Monday, November 29, 2010

Godly Play Outside of the Church: Part 2

Surprisingly, Godly Play is not just for children.  Its creator, Jerome Berryman, writes that it is for children ages 2 to 99.  And while Godly Play may not be for everyone, I can confirm that it works with adults in a variety of settings.  After reading a chapter in Berryman’s book about his pioneering work with Godly Play in hospitals and with anorexia patients, I had a slightly crazy idea. 

In 2007, I began volunteering with a non-profit organization that serves women involved in drugs and prostitution.  We run a café on the Kurfürstenstrasse, one of Berlin’s most notorious red light districts, that serves as a gathering point and counseling center for the women.  (We also work closely with other organizations in the area.)  I have a background in voluntary social work that dates back to when I worked with homeless people in college.  Through the years, I have always worked with organizations that help people in a holistic way, offering practical as well as spiritual help and support.  Many people in dire situations are searching for God in their lives, but don’t know where to start to find Him.  In the Christian tradition, one of the classic ways to give spiritual support is to offer a Bible study.  Unfortunately, handing drug addicts or street people with very little education a large Bible is intimidating for them.  The word  “Bible” alone can make them run away as fast as they can, even if they are searching.  For this reason, I had the thought that Godly Play might be an answer to the question of how to offer spiritual support.  Because it is an oral story-telling method that allows one to draw one’s own conclusions, it is not as scary as a thick book.

I started experimenting in our café in May of 2010 by telling the stories in the Parables of Jesus genre.  Since then, I have had all manner of women and even a few men listen to the stories:  educated, uneducated, Germans, foreigners, transvestites, etc.  Most of the women have been drawn into the stories.  One woman from Slovakia told me, “When you first pulled out your figures, I thought this was for small children.  Then, I realized that it was not and that I really had to think.”  Occasionally, a woman doesn’t like the method at all and that is okay, too.  After all, the Gospel is a gift and not something to be forced on anyone. 

How it all develops and the long-term fruit remains to be seen. But one thing I am certain of: Godly Play allows me to step back in a sense and let the Holy Spirit speak through the story. My prayer is that our women will find themselves in the Biblical narrative long before they are able to read the Bible by themselves.  May God’s love and enlightenment produce profound change in their lives. 

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility on him and let him know that you trust him." 
- Booker T. Washington

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Parable of the Mustard Seed

This week at our Familienbrunch (Family Brunch) I shared the Parable of the Mustard Seed with the children.  Jesus told this story when asked to describe his Father’s kingdom and likens it to the smallest of all seeds that grows into a large bush-like tree.  One of the things that Godly play does well is allowing the listener to enter into the mystery of God without too much being explained away.  And GP’s treatment of the parables is excellent. Even though I have heard this parable all of my life, I discover some new aspect each time I tell it that I hadn’t thought of before.

Below is a picture of the materials that I used.  Traditional GP materials are always made of wood, but it can be quite expensive when you are first starting out to purchase all the materials.  And while I tend to be a jack-of-all-trades, carpentry is not one of the things I have experience with!  As a result, I use natural materials as often as possible, but I am not above using Playmobil figures when appropriate to the story.

The questions in the Ergründungsgespräch (The Wondering Phase) at the end are great:  What did the sower do while waiting for the mustard seed to grow?  Could one take the tree and put it back into the ground?  Was the sower happy when the birds came?  What could the tree be? What or who could the trees be?  The kids were a bit restless during this part today, so it was challenging to keep them on track. : )  However, one of the older three-year-olds was fully engaged and had some interesting answers. 

For the Creative Phase, we painted flowerpots and planted cress, an edible and fast-growing plant found in Germany.  I like to do activities in children’s church that help them explore God’s creation. Many children in the western world and in big cities are somewhat disconnected from nature, and I believe that experiencing nature is vital to children being able to explore the character of God and understand the Bible.  It is also amazing how much joy children find in getting their hands dirty with planting seeds and then being able to eat the fruits of their labor.   The inspiration for this project came from Nataša, a Montessori teacher in Croatia, whose blog, Leptir, I follow. 

One of the Montessori elements that I also value and try to implement in our children’s worship services is the idea of giving the children different options instead of having them all do the same thing at the same time.  While there is always some sort of artistic way of exploring the story, the children may also choose to play with the materials in the story. 

