A couple of months ago, as a couple, we’d been talking a great deal about the way we teach children the message of the Bible within the church. Over the years we’d wearied of flashy, hip, expensive curricula that seemed more geared toward entertaining children than helping them encounter God. Some kids programs seemed watered down, others focused on having awesome toys or handouts, loud videos on fancy TV screens, some were haphazard and felt thrown together. On our long summer visiting churches last year we experienced all sorts of things. What struck us most was that some places our kids were treasured and some places they weren’t even allowed in the main meeting area.
So when I received a random email from my mom with a link to a young church in our area that was implementing something called Godly Play into their children’s ministry, it immediately caught my attention. The heart behind it can be summed up but the logistics of how it plays out is a bit long to explain:
Godly Play is based upon the recognition that children have an innate sense of the presence of God. All they lack is the appropriate language to help them identify and express it so it can be explored and strengthened. The Godly Play approach teaches classical Christian language in a way that enhances the child’s authentic experience of God so it can contribute to the creative life of the child and the world.
I loved that it acknowledged a child’s capacity to experience God. I believe that to be true. I think it’s easy to put children in a box, try to keep them busy, give them a printed coloring sheet and hope they turn out okay. It’s easy to read a kid-version of the story of Adam and Eve and make a quick moral lesson of it…”They sinned, things went bad for them, so you see you should obey God and not sin”. That is oversimplified obviously, but at the core, that is usually the way church teaches the Bible to children. I don’t believe it is tremendously effective or holds much meaning.
Godly Play draws children in to experience the incredible story of God through a very deliberate, intentional time together. Truly, I can’t put words to what it felt like to experience a whole Godly Play session this past weekend at a training event I attended. I was enraptured as the storyteller smoothed out a pile of sand on the floor and talked about the dessert and then told the story of Abraham and Sarah and all that took place in their life in beautiful, captivating story form. She used little wooden people to represent them, built rock altars with pebbles, blue yarn for rivers…simple. But when I got home and replayed the whole thing with Chris, I was almost embarrassed. I retold the story of Abraham with more knowledge, more passion and more detail than ever and from a lesson intended for a 5 year old.
In the fostering of discovery learning children are welcomed into a room that has been deemed and designed to be a sacred space. They are welcomed by name, brought into a circle time and then drawn into a great story. Walls are free of bright, garish decor. The place is meant to inspire and allow children a chance to hear from God. They even have moments of silence. On shelves there are simple but beautiful trays that hold sets of elements to all the great stories of the Bible. Children learn respect of these lovely things and at a set time they can interact with the stories. They are also offered an artistic response time after the story and offered all sorts of art supplies and their own tray to do this.
If you are familiar with Montessori, this way of engaging children is similar in many ways to that. But it obviously brings in the spiritual dynamic as central. There are some fairly significant ways our team agreed we would have to change things to fit our own beliefs but in general the method is rich with so much that we were thrilled about.
One of my favorite things is that instead of forming the lesson principle for the whole group, the storyteller asks them “I wonder what you think about this story” or “I wonder what you love most about this story”. This allows for children to experience and enter in to the great Story for themselves, to process and ponder deep things (even though they may not realize they’re doing just that!).
I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface! For those of you who were curious, I hope this is helpful. I’m by no means an expert and don’t want to make it sound like this is the only way/best way. It is simply one of many wonderful ways that can be useful in helping children understand the great mystery of God and the incredible story of the Bible.