When I tell people that I give my children drawing lessons, they often look at me as if I could turn water into wine. Although it's been a magical experience to teach them, the method that I use to do it fortunately doesn't require any supernatural abilities. On a trip to the States just before my son turned three (almost 5 years ago), I was looking for some books with art projects for children. I caught a glimpse of the book below:
Every once in a while you run across a book that changes your life. As soon as I saw this, I knew that I had to have it. I was especially intrigued by the subtitle: "A Creative Method for Adult Beginners, Too". Could I (gasp!), who had always tried to draw, but was unable to overcome my perfectionism, actually learn to draw as well? The answer was yes, and I would get to teach my children and others as well.: )
The premise of Mona Brooke's phenomenal book is that absolutely anyone can be taught to draw. There are basic components in drawing, that once you know them, enable one to learn. It is comparable to the phonetic sounds in a language that help one to learn to read, or notes in music. Knowing these basics principles, according to Brookes, is key to developing drawing skills.
Equally important is having the right attitude, which proved to be the key to helping me as an adult, and is also essential for children to progress. One of Brookes' sayings that has become my mantra with children, is that "in art there are no mistakes, only changes to be made".
The following is a little bit of what I have learned from Ms. Brookes. A typical drawing lesson begins with simple relaxation exercises for the eyes and limbs. Then we review the basic shape "families" by finding things in the room or outside the window that belong to these families. Next, I give each child a set of warm-up exercises that are much like scales and etudes in music. Below is what I gave my 4-year-old daughter on Tuesday. My sketches are in black and hers in red. The object is not for her to make an exact copy of what I have drawn, but rather to fill in the space in a similar manner.
On this particular day, we decided to do a still life of pumpkins, chestnuts and leaves. I recently started letting her use oil pastels and she was very excited about this. Together, we drew the still life with me guiding her through the shape families that the objects are composed of. I drew on my paper and she drew on hers.
Here is the her result below. You'll notice that it is not an exact representation, but that is not the purpose of drawing. When we draw, we interpret what we see rather than making exact copies. What is also interesting in her pictures are the repetition of certain elements that are early indicators of design.
I know for sure that I didn't find this book by accident. Though creative as a child, frustration at not being able to draw realistically led me to give up on myself as an artist. And in another life, I might have studied art education. There were other factors as well that caused me to follow another path, including lack of an adequate art program at the time I was growing up; the Berlin Wall coming down as I was entering university and making the idea of learning Russian irresistable; and the lie that art teachers are only people who couldn't make it in the art world themselves. Anyway, the path that I eventutally followed led to some very valuable life experiences, and when the time was right, God began to resurrect dreams that had been dead so long that I had forgotten about them.
How do I summarize Godly Play? The technical definition would be that it is a form of religious education that developed out of the teachings of Maria Montessori. But it is much more than that. It is storytelling at its best. It is an art form. It is a gateway to exploring the Biblical narrative and helping others find their way within as well. It is a language teacher that helps young children find words to describe what they experience with God. It is a way of preparing one's self to meet with the triune God.
Maria Montessori was the first woman to gain a medical degree from the University of Rome. At age 40, she stopped practicing medicine in order to devote herself entirely to the world of education and she revolutionized it. Though a devout Catholic, she never specifically developed her ideas in the area of religious pedagogy. Her successors eventually took on this challenge. In the year that I was born (1971!), an episcopal priest named Jerome Berryman from Houston, Texas travelled to Bergamo, Italy to study with Montessori's direct successors. Out of his educational experiences there, Berryman developed the concept of Godly Play and put his ideas into practice at Christ Cathedral in Houston.
Godly Play is quiet, meditative and thoroughly engaging. A storyteller sits with children in a circle around him. The children are asked to if they are ready to hear a story. Then storyteller then begins to tell a Biblical story using natural materials (wood, paper, felt, sand, etc.). He intentionally doesn't make eye contact with the children, but is completely focused on the story, so that the listeners become absorbed in what they are hearing.
After the story, the storyteller leads the children in an "Ergründungsgespräch", which literally translates as "to fathom" and "conversation". In English, this is called "The Wondering Phase". The storyteller asks open-ended questions beginning with phrases like "Ich frage mich . . . " (literally: I ask myself . . ., but English-speaking storytellers say, "I wonder . . .") invites the listeners to say whatever is on their minds. The questions sound a bit strange the first time you hear them, but they are designed with intention to allow the listener to identify with and put themselves within the story. I have to admit that I was shocked the first time I heard this phase described as "The Wondering Phase" in English, because it sounded to my ears a bit too fairy tale-ish. (I first learned about Godly Play entirely in German and it wasn't until much later that I became acquainted with any of the English terms. )
Afterwards comes the "Creative Phase" in which the children are invited to pick out artistic materials to express their thoughts and respond to what they have heard. They are also allowed to play with the story they have heard or pick another story from the shelves in the room to play with, which is very important since children learn by playing. In case you're wondering (no pun intended), a typical Godly Play worship also has a prayer time with the children, worship in the form of singing, and a "feast", a snack that also has the idea of communion embedded within it.