This week I offered another option which was a hit.  (It, too, was inspired by Nataša in Croatia!)  One classic Montessori exercise to develop fine motor skills and the ability to classify and categorize is to have the children transfer objects with a tweezer from one place to another.  Here to go along with the theme of planting, I placed dried beans in a bowl of sand and had the children fish them out with tweezers and transfer them to another bowl.  

Update 2012: Please click here to see a later post on the Parable of the Mustard Seed and here to find out about the new materials.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Quote of the Day

"The child is truly a miraculous being and this should be felt deeply by the educator."
- Maria Montessori

Monday, November 15, 2010

Godly Play Outside of the Church: Part 1

When I first read Jerome Berryman’s introduction to Godly Play  (Godly Play: Einführung in die Theorie und Praxis), I was particularly intrigued by a chapter in which he described using Godly Play outside of the walls of the church. Among the places that Berryman experimented was in hospitals with children, teenagers and patients with eating disorders.  Because our church plant was at that time (and still is) in the beginning stages, being a children’s pastor was/is not a full-time job for me.  So I began to think about how I could also use Godly Play in public places.

Two opportunities immediately presented themselves and I will describe the first one in this post.  My son attends a public school in our neighborhood that is heavily dependent on parental involvement, because it has only been been open for three years.  We parents help with all sorts of things from organizational duties to offering after-school activities. In Berlin, religion is an elective offered in school from the first grade on.  I developed a friendship with our religion teacher and we began to think about what we could offer children who were not able to attend religion class on a regular basis, but nevertheless were curious about the Christian faith.   Since Easter was coming up, the religion teacher suggested that I offer an after-school activity called “Why we Celebrate Easter” in the 4 weeks leading up to Easter.  Our principal gave us permission and I started to work.

It was a challenging, but wonderful experience.  Eighteen children signed up.  Because they were unfamiliar with the quiet, meditative nature of Godly Play, it was challenging to get them all to listen the first week.  Also, the school was too short on child-care workers to loan me a staff member to help.  One should probably never try to do Godly Play with 18 children alone, but sometime you gotta do, what you gotta do . . . Slowly, they grew accustomed to it and most of the children found that they needed this quiet time in their week.  (There was much sadness when the club came to an end and the children would ask me for weeks later when Easter club was going to start again!)

For our creative phase, we built an Easter Garden together.  The children and I developed ideas together of sculptures we could add each week as a response to the stories.  The garden was displayed in the school cafeteria and I learned from the teachers that many children would gather around it each day looking to see what we had added. 

Here are a couple of photos of me telling the stories to the children:

After the story, we worked on our sculptures for the garden:

It was fascinating to observe the children's ideas. These two girls ended up painting the crosses a bright yellow, something that I would not have thought of and which made the piece beautiful.

And the garden:

The angels proclaiming Jesus's resurrection are adorable!

This was created after the story of the Jesus as the Good Shepherd. I love how the sheep have such big smiles!

I am about to begin an Advent Club in two weeks, so I will keep you posted on how it goes and what we do this time!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Quote of the day

Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.
- Albert Einstein

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thoughts from a Friend

Anyone who knows me well knows that nothing gets me more excited than creativity and good ideas.  A couple of days ago, I received a letter from my friend, Asmic, who lives in Moscow.  She is implementing some innovative ideas in her children’s spiritual formation.  I’m printing an excerpt from her letter, because it inspired me and I hope it will you as well:

“I have so many projects on my mind! One of my ideas is to teach the Bible right from the beginning along with the other ‘sciences’. Like, when we read about the creation of the universe, I showed pictures of galaxies, named the planets of our solar system (and Pasha learned them), etc. When we got to Adam and Eve, I read him Psalm 139 and showed pictures about how our bodies are made.  . .  . Or Joseph and then the Israelites in the Egyptian period can be told on the background of Egyptian culture, art and architecture (in our art history books they always start with cavemen's art and follow by Egypt).

With Alyosha, who is 6, the creative phase follows immediately and inevitably. He starts drawing what he has just learned as if he cannot contain it or needs to process. Now that Kolya (he will be 3 in Jan.) has joined us in most of activities, I need some other ways to teach the Bible. Godly Play seems to be just what I need!
They love to worship! I play my guitar and they choose out of their musical instruments (mostly various percussion instruments) and join me with singing, playing and some crazy dancing. After few songs Alyosha begins to build huge crosses with his building blocks, and Kolya follows his example.”

Asmic is providing her boys with sensorimotor experiences that they need in order to explore and make sense of the abstract concept of an invisible, but personal God.  Because Asmic is incorporating science and history into her children’s religious education, their faith is being mentored in a holistic way rather than religion being something completely unrelated to other spheres of life and learning. 

