsters, ages 2, 4 and 5 to the first Playground Picnic gathering June 7. The older two already attend Learning Tree.

“I knew our kids would love this, because they already have loved being here at preschool,” Wagner said. “And a lot of the kids here already know each other.”

Other larger, popular play areas locally are nice, Wagner said. But she prefers not to cross a busy street with her youngsters in tow.

She and other moms also appreciate that the church’s modern climber/slides, installed just a couple of years ago, feature small “roofs” to shield youngsters from the sun. Also, a small playhouse set up like a home’s kitchen offered a nice respite from the warmer temperatures the other day.

Simple is definitely better at Playground Picnic. Nothing fancy needed here, parents say.

“Give my kids a bucket of rocks,” Wagner said, “and they could be busy for hours.”

First-time visitor Katie Grafelman and her 4-year-old son, Willie, enjoyed their stay at the most recent eat-and-play day. The youngster smiled when asked what he thought upon arriving.

“I was happy,” he shyly said.

So was his mom. In fact, Grafelman, who attends another church across town, mentioned she was impressed with the friendliness and hospitality of organizers and other parents and children.

“I think this is a good interfaith opportunity — and it’s a great way to meet other families,” Grafelman said. “This is a great option while moms get to know each other.”

Plus, the weekly events can serve as another tool entirely.

“People also can use this as a way to see that First United Methodist is a good community (for them),” Campbell said. “And if they’re ever looking for a church home, then maybe this could be one that they would turn to because they’ve already had some good experiences here.”

Finding fun

What: Playground Picnic informal gatherings at an outdoor, fenced-in mulch playground. Parents bring picnic lunches for them and their children while the youngsters play and parents visit.

When: Noon until whenever Wednesdays through July 26.

Where: First United Methodist Church, 618 Eighth St. in Columbus. Park in lot off Eighth Street, next to the playground.

In case of rain: Events are moved indoors to the fellowship hall, where there are trikes and other items.

Cost: Free.

Information: First United Methodist Church at 812-372-2851 or fumccolumbus.org.

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.