What is Godly Play?
“In most religious education children are told what God did. In Godly Play, children discover who God is.”
Godly Play is a Montessori style of telling Bible stories, parables and liturgical action about religious traditions using simple, natural materials.
It invites the listener to connect faith stories with personal experience through wondering questions, open-ended response and silence.
Godly Play is used extensively with adults and children in many settings from schools to hospitals, churches to aged care facilities.
It can be a way of preparing children or adults to join fully in the worship life of their congregations.
A Godly Play room has been created at the Centre for Ministry to enable people to experience Godly Play storytelling in a space that is specially created to “speak” to them, and that is beautiful and invites response.
Every Tuesday afternoon from 4 to 6 pm a group of Godly Play storytellers meets to practise stories and welcome visitors.
The materials used in Godly Play stories are simple and hand-crafted.
The focal shelf has a Holy Family nativity in the centre in front of a risen Christ.
To the left is a Baptism candle and to the right some sheep in a pen with a Good Shepherd figure next to them.
In the shelf below are the materials for the World Communion story, the cloths in liturgical colours and the materials for the Baptism story.
The sacred stories are contained in woven baskets and a desert bag is used to tell the sandy desert stories.
The parables are contained in gold boxes on the other side of the room.
The shelves surround the gathered community when listening and wondering, and illustrate the stories.
The power of narrative
Dr Berryman says Godly Play harnesses the power of narrative.
“After working with suicidal children in Houston in the 1980s, I realised that what these families lacked was any sense of a family story.
“I also worked extensively with dying children in hospital settings. My experience in the hospital made it clear that children need more than play therapy to cope with their existential limits, which are palpable in a ward.
“The Parable of the Good Shepherd enables children to sense God’s presence to cope with what cannot be known. I also began to realise Godly Play worked very well with adults in counselling as well as educational and pastoral care settings.”
The revelation children convey as a means of grace involves three insights.
“They reveal how to play hide and seek with God, a theme of Samuel Terrien’s The Elusive Presence.
“Children reveal the importance of deep, contemplative silence to know God. They do this more naturally than adults, who sometimes need to relearn what they knew as children and develop conscious practices to do what they once did without thinking.
“Children show how to bless and be blessed. When we are with children in a wondering way, it opens adults to be more childlike and more respectful of children’s gifts.
“Godly Play attempts to draw children and adults together into a spiritual practice that has implications for and fosters the maturity of all.”
More about this can be found in “Playful Orthodoxy: Reconnecting Religion and Creativity by Education” in the Sewanee Theological Review, Volume 48, No. 4, 2005.
Open to wonder
A Godly Play session is organised around the deep structure of the holy Eucharist, which is used by nearly all parts of the Christian family for worship.
Dr Berryman says, “The Christian language system involves four genres: sacred stories, parables, liturgical action and contemplative silence.
“It works to open us to wonder, which opens us to the creative process. God is beyond us as Creator, yet hinted at through God’s creation.
“God is beside us in Jesus in the Gospels as well as experientially.
“God is within us in the Holy Spirit, who sustains and re-creates us.
“Through this network of complex relationships, God is available to us all the time and everywhere, unbidden and bidden. The method of Godly Play uses all these doorways into the Holy. It is not merely Christ-centred, it is Trinity–centred.”
Godly Play is play, and play is pleasurable, says Dr Berryman.
“In Godly Play the pleasure comes from being engaged creatively with something that one is curious about with others who are also curious about God and what goes on in church.
“The pleasure also comes from learning how to use this powerful language we have inherited. It has been entrusted to us so we can know God in developing ways as both a wellspring in the desert and a rock for our foundation.
“This means to cope with our existential limits is something people need as children, not just when they grow up.”
The Rev. Dr Andrew Sheldon is parish priest at All Saints Kingsway,Toronto,Canada. This is an extract from his a guest lecture during the National Godly Play Conference.
For more information about Godly Play, see the website www.godlyplay.org.au.