Two years ago I was the Children’s Ministries Coordinator at New Church Westville, and in April of 2016 we began to run a Godly Play program as our Sunday School. The programs continued on after I left, and now seeds of Godly Play seem to be sprouting in Bryn Athyn. I initially wrote the bulk of this piece two years ago before the launch at New Church Westville, and going over it again has renewed me with a sense of awe and wonder for this beautiful process for nurturing children’s spiritual development. I’m currently a student in the Masters of Arts in Religious Studies program at Bryn Athyn College and my focus is on children’s spirituality. I’d love to share with you a bit about Godly Play and why I’m so passionate about it.
Godly Play is two things: a philosophy of children’s spiritual development and a program designed to nurture that growth and development. It was developed by pastor, author and teacher Rev. Dr. Jerome W. Berryman over decades of training, research and practice. It is Montessori-based and invites children to learn to “do for themselves” with regards to their spiritual life, providing children with the space, language and tools to develop their relationships with God and theological learning in a way that is internally driven rather than externally directed.
Godly play lessons are story-based, inviting children to explore and wonder about the stories of the People of God from Creation to today. A storyteller sits in the circle and presents a story, using figures, models, miniatures, and replicas. Storytellers and children wonder about the story, meditating on it together before children move from the circle to a response time where children choose their work – previously told stories, art materials, books – and in their response they play and find their place in this story and the greater story of God’s people. Godly Play builds a community where children experience the language of God and the church, and learn to use that language to make meaning in their lives, confronting the great existential questions of life – loneliness, freedom, meaning and death.
There are four ‘categories’ of Godly Play lessons: sacred stories, parables, liturgical actions, and silences. Sacred stories are the stories of the People of God from Creation, and children are invited to become part of that People, building Christian unity and developing Christian identity. Jerome Berryman, in his first volume of ‘The Complete Guide to Godly Play’ describes sacred stories in this way: “The story of God and God’s People is almost the story of a favourite game of child’s play: Hide-and-Seek. God calls people into relationship, who then respond by trying to connect with what they experience as an Elusive Presence. Both words of the phrase are significant: we cannot fully capture our experience of God in any story or rite – yet it is God’s presence that invites us endlessly to follow what glimpses we find. The very existence of the game communicates to us the existence of a divine Player. This game is played for the pleasure of its playing and not to win or lose, which would end the game. As we seek and find, we could sum up our story with the word Aha! Another glimpse!”
Parables are presented distinctly in Godly Play. Stored in gold boxes, they are described as gifts, precious to us. The parables are old, older than the circle of players. They are closed with a lid like a door, because sometimes they are hard to open, but we can come back to them, again and again. Parables are the stories Jesus told, causing His listeners to rethink their assumptions about His kingdom, His purpose and their lives. Berryman describes them this way: “We can sum up the startling quality of parables with a laugh: “Haha!” Jesus’ parables can make us laugh aloud as they turn our accepted worldview upside down.”
Liturgical Actions are the lessons that integrate the sense of identity developed in Sacred Stories, the creative process practiced their Parables and the unspoken Presence of God felt in silence. “In Liturgical Actions we mark life, time and space, so children can know the Holy.” (Berryman, The Complete Guide to Godly Play, Vol. 1) These stories are language lessons about the church, offering children a way to explore the vocabulary and tools the community uses to practice our religion.
Wonder is an essential of Godly Play. The phrase ‘I wonder…’ is the catch phrase of the program, and the ‘wondering’, the time after a lesson is presented and before response time begins is perhaps, to me, the most important part of a Godly Play session. ‘I wonder…’ invites the children, or those participating in the circle, to reflect on and respond to the story in community, in silence or out loud. The invitation is important – there are no right or wrong, yes or no questions that must be answered. There is no pressure in an ‘I wonder…’, no obligation to answer. ‘I wonder…’ is an ‘I’ statement: I wonder if my child has something they are thinking about that they want to share. I wonder what my child’s thoughts, needs, wants are. He is free to wonder about these things in silence or to respond out loud. I make no demands, only invitations when ‘I wonder…’. In a religious setting, ‘I wonder…’ invites children to wonder about God, to marvel at His mysteries and respond to His invitation to us.
The Response time in Godly Play is a chance for children to choose work that suits them in that moment and to do that most important work: play. Provided materials include the previously told stories and lessons, displayed around the room in an orderly, accessible fashion, art supplies in various forms, journals, books and Bibles, and spaces for silence, for rest, for time spent with God. Godly Play is not a space with no boundaries; indeed, it has clearly defined boundaries and expectations of the players. Within those boundaries is freedom for the players to Play with God.
There is so much in the Godly Play philosophy and program that excites and engages me. After completing the core training to become an accredited storyteller in 2015 I began using this method in my own home with my young children, who, while younger than the traditional Montessori schooling age of three at the time, I have seen engage and respond with stories and wondering and work. The philosophy of Godly Play (and of Maria Montessori) is one that I think has a profound respect for the personhood of the child. This respect has led me to view my children with new eyes as they learn and grow and develop skills, independence and assertiveness. I see their spiritual development through this lens of respect and that has led me to studying children’s spiritual development at a graduate level. Looking forward to their futures, I pray that the curiosity, determination and perseverance I see in them as now-preschoolers is only fuelled by this respect, allowing me to teach and guide in a way that encourages them to be internally motivated rather than externally moved, and to own their spirituality, religion and relationship with the Lord.
If you’re interested in learning more about Godly Play, check out the Godly Play Foundation website and their YouTube Channel or drop by my house sometime – we have a Godly Play room and I’d love to have you in our circle!