Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Godly Play and Special Needs Children

Let me begin this post by saying that I am not an expert on special needs children. This post is meant only to add to the conversation already going on, and to share my journey with one special little girl. (In this article, I'll refer to her as "Nina", even though that is not her real name.)

Last fall the mother of one of my students (I have a part-time job as an English teacher in an elementary school) shared that she was planning to have both of her daughters baptized. Here in Berlin such children usually attend "Christenlehre" classes beforehand to learn the basics of the Christian faith. She was trying to figure out how to prepare her younger daughter, who was born with Down Syndrome, since the catechist at the church they were attending did not feel she had the resources to teach Nina. 

Even though I had absolutely nil experience with special needs people, I knew that Godly Play was effective with special needs children through the work of Martina Grass and Wolfhard Schweiker, two of my Godly Play colleagues here in Germany. Martina is a special needs teacher near Stuttgart who teaches Godly Play at school, and Wolfhard is a theologian who has assisted her for many years. You can see a bit of their work in the film, "Was ist Godly Play?" (The English translation is coming this summer!)

Martina has this to say about Godly Play and the special needs children she teaches: 

“Any child with special needs can keep track of what is going on simply by watching the movement in the story. It's told in a neutral tone, so that everyone can get something out of it, whatever their own developmental pace.”

And Wolfhard adds: 

"Vanessa goes to the shelf, discovers the picture, The Last Supper, and looks at it intensely. I have no idea what she is thinking, but a process is definitely going on in her head. That's when I think that something here is really working!"

When I began preparing to integrate Nina into our Godly Play group, I immediately went to Martina, Hillary at Featherglen, and Sarah at the Spiritual Child Network for some advice. The child's own mother was also, of course, an invaluable resource. 

Here are some helpful things that I learned:

1. Special needs children need both structure and an understanding of what is about to take place. Godly Play already has a simple, but effective rhythm. It is the same structure each time, but the possibilities within that structure are endless.

Nina's mother helped me put together this chart below to show Nina what we would do in children's church. 

Here Nina can see that we will hear a story, play or do art, pray and then eat a snack. Because she now knows exactly what to expect, she gets excited about coming.

2. You need a co-teacher! I have done Godly Play in many settings with up to 15 children alone. But when you have a special needs child in the group, you really do need a second adult in the room. Melinda, my co-teacher, once toyed with the idea of being a play therapist, and she is just amazing with Nina. 

Melinda and Nina playing with the desert bag.
3. Sign language can be helpful, especially in the beginning. Makaton is a sign language that developed in England specifically for children with Down Syndrome. You can find links to Makaton sites at the Spiritual Child Network. We used this in the beginning with Nina for words specific to the Christian faith. But because she is so high-functioning in the language area, we soon found that we didn't need them. 

4. Give loving, respectful boundaries. Nina's mother and my other advisors told me to be sure and give Nina clear boundaries. I think when someone is inexperienced with special needs children, there can be a tendency to just let them do whatever out of a misguided sense of compassion or out of pure frustration. Melinda and I have learned to simply (and gently, but firmly) take Nina's hand and direct her when she needs a boundary. Or we give her a choice. For example, we always ask the children to sit up (as opposed to lying on the floor) for our small feast each week. One Sunday Nina decided that she didn't want to sit up. We gently, but firmly told her that she could have her snack after she sat up. She lay down for a little while longer, but then decided that she was hungry and sat up.: ) 

5. Let yourself make a few mistakes.: ) It's part of the learning process. Don't wait until you know everything to make special needs children a part of your life. You'll miss out on too many fun things!

If you have a special needs child in your group or are considering integrating special needs children in the future, here are some resources that I can point you towards:

1. The Spiritual Child Network - inspiration and links to helpful sites

2. Featherglen - Hillary in Scotland regularly uses GP with special needs adults in the L'Arche community.

3. Thoughts from the Sheepfold - Leslie, who uses the Montessori-based Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, has special needs children in her classes.

4. Martina Grass - Godly Play Trainer and special needs teacher in Germany. She can be reached at . (Just replace the "q" with an @ sign.)

5. All Play on Sunday - The author of this blog has experience with autistic children

Last Sunday, Nina's mother said that she woke up very excited to go to church. When her Mom asked if she knew where they were going, she responded with a big smile and said, "Sheila, sand, fire!" ("Sand" for the desert bag and "fire" because we light the Christ candle each time.) That made my day. Nina is such a special part of my life, and I am so glad that God allowed our paths to meet.

Linked to Montessori Monday at Living Montessori Now


  1. Wow, Sheila, that is absolutely amazing! I've never thought about this but GP indeed must be a perfect thing for a special needs person! It is so touching to read how this mother trusted you. And you are so brave!

  2. I'm definitely not brave, but I do love a challenge, and I also love getting to know all kinds of people.: )

  3. This is wonderful Sheila, I'm so happy it is working out for Nina, and that she has identified with some key aspects of GP. I hope her gifts will shine out and be a blessing to the other children, as she finds this place of welcome.

  4. Thank you for sharing your experience with a specificity of practice that can be practically useful. I'm forwarding this on to my dear friend who has a child with Down's Syndrome.

    One of the things that is so illuminating to me in Berryman's work is the idea that we All have a relationship with God -- no matter who we are, how old we are or any other anything at all -- we are all divinely created by Him with a divine appointment for each of us and have a relationship with Him from the moment of our forming!!

    Thank you, Sheila!

    1. Thanks for your encouraging feedback, Mama! I also hope that your friend will be encouraged by the gift she has been given in her sweet child with Down's Syndrome. She will have the chance to explore the world through that child's perceptions and explore the value of life in a way that most of us don't usually get to do.

  5. What a great post Sheila! Thanks for sharing your experience. It isn't always easy figuring out how to meet the needs of the children (it seems like everyone has a special need of one sort or the other!) but there is such joy for all when it works. I admire your ministry so much! Many blessings to you and yours in this Easter season.

    1. Thanks, Leslie! Hope I'll get to hear some of your experiences with the special needs kids in your classes sometime as well. I'm sure there is a wealth of wisdom there.: )