Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Progressive Educational Roots of Godly Play: Montessori, Cavalletti, Berryman

One thing that Godly Play Germany excels at is providing continuing education for its teachers. Last week, I attended our annual Germany-wide Networking Day in Hildesheim, Germany where our theme was "The Progressive Educational Roots of Godly Play: Montessori, Cavalleti and Berryman". Here we compared and contrasted Godly Play with the basics of Montessori education and the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, from which Godly Play developed. We asked ourselves how these traditions influenced Godly Play and what inspiration we can gain from both to further our Godly Play practice. Guest speakers included experts from each of the three traditions. 

The 1000-year-old St. Michael's  Church and Monastery in Hildesheim, Germany where our conference took place.
The absolute highlight for me was getting to experience lessons from Catechesis of the Good Shepherd firsthand. Benedikta Wunder and Deborah Presser-Velder, who head the German arm of CoGS (Katechese des Guten Hirtens), came to set up an atrium for us and present lessons. Although I have learned much from my on-line friends, Cheryl, Leslie and Storyteller, about CoGS, I still was unclear on how everything worked logistically in an atrium. (I don't have any pictures for you, because the two ladies asked us respectfully not to post pictures of the CoGS materials on the internet.) 

I was struck by how present the Bible is in the CoGS lessons, and also by the more direct teaching style. In Godly Play, we speak of the Bible, but it is not often presented or seen in the presentations. 

It was also interesting to see the emphasis on biblical geography in CoGS. Cavaletti believed that the person of Jesus should be rooted in geography in history, so that the children learn to distinguish Jesus from other figures in fairy tales or myths. A very smart idea indeed. 

In another highly interesting workshop, we got to experience the three traditions in "trialogue", that is a Montessori Practical Life presentation, the Parable of the Great Pearl from CoGS, and the Parable of the Great Pearl from GP were all presented one after another. (Although the Montessori tradition has "cosmic stories", the text of which has strong similarities with the GP creation story, these are rarely told in Germany.) We were then able to immediately see similarities and differences. 

All three traditions have these concepts in common (not an exhaustive list): respect for the child, periods of deep concentration, meaningful work, mentoring / accompanying the child, helping the child to help him/herself, presentations, freedom of movement and choice. 

Montessori did not have time to specifically develop a concept for religious education, so this was left to her followers, of whom Sophia Cavalletti and Jerome Berryman are the third and fourth generation. 

CoGS and Godly Play also have much in common. The curriculum is very similar, and the parable materials are both 2-D, although the CoGS figures are upright rather than laying down as in GP. Both are tactile and use creativity as a means of expressing spiritual thoughts.

Where the two differ (again, not an exhaustive list):
- Whereas CoGS is faithful to the idea of meaningful work for the children (Montessori argued that the children's work was their play) , GP takes that one step further and emphasizes imaginative play as a means to discovering God
- The Bible is much more present in CoGS lesson. Children are quoted scripture and the physical Bible is seen in the lessons.
- Biblical geography is taught directly in CoGS, whereas it is indirect in GP.
- Children have more choices to express creativity in a GP room with a wider range of artistic supplies. 
- CoGS lessons are often presented to smaller groups of children, whereas the entire group hears a presentation in GP. 
- GP lessons are based on scripts, whereas CoGS Catechists write their own albums. (I was told that these are looked over by a trainer, though, to make sure they are theologically correct.)
- CoGS requires 2 weeks of intensive daily training for each atrium level. The GP Core Training courses last 3-4 days, depending on the country in which the training takes place. 
- Singing is incorporated into the CoGS lessons, whereas music is much-debated theme in GP.

At the end of the conference, I had an even deeper respect for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and was challenged to take some of its principles with me in order to enrich my GP practice. And I was convinced more than ever that Montessori principles are for every child. 

What an amazing thing that these three groups could come together at a conference without any sense of competition and learn from one another! I will be pondering the things I observed and experienced here for some time to come.

For more history on how GP developed, see Jerome Berryman's book, The Spiritual Guidance of Children: Montessori, Godly Play and the Future.


  1. How lucky you are to be constantly immersing yourself in this process. In Australia we mostly only have core training and where I am there are only a few others using godly play. And we are very new , it is hard to keep on track and trust the process. The temptation is always there to teach a little more, plan a better activity or lose the focus on the process. I am struggling with my patience to go through a cycle of stories , but our first term is nearly over. We are working through the faces of easter, and I can't wait to move on, patience.

    1. Hi Nicky, I would encourage you to keep regular contact with the few others doing Godly Play and get together to discuss things (for example Jerome's new book or another book on childen's spirituality). That is what we do in Germany and what is happening in Belarus. And I understand how hard it is to be patient! But the longer you practice Godly Play, the more you realize that there is so much more to learn. I came away from this weekend with an awareness that I really need to observe the children more before I interact with them.

  2. What an interesting conference, and how much I would love to attend one like it! Especially contrasting and comparing some of the similar presentations (like the Parable of the Great Pearl.) How enriching that would be for the catechist!

    I took my Level I CGS (CoGS) training with a woman who had also taken Godly Play training with Berryman. How interesting it was to learn about this wonderful program!

    It is true about the use of the Bible in CoGS. In fact, in the upper levels, where the children are more capable readers, we read many passages right from the Bible and discuss them. I've seen how this method makes the words come alive for the children. It's so wonderful when you see the light of joy come into their eyes when they really understand a bit of the depth of the Bible.

    One of the things that drew me to CoGS was the emphasis on geography. I've always loved geography so working with the geographical materials made the Bible seem more real to me, too. Whenever possible I would show the children present-day photos of some of the places we learn about in the Bible. They loved seeing a photo of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias), the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, etc. Kids today are very visual, and it helped them realize that Jesus lived in a real place that still exists. I think that sometimes it was hard for them to visualize the places mentioned in the Bible.

    I'm going to print out this post, Sheila, for future reference. I know I would like to learn more about Godly Play someday, perhaps after I've finished my final level of CoGS training.


  3. I thought of you and Leslie while I was there. Thanks for taking the time to share all of this! And please blog about your further CoGS training.

  4. Sheila,
    Many thanks for sharing your comments to the GP community. I am a Godly Play practitioner and I have also trained at Level I and Level II of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I love both traditions and use them both in various contexts. For me that is the primary difference between the two - they are different and serve different functions depending on the "audience". It's great to hear your opinion because there is very little dialogue in written form between the two. GP is far more accessible which is a great asset in comparison to CGS. However I hope that this accessibility won't compromise its integrity at any time.
    Guten Tag to all of the German PLers who I met in Burg Bodenstein and who were such wonderful hosts at the last European GP Conference.
    Cora O'Farrell Dublin, Ireland

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Cora! I remember meeting you at Burg Bodenstein as well.: ) However, I didn't know that you trained in CGS. What a rich experience to have done both trainings. Blessings on your Godly Play practice and the children you serve!