Sunday, November 27, 2011

Russia "Snapshot" #3: 'Wondering' with Russian Children

I had no idea what it would be like to "wonder" with Russian children. Would they find the Godly Play stories and materials interesting? How would they respond to open-ended questions about God?  Would they be able to get past my American accent and become absorbed in the story?  These were some of the many questions that I took with me on our trip to Siberia.

After an old friend, Vera, asked me to do a children's ministry workshop at her church in Irkutsk, I wrote on Godly Play's Facebook page asking if anyone had translations of the stories in Russian and if there was any Godly Play work being done at all in that country. I came into contact with Helen, who was living in Belarus at the time and introducing GP to a church there. She provided me with translations in Russia and asked me to take part in a field project to test GP in Russia.  Of course, I immediately said yes!

As I corresponded with the children's workers at Lyubov Christova Church (Christ's Love Church) in Irkutsk, they asked me to lead their children's service. I ended up telling "The Parable of the Good Shepherd" to 17 children ranging from 3 to 14 years of age. (Good thing I like challenges!) You will notice in the picture below that I am sitting on a pillow on the floor while everyone else is sitting in chairs.  This is because it is not culturally acceptable to sit on the floor in Siberia and also because the floor can be quite cold. In talking with Zhenia, the children's pastor, beforehand, we decided that I would sit on the floor anyway, so that the materials could be seen by everyone.

In an earlier post, I was considering the wisdom of sticking to the GP principle of not making eye contact with the children during the story, since I was not someone they were familiar with. I ultimately decided to stick to the principle and play a game at the beginning to break the ice with the children. This seemed to work well.

The primary school aged-children had great fun during the wondering at the beginning of the parable guessing what the different underlays could be.  The children were attentive for the most part during the story, although some of the smallest children wanted to pick up the materials right away. (Who can blame them for wanting to play?) As we wondered together at the end, the 12-14 years olds dominated the conversation telling about when they had been lost or found and how they had heard the Good Shepherd's voice. I was a bit surprised at how "into" the conversation they became. The smallest children were a little intimidated by the older ones, but responded with delight to the question about naming the sheep with a little encouragement from the adults in the room.

What part of the story did they seem to like best?  A furor broke out when one sheep got lost in the dangerous places, but you could hear a pin drop when the Good Shepherd found him and carried him home.

"Wondering" together at the end of the story. 

The smaller children were eager to touch everything towards the end of the Wondering Phase.

Unfortunately, there was not enough time to have a creative phase at the end, so we opted for a prayer time instead. We divided the children into two groups according to age. I was with the smaller children and we passed around a rock to give everyone a chance to pray individually,  and then said The Lord's Prayer together using hand motions.

Prayer time with the little ones.

The following evening, I had the privilege of leading a workshop with 15 of Lyubov Christova's children's workers.  I chose "Sensorimotor Worship for Children" as the subject matter for the workshop drawing on the work of Jerome Berryman, Dr. Sonja Stewart, Ulrike Labuhn, David Csinos and Rebecca Nye. (I decided against doing a workshop solely on Godly Play, because only about six of the stories have been translated so far.) My goal was to give some theory on children's spirituality, sensorimotor development and the Montessori Method, as well as practical points on to how to make church a "sensorimotor" experience for children.  After a short lecture with a Q&A time, I divided them into two groups, gave each group a story from the New Testament, and asked them to brainstorm how to use the five senses in presenting the lesson to the children. Their ideas were creative and I think the process gave them a new perspective on how and what to plan for the children in the future.

Afterwards, I presented "The Great Family" to the whole group.  Wondering with this group was as delightful as it had been with the kids the evening before. Favorite parts of the story included: the hand gesture where Abraham draws near to God and God draws near to Abraham; and Abraham's revelation that God is not just in one place, but all of God is everywhere. I was pleased that these adults took a long time to discuss and verbalize what parts were their favorite, most important and what parts told something about them. When I asked the question about what we could leave out, I was met with silence and curious looks. I then explained the pedagogical principle behind this question to make sure that they understood that I was not asking them to devalue a part of Scripture. They seemed to track with this, but still could not think of anything. All in all, I could tell that "wondering" together had been a positive experience and had allowed them to contemplate this story with God in a fresh way.

It had been such a fun evening! We laughed a lot together and I was struck by the joy and genuine friendship that these men and women have for one another. However they decide to develop their children's ministry, this mutual love and respect for one another go a long way in providing a nurturing atmosphere for these children to experience God. 

This is me with Zhenia, the children's pastor at Lyubov Christova.
Meeting this remarkable woman full of life and joy
was one of the highlights of my trip!

How well does Godly play translate into Russian culture?  I think small changes have to be made in different church cultures as well as geo-political cultures. But I am convinced that the general principles will work almost anywhere.  It will take much more time to figure out how GP needs to be tweaked for Russian culture, but I am looking for to seeing the process.: )


  1. What a wonderful experience, Sheila! How exciting to present the Good Shepherd material to Russian children. Your experience proves that the story trans-sends all cultures and languages. I've been amazed at how many CGS atria there are around the world, in all different languages and environments and yet the message touches each and every child in a deep way. What a wonderful gift Our Lord has given us by allowing us to present GP and CGS to the world's children. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    Cheryl Basile

  2. Oh thank you for sharing these experiences with us! Some of your observations are familiar to me even though I'm in a different culture - especially the youngest children wanting to touch and move the materials already during the storytelling (interesting that that happened even when they were up on chairs at a distance) and also the "furor" over the lost sheep.

    I'm intrigued by the problem about sitting on the floor. What happens with small babies? Do they crawl only in playpens, or are extra rugs put down for them? I am reminded of my own situation where we work directly on the floor, and once during the Faces of Jesus a boy wanted to bring a Bible to the story but was nervous about placing it right on the floor.

    I wish I could meet you for coffee and hear more about your trip and talk together! But I'll close here by saying how much I like the first wondering photo - your expression is delightful to me, pondering what has just been said. And it's great to see how focused the children are - most of them on the story and one little girl on you. :)

  3. Cheryl, I totally agree that God has given us a great gift through Montessori-based ways of learning about Him and to be with Him. It is so enriching for me to read about your experiences and and the experiences of others through our blogs!

  4. Storyteller, I genuinely hope that we can have coffee together someday! Maybe you can come to the GP international conference in Germany next year? . . . As for the babies, I have never ever seen a small child crawling on the floor in a public place before, even in a church. It was always a taboo thing for hygienic reasons. The parents always held them or they were so swaddled that they couldn't move. I'll ask my friend Yulia at a what is done these days.

  5. Godly Play in Sibirien ... toll! Ich glaube man muss eine Sprache gut beherrschen, um die Geschichten gut zu erzählen. Deswegen war das auch so eine große Arbeit, die amerikanischen Vorlagen ins deutsche zu übersetzen.