Godly Play is a wonderful way to allow children to immerse themselves into biblical stories in an interactive, fun, and deeply spiritual way. Now, the name of the program trips many Orthodox Christians into believing that this is just a time of free-play that is light on its theology or spirituality. This is an unfortunate mistake. The truth is that the Montessori method used by this denominationally-tested curriculum leads the children to much more than storytelling or simple ‘play.” How the children interact with the biblical and sacred stories is as important as the actual stories. Imagine the following scene, which occurs right after the story for the day has been told by the trained Storytellers:
The room is very quiet, 10 kids are sitting around our desert-shaped carpet, and all attention is on the storyteller. The silent pause is purposeful and leads the children into the next phase of the “Godly Play” story-telling method. This phase is called “wondering.” The narrator sits back and slowly raises her gaze and looks into the eyes of the children as she asks, “I wonder which part of the story you like the best?” Her words come out slowly, softly, invitingly. The children wait expectantly for someone to begin. Then one of the children responds, “I liked the part when the Shepherd went to look for the sheep that got lost. I think the Shepherd was sad when it got lost.” The storyteller listens intently and then says, “… He would go anywhere to look for the lost sheep.” She then touches gently the lost sheep, now safely in the sheep pen. Her touch is deliberate, almost reverend. After all, the Great Shepherd loves that particular sheep so much that he left the other sheep in the pen to go look for it.
The storyteller looks up again. This time a blond-haired little girl states, “I liked it when the Shepherd showed one of the sheep how to get to the cool water.” The storyteller softly says, “Because he loved her very much.” Then the storyteller softly touches the cool, still, fresh water. Three other children name their favorite part of the story. After each child, the storyteller makes an empathic statement to let the child know that she heard them. The storyteller then gently touches the figurine that represents the part of the story to which the child alluded. A comfortable silence falls on the room again.
The storyteller asks, “I wonder which part of the story is most important to you?” The process of wondering continues with the same pattern established before: Child participation, empathic statement by the storyteller, and then a gentle touch on a figurine or two that provides a visible and physical reminder of the child’s comment. Additional wondering questions follow, “I wonder where you are in the story, or what part of the story is about you?” and, finally, “I wonder if there is any part of this story we could leave out and still have all the story we need?”
After the time of wondering is completed the children move on to a time of “Response.” The children are invited to think about what they have heard in the story and to respond to it by choosing from a variety of activities. They can choose to play with one of the religious toys on the shelves, they can draw or paint about the story they just heard, they can read a book from the bookshelves, they can play with the “Desert Box,” etc. As a teacher, I always loved the beautiful drawings, play doh figurines, and paintings the children produced as their responses to the various stories. I could almost see the children internalizing the message of the story and I imagined those small seeds growing in their hearts. This is how faith grows. It starts as a kernel, a small image on canvas, a small figurine the child created as a result of an inspirational story. I also know that this nascent faith will one day deliver fruits of patience, kindness, resilience, and hope in that child’s life. And one day, that child (now a grown adult) will find themselves asking their own children, “I wonder what you liked best about this story?”
After the wondering comes the “Feast,” which includes a time for snack and a time of intentional prayer and clean up time. After this the children say “Goodbye” to their storyteller who says something like, “It was a pleasure to have you here today. Thank you for being with us” to each of the children. After this the door person walks the children out of the Godly Play Workroom. But in many ways, the story will work in the children’s minds and hearts well after the Sunday school hour. In fact, Godly Play encourages the kids to think about the story during the week, to tell the story to parents and siblings, and to continue their response at home with additional drawings, paintings, or readings.
Saint Dunstan’s parishioners are professionals at this type of story-telling because we have used Catechism of the Good Shepherd (CGS) for many years. Sadly, CGS stopped developing new stories a while back, whereas Godly Play continued to develop New Testament and The Lives of the Saints stories. We have chosen to transition to Godly Play because we want access to these new materials and because it is much easier to get Godly Play training for our teachers than it is to obtain CGS training. The programs, however, are very similar: They are both based on Montessori methodology, they are both deeply biblical, they have both been field-tested in hundreds of churches, and they both follow the same pattern of Story-Response-Banquet.
Angela Stengl and a team of dedicated volunteers have been working diligently to set up our three Godly Play workrooms and to get our volunteers trained. Very soon we will do a campaign to solicit in-kind and small monetary gifts to fully equip our workrooms. In the meantime, feel free to ask Angela for a tour of our rooms and ask her questions about how we intent to structure our three workrooms.
We can use volunteers and we will be providing training. Please call Angela Stengl or Sarah Quiroga for additional information,