Godly Play – approaching God’s Word with a sense of wonder.

worn white cardboard box isolated on white background..

Today, as part of our series, “Are circles better than rows?“, we explore an approach to children’s ministry which happens in a circle…

Many of our sermons and Sunday school lessons are an attempt to put God in a box. Whenever we try to simplify God, explain him, display him or categorise him, we lose our sense of wonder and mystery. We lose the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to speak differently to each person and in each community. God cannot be contained in a catchy slogan or three key points (even when they are alliterated). He is bigger than our boxes.

Children’s Sunday School lessons are often the biggest culprit for oversimplifying (and potentially misinterpreting) God’s story. Too often, we are telling the kids; “the moral of the lesson is, (insert name of Bible character) was a good boy/girl – and you should be too.” We miss the nuances, the emotions, the messiness, the depth of the stories, and the opportunity for the children to relate and respond to them. Trying to reduce the God of the universe to simple concepts and moral lessons for our children is not doing anyone a favour. As C.S. Lewis so eloquently expressed it, “He’s not a tame lion”.

Godly Play is a Montessori-inspired approach to creatively engaging all age groups with God’s story, provoking their curiosity, and creating space for them to explore their own thinking, learning and responses to God in community. The curriculum and materials for this innovative teaching method are used worldwide in Sunday Schools, classrooms, churches and homeschooling settings, respecting the unique learning styles of children (and adults) and their capacity to wrestle with and explore deep concepts of faith in sensorimotor ways.

The central words of Godly Play are “I wonder…“. This gives people the freedom to move away from memorisation to interpretation, to take the risk of thinking outside the box, and to let the Holy Spirit speak to individuals and the gathered community.

Godly Play was designed by an Episcopal priest, Jerome Berryman, and follows the church calendar – so it is a lot more liturgical than I am used to, but can be adapted to other denominations. A typical Godly Play lesson is made up of the following steps;

Welcoming time – The doorkeeper gets down to the kids’ level and welcomes each child by name, inviting them into the circle on the floor, creating a safe space to listen to and experience the story.

Story time – The storyteller follows a script (or creates their own, once they understand the technique thoroughly) to tell a Biblical story or parable, using props and visual aids to bring the story to life for the listeners. All of the techniques of good storytelling are important here – setting the scene, using rhythm, intonation, and silence where necessary. Eye-contact is minimal, so the children hang on to every word without interrupting (I’ve tried this – it worked far better than I thought it would!). The listeners are immersed in a multi-sensory learning environment to fully experience God’s story.

Wondering time – This is where Godly Play is uniquely different from most Sunday School settings. Rather than closed questions and fill-in-the-blank prescribed responses, the storyteller makes “I wonder…” statements. “I wonder how they were feeling.” “I wonder why he did that.” “I wonder what I would do.” This approach is not about getting the listeners to memorise information for testing, but to create space for the Holy Spirit to speak to their hearts. The community are led in a time of unrushed shared wondering about the deep concepts of our faith and theology.

Creative time – Instead of a one-size-fits-all take-home craft activity, listeners are invited to choose an artistic outlet for responding to the story. The teachers provide a range of creative options, such as painting, drawing, writing, sculpting, dramatising or retelling the story. These hands-on processes allow the participants to form complex ideas and concepts, expressing physically what they cannot verbally. Each person has the freedom to choose their own response instead of just following instructions. The teachers act as a “guide on the side” to help people explore the meaning they are uncovering.

Sharing time – To end the session, the group shares in a “feast” – maybe biscuits and juice – as a form of communion and fellowship. During this time, the teachers may speak with individuals and affirm their experience and learning, or they may share their artwork and insights in small groups or as a whole group.

Godly Play is a fun, playful and powerful tool for intergenerational exploration of God’s Word, inclusive of all levels of knowledge and wisdom. It allows people to learn from God’s Word, from the Holy Spirit, from their own time of reflection, and from one another – rather than one individual translating God’s story for the entire community. Most of all, it brings back our sense of wonder, and lets God out of the box.

10 thoughts on “Godly Play – approaching God’s Word with a sense of wonder.

  1. It sounds like fun, andnd I especially like the idea of ‘wondering time’ – giving space and encouragement for each child to hear what God is uniquely saying to them. Just brilliant!

  2. This is excellent! Love the concepts as they are practical ways of involving everyone in the learning process! Thanks for sharing!

    • No worries, Stephen! I’m enjoying sharing some of the techniques I’ve come across which apply to “church in a circle”.

  3. Hey Kathleen,
    Our church has embarked on using Godly Play for our 2-9yo children and it has been a valuable journey. It is a lot of work to arrange the materials, story tellers (learning the story too), helpers, food, and setup and clean up each week. Giving the kids some of our language and stories and letting them use their own selves to work out what to do with them is a big draw card for me, rather than asking them to find our presupposed correct answers. A challenge with the parents and other adults is to decide what to do with the (perhaps quite reasonable) expectation of meaningful responses. I don’t honestly know whether my 4yo gets great meaning out of it all, and the same goes for other kids – but the language and stories as above is enough for me.

    I don’t know if it will stick due to the work required, but I’m glad we’ve come this far.
    We’ve also had a couple of services where a story is told to the wider congregation and the response materials setup for everyone – that has been worthwhile too, and I hope that happens again soon.
    Peace,
    Greg.

    • Thanks so much for the feedback, Greg. I enjoyed your point about the expectation of meaningful responses from 4 year olds. I recently adapted this approach in my local church Sunday School, and was amused and mildly frustrated trying to get “spiritual responses” from 3-5 year olds (some of them were making “God” out of play dough, others were begging for colouring in and prepared craft activities, not used to any freedom).

      I agree the work and materials (and expense) can be off-putting. I’m personally not a “stick with the script” person (and “zero liturgy”), so I would like to be able to take the concepts I like, and apply them as I wish. I hope your church community is also able to find what is valuable in allowing children and intergenerational groups to benefit from good storytelling, good facilitation, and open participation.

      Blessings,

      – Kathleen

      • I am really glad to hear you say that you are not a “stick with the script” person. Godly Play is a tremendously powerful teaching methodology, but its scripts are NOT its strengths. We’ve been adapting it liberally to our Lutheran context over the past eighteen months. All our story materials are home-made, eliminating that expense. Since we use a pull-out model with the story being delivered in the nave and the children then processing out to their Story Room, we’ve divided the work of the Storyteller from that of the Wonder Leader, and cycle both through a four-week cycle of different leaders: that has kept the work from being overwhelming for everyone except those of us preparing the materials. And *we* always get the materials completed somehow, even if we are putting the final touches on something in the car Sunday morning on the way to church! It’s been very successful in reinvigorating our children’s ministry.

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  5. I’m doing this with an adult congregation tomorrow morning in Moulsham, Essex, UK – we’re too big to make one circle so I’m making two horseshoes and flitting between the two. I’ll let you know how it goes!

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