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An Invitation to Play with God

Melinda Wenner Bradley
On Play (September 2015)
Inward Light

“In Godly Play, the invitation is given not for play in general but for play with the language of God and God’s people; our sacred stories, parables, liturgical actions and silences. Through this powerful language, through our wondering, through the community of players gathered together, we hear the deepest invitation of all: an invitation to come play with God.”        – Jerome W Berryman, The Complete Guide to Godly Play (2002)

The language of religious education often includes the word, “school” – Sunday School, Church School, First Day School. Even though school typically includes recess and play, the brief time that children spend in religious education (typically forty-five minutes a week) can lead us to try and fill the time and the children with lessons and information – what we think they need to know -- leaving little room for the experiential core of Quakerism. Alternately, the adults with care of a children’s program might not feel they have the tools that they need to plan a religious education program (I’ve often heard, “I’m not a teacher.”), and the time becomes only recreation. Either way, we can end up with a model where spiritual formation leaves little room for the generative work of play.

For Friends, the religious education resources Godly Play® and Faith & Play™ open a way to approach stories from biblical scripture and Quaker faith and practice using a method that emphasizes deep respect for the spirituality of the child, and holds the importance of play at its center. The word “play” in the names Godly Play and Faith & Play is not a reference to theater. Nor does it refer to lessons that are always light and easy. The images and language offered by the stories in these programs make space for children to come close to some of the existential limits that we wrestle with our whole lives: aloneness, freedom, purpose, death. The programs give children a space to use image and language to explore, try out ideas, and find new truth as they grow. They leave room for continuing revelation. 

The watchwords of Piaget and Montessori, “Play is the work of the child,” are taken up by Godly Play and Faith & Play. Because of the Montessori roots, the programs hold play as the deeply valued work of children, and the lessons typically invite children to engage in play after they hear a story and have wondered about it in the community of a circle of children and storyteller. After a story in Godly Play or Faith & Play we ask each child, “I wonder what your work will be?” In this way, we respectfully make space for children to engage with the stories through play or through artistic expression, as ways to continue exploring the stories they have heard. Children’s play is how they try on ideas and gain new skills and practices.

Godly Play has been in development since the 1960’s, and is used by many denominations. Faith & Play stories are a supplement to the program for Friends, exploring Quaker faith, practice and witness, developed by Friends in Friends General Conference. The name for this genre of stories was chosen to echo the name of our Quaker books of Faith and Practice, as a way of indicating that play is the place where children practice living their faith and asking their questions.

Adults play, too, even though we don’t always call our activities “play.” We might call them “hobbies” or “experiments,” but we are acting playfully when we engage in activities not because they are required, but because we are absorbed by them and lose ourselves in them, tapping into our generative creativity. When we approach life in this way, we are playing.

There is also a playfulness in the wondering we engage in after hearing a story – adults and children alike. In Godly Play and Faith & Play, we wonder with the children if we could take out any part of the story and still have what we need. When a child suggests that we might remove a piece of the story, I do, so that the group can explore their response together.. Another child might protest and explain why they need that part in the story. We rearrange the whole story as we consider what it means and how we receive the words. We problem solve and laugh together. The children become absorbed in wondering about the story and how it is connected to them. In doing so, they are using religious language and exploring their own spiritual lives.

When children are given imagery as well as language to play with, they can express some striking insights from their active spiritual lives. While telling a story in Godly Play or Faith & Play, the storyteller uses simple materials laid out on the floor for the circle of children to illustrate the story. After I told a story to a group of young children one First Day, one of the children asked me if he could work with the materials I had just used to tell the story. His head bent over his work, and he became completely unaware of the other children busy around him. He intently combined the materials used for the parable of the Good Samaritan with the materials used for telling the story of Zacchaeus, creating a new story that used elements from both. The Jesus figure from the Zacchaeus story became the traveler. The tree became a hiding place for a robber. Jesus was gently carried down the road by the Samaritan. A week later, a group of middle school students heard the two stories, one after the other, in a Quakerism class. One of these students reflected on the commonalities he encountered in the two stories, how each story revealed new things to him about the other one. The younger child had found similar connectedness without words, through creative play. The language of the stories spoke to him, and given a space to explore, he created new meaning for himself.   ~~~

Melinda Wenner Bradley is a member of Phildelphia Yearly Meeting, currently sojourning in New York Yearly Meeting. Through Friends General Conference, she offers trainings in Godly Play® and Faith & PlayTM for Quakers. Melinda would love to connect with Friends in the West! To learn more about these resources for religious education and multigenerational programs, visit: www.faithandplay.org and www.godlyplay.org.

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