Thursday, March 29, 2012

Losing control!

A short introductory article of mine to Godly Play has just been published in the Scripture Union Europe Region News and Prayer Bulletin (April-June 2012), pp. 5-6.

At the time of writing, I am recovering from a grim experience I suffered recently – the theft of several personal items from my car. Events like these cause us to wake up with a jolt to the fact that, no matter how well we plan or take necessary precautions, we are never fully in control of the outcomes. It’s a relief to know, of course, that God is in complete control.

But what about losing control deliberately and systematically in our ministry with children? What would happen if we willingly let go of fixed aims regarding how, for example, our children should interpret Bible stories or what their responses ought to be?

Many educators would be horrified at the thought! Surely good practice is all about planning for and ensuring clear, measurable outcomes that can then be used to evaluate our work? And as Christian teachers or evangelists, isn’t our job to tell children what the Bible passage means and what it says about God, human beings, sin and forgiveness? Wouldn’t it be irresponsible to do otherwise?

However, this is precisely the approach to Christian religious education taken in a number of Montessori-based methods such as Godly Play®, where children are granted more responsibility for their own spiritual growth than in most traditional methods, and where teachers willingly take on a mentoring role rather than being overly directive.

So what does a typical Godly Play session look like? When the children have entered the room and are settled, the storyteller presents a Bible story she has learnt by heart, using as few words as possible. The story is told with a hushed tone of voice and at a slow pace so that the child’s imagination is free to latch on to the narrative. At the same time, the storyteller places simple wooden figures on a felt underlay or moves them around deliberately in a sandbox.

Then the facilitator encourages the children to engage with the story personally through a series of ‘wondering questions’: I wonder what you liked most about the story… I wonder what is important in it… I wonder if you are in that story or if any part of it is in you… I wonder if we can take anything away from the story and still have all we need…

This is in no way like a ‘quiz’ to find out if the children can produce the right answers. Neither does the Godly Play teacher seek to explain what the point of the story really is. Rather than bringing closure to the process via premature conclusions, the wondering questions are designed to open up avenues of discovery, which may raise more questions than answers. The ongoing reflective process is often more valuable than any immediate product – especially the teacher’s own preconceived interpretation of the Bible passage!

Godly Play® allows children the freedom to engage with Bible stories on their own terms – and most usually that involves the universal language of play. So, following the ‘wondering time’, the children are then invited to choose their ‘work’ response, which is invariably playful.

One child may choose to return to the story materials she has just seen being used by the teacher and retell the same story for herself. Another may prefer to go back to a story that has been presented previously. Others may choose to respond creatively using art materials, like paints or clay. Some older children, for example, in one of my Godly Play classes have recently learnt how to ‘cross stitch’ patterns for book markers using needle and thread. Sometimes this deep play is quite intense (even serious!) as children get engrossed in their activities and work at them quietly in different parts of the room.

This doesn’t mean that ‘anything goes’ in a Godly Play classroom. Not at all! There is a clear structure to both the physical environment (the order in which the story materials are placed on shelves around the room, for example) and how time is marked by set routines: 1) gathering and getting ready; 2) hearing the story, wondering and responding; 3) sharing a ‘feast’ (juice & snacks), prayers and Bible reading; and 4) blessing and saying goodbye.

Both storyteller and ‘door person’ (a second teacher) work in tandem to model expected behaviour and attitudes, like getting ready, handling the materials, wondering, respecting one another’s opinion, enjoying silence, etc. The storyteller may deliberately encourage children to make connections between different stories (“I wonder what would happen if we placed these two stories side by side”) or between their ‘work’ and the stories (“I wonder where your picture belongs in the classroom. You might like to walk around and think about which shelf to put it on”). In one sense, the Godly Play teacher does seem to have quite a bit of control and hopefully a lot of positive influence too. But she would resist giving children the ‘right answers’ about God rather than allowing children to discover God for themselves.

The founder of Godly Play®, Jerome Berryman, uses the term ‘playful orthodoxy’ to express the essence of this approach. The teacher certainly controls the order and manner the stories are presented, and this suggests orthodoxy. The Bible is allowed to speak for itself; thus there is great economy in the language used without added interpretations or explanations. Then play completes the equation.

’Wondering’ introduces imaginative engagement and playful response. And one of the features of play is that it cannot be controlled or used to achieve predetermined outcomes. Indeed, play can take quite unexpected twists and turns!

But won’t children come out with heresies if they’re allowed to interpret the Bible for themselves? This hasn’t been my experience at all. More often than not they surprise us with the range of their insights and their ability to draw out meaning in fresh ways. It’s true that children sometimes playfully test established ideas.

For example, after I had presented the Christmas story once using a simple wooden set of Nativity figures, and then wondered if there was anything we could take away and still have all the story we needed, one little boy suggested we might take the baby Jesus away! “Oh, that’s interesting”, I replied.

“I wonder if we can really celebrate Christmas without the Christ child”. There followed a lively discussion in which some of the children pointed out that many families do celebrate the holidays without necessarily having faith in Jesus. Finally, another little voice said rather solemnly: “But if Jesus wasn’t there, then the wise men wouldn’t have brought their gifts. So there wouldn’t be presents at Christmas time!” “True!” said the others, faces aghast at the thought! End of discussion. The little figure of the baby was promptly put back into the manger… and surprisingly, Santa was never mentioned once!

David Pritchard, SU Spain’s children’s worker, is also an accredited Godly Play trainer. SU Spain has been promoting Godly Play since 2004 and providing training for teachers and children’s workers in different parts of the country. Across Europe, a number of national Godly Play associations are being set up and there is a growing network of accredited trainers, who are available to lead courses and workshops on the theoretical framework as well as the practical ‘nuts & bolts’ of this method.

Photo credit: Godly Play on the cover of Notas Diarias, the Bible-reading material used in Spain. At the II National Godly Play Conference held last year, one of the participants presents the parable of the Good Shepherd to a mixed-age group.