Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Pioneering Godly Play in Russia

Experimenting with Godly Play in Moscow.

My friend, Asmic, whom I have written about in this post, is pioneering Godly Play in a Russian language context. She is incorporating Godly Play into ministry with her own children, their friends and children at her church. In bringing Godly Play to a new context or culture, there are all kinds of things to consider. Will the symbols and original language of the story communicate what we are wanting to communicate? What do we do if they don’t? How should the materials look and how do we get them?

This year, Asmic invited several children from their local elementary school and their parents to a Godly Play Advent afternoon. She decided to tell the Godly Play Advent stories in one session. (GP Storytellers have the option of telling them in four parts or all at one time.) In considering how to best translate the story into her culture, she wrote, “It's not traditional in Russian culture to light Advent candles or have a wreath. Even to me it's something I have to get used to and just learnt about. I have an idea of incorporating art masterpieces into the GP story. I've seen pictures on plywood cards in some GP materials. So I had an idea of printing up some artwork depicting Isaiah, Mary and Joseph, the Magi, and glueing them on the cards instead of those with candles.”

In Russian culture whose religious language and symbolism has been impacted for centuries by Orthodoxy, wreaths, for example, are not at all associated with Advent. Rather they are usually only seen at funerals. I found this very astute and wise of Asmic to consider what works best in her context rather than to merely import something from the West.

Many people find GP daunting at first, because of the materials. There is not, of course, a GP supplier in Russia and importing the materials from Europe is not a cost-effective solution. So, Asmic dealt with the situation by making her own Advent cards for the story. Then, she asked a friend to cut wooden figures for her, and used her children’s wooden blocks for the model of Bethlehem.

She writes, “I was very pleased with how the materials came out. I changed the cards, since doing the silhouettes would be simply repeating the wooden figures. So, I found online some masterpieces depicting the characters, had them printed on a matte paper in a nearby shop, and then glued them on 20x20cm cardboards. I loved Giotto di Bondone’s images which you used in The Mystery of Christmas! I used one of them, too. Since most of the art depicts the shepherds and wise men already adoring Christ, I didn’t want to bring it on the scene too early. So I had pictures of Mary and Joseph, the magi and shepherds on the way to Bethlehem, and on the other side put the adoration ones. I reversed them with the words ‘today ALL of us are in Bethlehem to meet the Christ child’.”

Asmic's alternative to the traditional Godly Play Advent cards.

“On the Tuesday before Christmas, we had the party for my son’s classmates. We had 6 first graders come and one brought his 4-year-old sister. Their moms got to stay too. The original plan was the story, the creative phase, and then tea & cakes. For the creative phase, I was going to have the kids draw their favourite character of the story and then make a nativity scene with all of them. I also wanted to challenge them to think of others in the season of waiting for presents from Ded Moroz (“Grandfather Frost”). So another option was to make a card for someone who they think needs some extra love now, including their teacher whose mother is badly ill.”

Well, as anyone who works with children knows, the best-laid of our plans have a way of changing depending on the mood of the children at that particular time.: ) Asmic writes further, “But telling the story turned into a real challenge. While waiting for everyone to come the kids played some crazy games that involved swords and shields, so it took a while to cool them off and sit down. I started off with a question about what they think Christmas is about. Most answers were that it’s a time for playing in the snow, sledding, skating and having fun, for the tree and presents, etc. One girl said it was the birth of Jesus Christ and was 'corrected' by the other - 'No, it’s Easter when Christ was born.' I showed them how to sit with their legs crossed, but still they stretched them and moved the materials. I explained we will have a special time to talk and ask questions later, but they kept asking me and wanting to tell me something. When I began lighting the candles, they wanted to turn off the light – and they did twice without asking me!”

The Advent figures cut by a friend and the children's blocks
that Asmic used to make a model of Bethlehem.

“The wondering phase turned into a wandering phase. I tried to ask some questions, but lost their attention. They were fascinated by the snuffer and I let each one of them snuff the candles for several times. It turned out to be the most exciting thing. Not wanting to force them to do anything more, I let them get back to play.”

Exactly the right thing to do! If the kids aren’t able to pay attention any longer, it’s useless to force them. The space, the type of storytelling, and the Christmas story itself were new to these children and no one can expect them to get it the first time. I’ve also learned that when we think children aren’t paying the least bit of attention, they still soak in all kinds of important things.

“The party itself was a good thing. The kids had a blast and the moms got some kind of a team-building experience. I LOVE these ladies and feel so blessed to be given such a gift of friendship!” Asmic concludes.

Implementing Godly Play and working with children are an amazing adventure! The thing I love the most about Asmic’s journey is that she is stepping out and doing it. She is not waiting for the perfect moment or all the right materials. And that is something that I want to encourage everyone with a vision for GP to do. We learn the most by simply doing. And God takes our baby steps and brings something beautiful from them.

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