A few months ago I had the bright idea to launch a ‘Godly Play’ club in our local primary school. It is all planned to start after the summer break, which is now very nearly upon us, and will involve being in school each week with a group of children telling stories using gorgeous, tactile storytelling sets. I can’t wait to get start but meanwhile there is the small task of building these gorgeous tactile storytelling sets on a very limited budget! This fully hit home when I found myself making a movable Papier Mache synagogue one afternoon, what have I taken on?!
When they are fully made, though, this way of helping children to think through their big questions of life and to draw their own meaning out of stories, is so wonderfully beautiful that I truly feel it is time well spent to make the materials. There is also something really lovely about presenting a story to children with materials you have lovingly handcrafted. Does it sound too cheesy to say that it feels like all that love and time pours into it some how? Probably! But it feels that way when the children ooh and ahh and really get inside the story and engage with it.
If you’ve never been in a Godly Play session then picture this – you sit down in a circle and a calm, gentle storyteller is in front of you with a large fabric bag tied up with a thick white rope. They open the bag, spreading it out flat and out flows sand right to the edges of the mat. They begin to tell you an ancient story, one of the oldest in human history, of two travellers and their journey across the dessert. As they talk their hands swirl the flowing sand, forming mountains and valleys. Rivers are marked with vibrant blue wool and the two wooden characters make their journey. There are births, there are deaths, all of human life is caught up in this story.
The story ends and the storyteller turns to the group. ‘I wonder what was your favourite part of that story?’ they say. Tentatively the group begin to respond. They talk about what delights them, what worries them, what matters to them most. They find their own life story within the story they have just heard. The storyteller continues ‘I wonder what was the most important part?’ More ideas come forward, different ways of seeing the story that perhaps you never considered. The most important things in life can be discussed here. The things that really matter and yet somehow you never really get a chance to say.
When the wondering about the story is over you are invited to spend the next forty minutes simply exploring your own thoughts and feelings, responding to the story, in any way you like. There are craft materials, paints, pens, sewing things, all sorts of materials for you to explore. There are things to help you think, wooden mazes to trace your finger over, Buddha boards to write or draw and watch you thoughts, or worries perhaps, slowly disappear. The work you do here is totally yours. You never have to show it to anyone, in fact you can put it straight in the bin! This time is yours and only yours. You don’t need to produce a thing, not even words about what it is you have done.
Sounds lovely doesn’t it? When I hear that a group of children are doing a Godly Play session and I am in an ‘adult’ church service I feel a bit jealous. Doesn’t this sound like a much better way to learn than sitting and listening to someone talk for ten minutes?
If you are lucky your local church or school might have a Godly Play programme and if they do – my goodness, sign your child up! More often than not these programmes are free (though certainly not to the people putting them on!) and so far I am yet to find anything that matches the Godly Play programme for helping children to grow their hearts and spirits, not to mention their thinking skills, communication, artistic expression and sense of self.
But if you don’t happen to have a class near you, then what are some of the Godly Play ideas that you can bring into your own home?
Using materials in your storytelling
The first perhaps is the idea of storytelling using physical materials. Godly Play uses natural materials, wood, sand, felt, stones. They are all items that are lovely to hold and that are child sized. When I show adults a complete Godly Play kit they always want to have a play!
The Godly Play kits are also basic, in the sense that the figures aren’t painted and there aren’t lots of decorative details in the sets. This allows children to see what they want in the story, to use their imagination more easily and to go down different avenues with their thought in ways that a more designed set might hinder. It’s the cardboard box principle really, kids seem to love the imaginative potential of the wrappings of shiny plastic presents, more than the presents themselves sometimes! If only we could get away with just giving them empty boxes for Christmas!!
Making these kits and telling the Godly Play stories at home with your own children needn’t be expensive. As I build my kits I will show you how you can produce these materials on a budget and give some tips for telling the Godly Play stories at home.
Allow children time to wonder
Second, the questioning time in Godly Play is wonderfully unique. Did you notice the kind of questions that were being asked? They all began with the phrase ‘I wonder…’ this allows children to make suggestions, to share their thoughts and feelings without striving for ‘the right answer’ which, when it comes to big questions of life, we all know there are very few ‘right’ answers anyway!
The ‘wondering’ questions respect what the children think and have to say. It encourages children to realise that their thoughts and feelings are important and that they are not simply there to provide the ‘right’ answer to an adult! It is truly amazing what children contribute when we speak with them in this way. We see magical glimpses of the depth of what goes in on in those little hearts and minds and encourage children to share their thoughts and ideas more.
Space to respond
Lastly there is the principle of the free response time. I’ll try not to get on my soap box about this but there really is so little time in children’s days that is without structure these days. We are in danger of teaching children that they are valuable on the basis of what they do, what they achieve and what they produce rather than simply for who they are.
Free time allows their creativity to run free without the expectation of having to produce something to be put on show. If they want to sit and play with the story materials, then that is what they can do. If they want to talk more with the storyteller, then that is great too. If they want to paint a masterpiece and take it home for all to see – fabulous! What is important is that the time is theirs and theirs alone. There is no chivvying by adults to do something useful or productive. I really feel like this a gift to our children that they so badly need in our busy, productive, success driven culture.
If this has whet your appetite for trying out Godly Play at home then you might like to look for a class on local church websites or have look at getting the books for yourself. I will be sure to post sets as I make them and do post any questions you might have.
Thanks for reading!