Children at Dunwoody Baptist Church perform as part of vacation Bible school activities. This year, the church’s vacation Bible school had a country western theme.

Part Sunday school, part summer camp, vacation Bible school is a summer institution that some local churches consider the most important program of the year.

Vacation Bible schools vary from church to church, but traditionally they offer a week of themed bible classes and activities for kids. In June and July, many churches put up banners proclaiming the return of Bible school.

“Now there are so many different publishers out there with vacation Bible school [materials] and churches are getting really creative with it,” said Sandy Sigmon, healthy church specialist for the Atlanta Metro Baptist Association.

Themes typically take kids on a vacation, so to speak, to far-away places like ancient Egypt, New York City, or the beach. But themes can be about things other than a place — like a session based on pandas, for instance.

Sigmon said vacation Bible school provides programming for children in the church as well as the community at large.

“It’s an excellent outreach tool to the community. It provides opportunities for children when they’re out of school,” Sigmon said. “A lot of churches are using it as a mission-type program.”

Brenda Russell, children’s minister at Dunwoody Baptist Church, said her church brings in kids from its other ministries to participate in vacation Bible school.

“Sometimes the criticism is that vacation Bible school is all about church kids. It doesn’t have to be that,” Russell said. “We reach out to kids who may not have that opportunity.”

Camp counselor Chris Rogers plays with Thomas Hall, 1, as Sage Johnson, 8, watches, during the last day of Brookhaven Baptist Church’s vacation Bible school June 23. The “Beach Blast” theme allowed youngsters to imagine a vacation at the ocean while studying Bible lessons.

Sigmon said while Bible school may have a very light-hearted tone, churches take it very seriously.

“More people come to know the lord Jesus Christ during vacation Bible school than any other event a church does,” Sigmon said. “I think it’s the more concentrated Bible study and one on one attention they get during that period of time.”

The Rev. Erin Reed Cooper of Sandy Springs Christian Church said kids really get into the theme and enjoy using their imaginations.

Aston Peacock, 4, left, plays in the church’s “ocean room.” Aston attended the five-day Bible school with his younger sister Anslee.

“We know that having sensory experiences increase a child’s learning. And when they’re happy and learning they don’t even know they’re learning. It’s exciting and fun and the content sticks with them,” Cooper said. “Those kinds of things are important especially in the church. We pass the heritage on that way. They get to make it their own, but they’re learning the liturgy of the church at the same time.”

Cooper said this year the theme for vacation Bible school is “sun surf beach bash.”

“We transform our fellowship hall into a surf zone, complete with beach umbrellas and beach balls,” Cooper said. “We have little skits each day and characters that show up on the beach. Through that we explore ways to meet up with Jesus.”

Russell said kids often absorb more than you think they will.

“You just don’t ever know the impact you’re going to have,” Russell said.