Way to invest in your children, Asmic! And thanks for letting me share your thoughts!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Stumbling upon Godly Play

I “stumbled” upon Godly Play in the summer of 2009 while visiting the States for three months.  We were about to embark on our third church plant in Berlin and I was looking for some ideas of how to incorporate art into the children’s worship experience.  I also knew that, as with any new church plant, there would be children of various age levels and only one children’s worker (me!) at least at first.

While talking to my friend, Kate, who is an art teacher in Texas, she mentioned that she knew of one church in the Dallas area that had a serious concept of art in its children’s program.  I googled this church and did not find much specifically about art and children’s worship, but the website did mention that the children’s program was something called Godly Play.  I immediately began to research Godly Play and found that it was Montessori-based, incorporated art, and would work with groups of children made up of different age groups.  And if those weren’t enough reasons to be sold on it, I then found books in German about Godly Play and ordered them without thinking twice.

When I got back to Berlin in the fall, I and another mother began to experiment with telling the stories.  I knew that we were on to something, but having never actually seen an experienced person tell the stories, we weren’t really sure what we were doing. Also, we found some of the questions during the Ergründingsgespräch (The Wondering Phase) to be a bit silly, because we didn’t understand the pedagogical philosophy behind it.  Then, my dear friend Sarah, who I’ve mentioned in previous posts, suggested that I search for someone in Berlin who was doing Godly Play and talk to them about my questions.  (Why didn’t I think of that?!!) 

So I found the Godly Play Germany website and found they were having a “Kennenlernen Tag” in a month in Berlin!  There, I met my friend and Godly Play Trainer, Ulrike.  As soon as I heard and saw her tell the first story, I was hooked.  This was truly an art form and a worship experience.  The materials were beautiful; the language was simple, yet poetic; and I realized the questions helped adults and not just children think in a new way.

A few months later, I enrolled for a week-long course near Kölln (Cologne).  About 500 Euros and 35 hours later, I became an official Godly Play Erzählerin (Storyteller).  And it was worth every penny and second. 

As with most important things in my life, I “stumbled” onto it at just the right time because of my heavenly Father’s gently leading. Not only has Godly Play enabled me to help children explore God in a way that I couldn’t have helped them before, it has also deepened my own relationship with God by helping me to ask questions and express things that I would never have asked before.

The woman on the left in the picture below is Ulrike and I learned most of what I know about Godly Play from her.

During our week-long course, each student had to prepare and present a story with an evaluation from the group afterwards.  This is me telling the parable of the Pearl of Great Price.

This is the remarkable group of people that I studied with.  We were comprised of seven Catholics, two from the Landeskirche (what we would call the state Protestant Church in English) and me from the Freikirche (non-state Protestant church). Quite an ecumenical group!

Joshua and the Promised Land

At our Familienbrunch (Family Brunches), we've been following the story of the Israelites from Abraham on.  I always start by bringing out the Wüstensack (Desert Sack) that you see in the middle here. 

This week I told the children the story of Joshua and the Israelites entering the Promised Land.  The story came from Young Children and Worship, a book that Godly Play founder Jerome Berryman co-authored with Dr. Sonja Stewart.

After the story, we sang some songs together and the children had an opportunity to pray together.  Then we began the "creative phase" in which the children are able to express their thoughts or emotions about what they have heard and experienced or spend time with God.  The children can either spend their time playing with the desert sack and figures from the story or they can choose to work with the art materials.

Today was a typical day in which I laid out materials in trays for the children to choose from rather than having a project that was instructional. The children could choose from oil pastels, collage material, chalk pastels and beeswax crayons. And some of the children used all of the mediums.  

Sometimes the children draw pictures directly related to what they have just heard.  Many times they draw something that they have heard several weeks before.  And other times, they draw things that they have experienced in everyday life, which is also very important.  This boy is drawing a pumpkin because he was at a pumpkin carving at our house the day before.  

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Appreciating Children's Art

Children’s art becomes fascinating if you know what you are looking at.  Children see the world from a fresher, altogether different perspective than adults and come up with ideas that would never cross the adult mind.  Picasso once said that every child is an artist and that the problem was how to remain one when we grow up. However, to the uninformed eye, children’s art can easily be written off as nothing special.

