Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What is Godly Play?

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).

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