Although Godly Play came from America, it has been translated into the culture here in a thoroughly German way. There is a German non-profit made up mostly of theologians and professionals who are now writing their own original Godly Play stories instead of merely translating Berryman's stories. They also train people (like me) to do Godly Play in churches and schools.
That's about all I can describe in one post and any Godly Play enthusiast will tell you that I left out a lot, but I hope to talk more about specific aspects in future posts.
Below is a picture of Erich playing with some of the materials. You can see Jonah, the Nativity, the Risen Christ and Mount Sinai being used as a boat with the articles of the tabernacle in them: : ) The sand is our "Wüstensack" (Desert Bag).
The church plant that we are a part of offers a Family Brunch twice a month. We brunch together and then I lead a children's worship service afterwards. Last Sunday, I told the children the Godly Play story, "Die Bundeslade und das Zelt der Begegnung" ("The Ark of the Covenant and the Tent of Meeting"). The story was completely new to the children and even my son, who is quite knowledgeable about the Bible, was unfamiliar with the Tabernacle and its furnishings.
Typically, after a Godly Play Story, the children choose their own art materials and express their thoughts on the story (or anything else they are thinking about!) to explore what they have heard or express worship to God. There is a great discussion in German Godly Play circles about whether the creative phase can be "angeleitet" (instructional or not) and this same discussion is also going on in the Montessori world over how much an art lesson/project can be instructional. (If it bugs anyone that I throw German words into my sentences, I can't do anything about it. It just expresses who I am during this season of life.) I happen to think that it can as long as the children have room to determine the course and outcome of their creation and I experiment with such in our worship service.
All that to say that on Sunday, we had an instructional creative phase based on the Tabernacle story. I got the idea while doing an autumn art project from Deep Space Sparkle with my kids in which we painted leaves with white paint and made prints on black paper.
1. First I made stamps for the children using foam rubber and sponges based on the furniture in the Tabernacle (accidentally left out the bronze basin filled with water!), symbols for the Trinity, and a person.
(You might be wondering why I included the symbols for the Trinity. I have been heavily influenced by Tim Keller's "Christocentric" method of teaching and I try to help the children see that the Old and New Testaments have a natural relationship to them rather than being separate entities that have nothing to do with one another.)
2. Next I instructed the children to think of a place where there they like to meet with God and paint this as a background of sorts.
3. Then, the children were encouraged to add the stamps, as many or as few as they saw fit, to their pictures.
The children, even the youngest (age 3), took lots of time with their pictures and the results were quite dramatic. (They especially loved the gold paint!)
I didn't set out to become a children's pastor. In fact, for many years, I wasn't sure if I even liked children or wanted to have any of them myself. (Blame that one on a nightmare summer job as a daycare worker at the YMCA in my hometown!) But as in the cases of Georgia O'Keefe and Julia Child, I needed a bit more life experience behind me to find my calling.
After majoring in Russian and Foreign Service in college, I started on the path to becoming a career church-planter. And I always worked mainly with teenagers and college students, in the U.S. and Russia as well as in Germany. Teenagers were great. I could have deep philosophical conversations with them and then throw great parties with them. They kept me young in a positive way.
But children's ministry never appealed to me for two reasons. The main thing is that many of the children's pastors I know are über-extroverted people who ooze fun and love the thought of a roomful of 50 screaming little ones. I always thought you had to be wild and crazy and that just isn't me. I have a strong tendency to be introverted. I love to sit and think and be creative. I much prefer reading a book or yoga to constantly jumping around and being in motion.
The other thing is that children's ministry is usually the last priority in church-planting. Depending on where you are, it is much easier to start with singles. Children are messy. They are loud and require space of their own to move around in. This complicates things for church-planters. In fact, one of the most successful church plants in Berlin to date didn't have a children's ministry for the first 3 years.
That all changed during our second plant in Berlin after the birth of my second child. We joined a team with a large number of children and there was no one to pastor them. One of the men on the team took the job for a while, but he had to quit because he was needed to be the team administrator. After a summer of being frustrated with the kids having only 'childcare' during church services, and realizing that if someone didn't provide a meaningful spiritual experience for them, they were going to be very resentful down the road, my dear friend Sarah took the job. Sarah was single, a former school teacher and a lover of children. I agreed to help her and together we laid a framework for children's ministry. Sarah eventually had to quit, too, because she was needed for another job as well . . .
And then, I stepped up to the plate. One of the things that has always helped me as a church-planter is that I take risks and try new things. (Madonna and I have this in common that we reinvent ourselves in every phase of life.) It's part of how God made me. So I took on the job and discovered that I really enjoy working with young children. I love how their minds are curious and hungry to learn. I love that they use all of the learning styles - visual, auditory and kinesthetic - to soak up and process information about their world. I began to learn from them as well to see God and the world in a fresh way.
Besides on-the-job training, I began to research and learn from various sources about how best to teach and work with children ages 3-8. Being involved in an Eltern Initiativ (Parent-run) Preschool here in Berlin also helped me to learn a great deal. We tried some innovative things during that second church plant, which are topics for later blog entries. And in preparing for our third church plant, I 'stumbled' upon Godly Play . . .