Having some knowledge of the basic stages of drawing development really helps in appreciating the art that children make.  Here is a link to a site with a chart put together by Betty Edwards and Victor Lowenfeld that describes the various stages in children's drawings:

If you have a little more time, “Young in Art” by Craig Roland is an excellent read.  It goes into more detail and is available for download at:

One of my favorite techniques that children start to use at around 5 or 6 years of age is the “X-ray method” (described in “Young in Art”) where the imaginary walls of a three-dimensional object are removed by the child to see directly into a house, the ground, etc.  Here is an example that my son did last Easter when he was six.  We had been to a Catholic church, Herz Jesu,  near our home a couple of days before and showed him the Stations of the Cross.  A few days later, he drew this cut-away with chalk pastels of Jesus in the tomb. When I asked about the colors, he told me that the yellow was God’s power raising Jesus from the dead. And he drew the skull and crossbones below Jesus because he had seen them underneath the cross in the woodcarvings at the church.

That leads me to another thought: children are usually happy to talk about their art, but can be put off or intimidated by the question, “What is that?”  This question can put unhealthy pressure on the child that their work has to be recognizable when that may be beyond their physical capabilities.  In Experience and Art: Teaching Children to Paint, Nancy R. Smith writes that making observations about the child’s work and asking broader questions is helpful.  Smith suggests starting with the question, “Do you want to tell me about your picture?” So for example, one could say to a child, “You’ve made some wiggly lines there. Did you choose a light or dark color for them?” or “What is the biggest shape you drew?”  I have personally found that children I work with open up and talk more about their work when asked these sorts of questions.  These types of questions also aid children in learning the vocabulary necessary to describe their work.  (And as I mentioned in a previous post, one of our greatest responsibilities as parents, teachers and pastors is to help children develop the language skills necessary to flourish in this world.)

So I hope that I've inspired you dive into the world of children's art or look at their art with new eyes!  It is truly amazing to get a glimpse of how little ones see the world.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Spirituality in Young Children: The Role of Language Development

Recently, three-year-old Natalie, the daughter of a friend, suddenly came bounding into the kitchen in the middle of the day where her mother was preparing something and jubilantly exclaimed, “Mommy, Jesus loves me!”  My friend was very pleased to hear her daughter saying this and lovingly confirmed her daughter’s insight.  At the same time, she was a bit puzzled as to what had prompted Natalie's statement.  It had seemingly come "out of the blue", but was it?

Children come into this world as spiritual beings, but also as non-verbal beings.  Understanding this is essential to cultivating spirituality in young children. In the Gospel of Luke, we find the curious story of the yet unborn John the Baptist responding physically to Mary's voice.  Research, of course,  shows that babies in the womb are aware of their environment and begin to learn by responding to external stimuli such as music and familiar voices. In the book Baby Minds, child development experts Acredolo and Goodwyn also share research proving that children are inborn with certain abilities such as rudimentary mathematical and problem-solving skills. However, while already possessing some amazing cognitive skills, babies lack an essential developmental skill that they must learn in order to make it in this world: language. 

This process of learning to apply words to our thoughts opens what Jerome Berryman in the German translation of his introduction to Godly Play (Godly Play: Einführung in der Theorie und Praxis)  as “the great gateway of language”.   The ability to name things, be it people, emotions, situations or problems, opens the gateway to becoming whole, mature adults. As parents, teachers, and pastors, we have to see children on the continuum of non-verbal to verbal and help them develop language skills to describe their spiritual experiences.   That means that we recognize and take seriously the non-verbal ways that children already express spiritual thoughts and help them put words to those experiences.

What is the non-verbal communication that children use? They communicate through their bodies, emotions, pictures and play, among other things. They are sensorimotor beings. Dr. Sonja M. Stewart, in her book Young Children and Worship, says, “Children do love and worship God, but they need to be introduced to  . . .  worship in a sensorimotor way. They need to know how to find the quiet place within, which enable them to get ready to worship ‘all by themselves’ . . . “.  When we pay close attention to what children are communicating non-verbally, we can better assist as they explore God on their spiritual journey. We can help them find the language to express what they are experiencing with Him and how to express that to Him in worship. 

Back to little Natalie.  I am sure that the simple sentence she excitedly proclaimed to her mother did not come out of nowhere, but was rather the result of several experiences in the past few days and pictures in her thoughts.  As a three-year-old she expressed in a perfectly age-appropriate way what she had been thinking about.  While it may sound simple to adult ears, it shows that Natalie is learning to enter into the mystery of friendship with the Creator of the Universe “all by herself” without prompting from anyone else.  And as her pastor, I couldn’t ask for anything better.