For the past several years, Jennifer Downey has been developing the Godly Play program at our church, with the assistance of Michelle Abernathy. Godly Play is our Sunday School program for ages 2/3 to 5/6, held before Holy Communion. As the parent of a two year old who just started going this past year, I (Amanda) am very thankful for the emphasis on reverence in Godly Play. I am thankful that the shape of the lesson mirrors our Holy Communion service, so that even Sunday School for preschoolers is intrinsically connected to the life of the historic Church. In this short series, Jennifer and Michelle will share the philosophy and practical side of Godly Play, as well as helpful resources.
What is the philosophy of Godly Play?
Jennifer: Developed by Jerome Berryman, Godly Play is a unique approach to children’s religious education informed by the Montessori method. Berryman encourages people to think of this method as conforming more to the ancient Church’s idea of formation as “spiritual direction,” rather than religious education.
Jerome Berryman understood that spiritual formation in children must be embodied rather than simply imparted. They must be introduced to the culture and life of Christian worship in the context that children understand best: wonder and play.
Godly Play mirrors the liturgy of the Church as children follow the basic pattern of worship:
Opening: The children are helped to prepare to enter a sacred space— they need to “get ready.” They are each greeted warmly as they enter and invited to take a seat in the circle.
Hearing the Word of God: The children hear a story from Scripture, told with simple materials: wooden figures, stones, felt cloth, etc. The emphasis is on becoming “immersed” in the story. The storyteller focuses on the materials, fully entering into th’e story rather than looking up and engaging the children. The physical objects selected to tell the story are highly symbolic, often appearing in multiple stories as children enter deeply into symbolic patterns throughout Scripture.
Afterwards, the students are invited to “wonder” about the story through open ended questions, often making connections with other stories.
Response to God: The students choose their “work.” The storyteller encourages them to allow that work to be a time to listen for God or to think more deeply about a story they have heard, either that day or in the past. They may choose to do artwork: paint, coloring, or clay. Or they may choose to work with one of the stories’ materials, “making it real” imaginatively.
The Feast: Mirroring the movement towards Holy Communion in worship, the students gather in the circle once again to share food and drink with each other. This is a time of enjoying fellowship and friendship.
Blessing/Sending Out: Each child is called by name and given a blessing by the storyteller before they leave.
Michelle: The philosophy of Godly Play is that children are naturally spiritual, but their spirituality is manifested through play. Just as young children, in particular, learn best through tactile experiences, so do they express their spirituality through tactile means. While the stories are simple, they by no means water down the magnificence or gravity. The children’s spirituality is respected by allowing dedicated time for them to respond to the stories both verbally and through art work or working with the story materials themselves.
What has been your experience with Godly Play? We would love to hear from you!