On a recent Sunday morning anyone peeping through the window would’ve seen a group of small boys enjoying playing with bricks and Lego. Boys enjoying construction is not a new phenomenon. In this particular instance we were exploring the story of Nehemiah praying and then going to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem with my church’s 5-8s groups.
In our exploration we built with bricks and Lego (and chairs and tables) and we wondered if Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver would be more helpful than a sword whilst simultaneously wondering how we know when God answers our prayers, if he does and why Nehemiah had to wait four months and what’s like waiting and what are similarities and differences between Doctor Who and God. Incidentally, there was also quite a bit of quiet singing along to the worship songs on the iPod.
Understated yet with expectation: play as tool for learning
The Greek Philosopher Plato once said, ‘Life must be lived as play’ whilst Ovid the Roman poet said, ‘In our play we reveal what kind of people we are’.
Froebel went so far as saying, ‘Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul’. (Nye, 2010: Cited from handout ‘Called to Play? The Playful Spirit’ presented at Childhood and Spirituality Conference).
I would like to urge us to develop a much more playful streak in our children’s ministry. Not out of inappropriate abandonment of ‘teaching’ but an embracing of a teaching methodology that can enable children to reach a real depth of being and exploring that I believe gets to the real heart of what Jesus was talking about when he called us to become like children.
D.W. Winnicott a British paediatrician once said:
“It is in playing, and only playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”
The nature of what Catherine Garvey defines as ‘genuine play’ offers some interesting parallels with worshipping God and exploring spirituality. Her list of markers state that play is invited not coerced; is for its own sake (not a means to an end); is creative or absorbs creativity in us; can’t be controlled and may have an uncertain outcome; is often pleasurable, fun or subversive; may help us cope with or solve problems.
In her thoughts on what children’s spirituality might look like Rebecca Nye includes that it is a normal, natural feature of their being; it is idiosyncratic; it is easily missed; it is frequently misunderstood; it is erratic (profound and prophetic then seemingly gone in an instant). It is fragile, frequently beyond words, not within the ‘control’ of any adult and is more about process than product (Nye 2010).
Jerome Berryman’s theology of childhood spirituality holds central the theme of play.
His choice of ‘Godly Play’ is no accident. He suggests that ‘the playful game of hide and seek or peek-a-boo (which even the youngest children play), is an apt metaphor for our experience of God in our lives.’ Combining this with elements of Garvey’s markers, provide an insight of the heart of the Christian spiritual life, especially the fact that play is good, for its own sake, deepens imagination and relationship. Rebecca Nye concludes ‘This recommends that we should particularly look out for the sacred in play, and be more alert to playfulness in the sacred’ (2010 p79).
I consider myself to be a playful person. I’m creative and imaginative. I wonder about lots of things and I ask ‘What if’ questions very often. I know I need creativity to feed me spiritually. But I am very sad and disappointed to realize that I have lost the ability to truly enter play. When my children ask me to join them in their imaginative games I no longer become the character in the game as I know I used to and I see my children being. I can play along. But that is not the same. I find myself unable to inhabit the story in the way my children do.
And yet this is the heart of matter. By inhabiting the story children explore who they are, how they fit in, where have they come from, where are they going, where is God in this story, what does this mean?
Play enables deep exploration of key existential questions that no amount of teaching about in a class activity will get to. To ask ‘What if God isn’t in this story?’ or ‘What if the end is different?’ or ‘Where is God in this story?’ might feel like risky questions to ask but they allow an important process to begin.
I remember a number of years ago when an eight year old boy drew a picture of Jesus running away from monsters as a response to the Godly Play ‘Parable of the Good Shepherd’. What an absolutely brilliant question: what if Jesus did run away from the monsters? The child’s mother was horrified! She did not share my thinking that this is great and important question to ask. In her opinion he should know Jesus wouldn’t so that. She didn’t understand my point that the boy did know that in his head but he was exploring the idea in far greater depth in his being.
Play that seeks to take children’s spirituality seriously, enabling them to inhabit and engage with God’s story in a playful, un-coerced, trusted, questioning environment will, I believe, lay stronger foundations for a life of faith.
I encourage you today to play a game of ‘I wonder and What if’. If you’ve never played before it’s real easy! In my experience, children are brilliant at it! Simply read a story or bible verse, look at picture or photograph, stare out of the window and complete the sentence ‘I wonder…’ and ‘what if…’.