Thursday, October 18, 2012

Children and Existential Limits

Jerome Berryman, the creator of Godly Play, writes about four existential limits that both children and adults are confronted with: death, the threat of freedom, the need for meaning and fundamental aloneness. We as human beings are confronted with these things at an early age, and how we learn to cope with them shapes both our character, worldview and ability to make wise decisions. When spiritually mentoring children, we allow children to be confronted with these limits through the Biblical narrative and invite God to be a part of the dialogue. How he initiates and engages with the children (and we teachers as co-learners!) is an exciting process. 

Many adults are afraid to talk with children about death. However, children are confronted with the concept of death often, be it from the falling leaves in autumn to the passing away of a beloved pet. And if they don't have the opportunity to work out for themselves how to respond to this limit set to our humanity, then the child is completely unprepared when something much more heart-breaking occurs, like the death of a grandparent.

Often we adults also fail to consider that children struggle as well with aloneness (despite being part of a community) and finding meaning and purpose in our lives. We think that only adolescents grapple with these issues. Children most definitely deal with them, but express much of their thoughts non-verbally. This is due to their language development, which has yet to reach a level that allows them to share more of their thoughts with words.

Young children share their thoughts more easily
in non-verbal ways.
This is where the "play" in Godly Play comes in. Children learn best while playing. (If you ever tried to teach a child math or a foreign language, you know they respond a lot better to a game than to a worksheet!) When children play "house" or Star Wars, they work out possibilities. They do the same when playing with God.

This type of play can make the adults in the room nervous, because they project their own life experience onto the child's play. Sometimes it can sound sacrilegious to the adults, even when it is not. Recently, we told the baptism story to our Sunday Godly Play group. This story involves baptizing a doll in order to show the children what actually happens during a baptism. During the response time afterwards, a little boy took out the materials and began "baptizing" the doll. He then immersed the doll in the water and pretended that it was swimming. Then, he began to pretend that  the doll was drowning.

Materials for the Godly Play story, "Holy Baptism".
I think at that point, many children's workers would have rushed to intervene, thinking that either the boy was being too wild in his play or poking fun at a sacred rite. (Fortunately, my co-teacher is not phased by things like that, although she does get a little nervous when they light the candles!)  I knew that this child had been talking about baptism  for a while and was even thinking about being baptized in one of Berlin's lakes in the summer. Most likely he was working out what it would be like to be baptized by full-immersion. Could you drown while being baptized in a lake? Would it be okay to go swimming afterwards? Important things for a child to consider. I looked over as he was happily playing and said, "I'd sure like to swim in God's love", something that I have meditated on this week (a week that has been difficult and most certainly has not gone according to my plan!)

Learning to recognize when the children and God are working these matters out in a playful manner takes time and patience. It requires one to listen more than talk or instruct. But it is essential for both the children and us.

Linked to Montessori Monday at Living Montessori Now


  1. Sheila,
    It's midnight and I should have been in bed Long ago, so I'll just take a minute.

    I popped over here Just to get a good link to your blog for my blogpost that is coming out tomorrow on our own entry into Godly Play. And I am so swept away by what you've said in this post. Even though I don't have any energy left to write more, I know that sometimes it's just nice to hear that someone connected with what you've put out in the world. And I have done so much more than connect with it. I will be back tomorrow to re-read this.

    Good night.


    1. Thanks, Mama, for taking the time to write this! Yes, it is really encouraging to know that someone is reading and connecting with what has been on my mind and heart.

  2. What wonderful and important thoughts, Sheila! I'm so glad you linked up with Montessori Monday! I featured your post at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page and pinned it to my Helping Kids Cope Pinterest Board at

    1. Thank you, Deb! And thanks for sharing your Pinterest Board. I will be taking a closer look at that.