What is Godly Play?
Godly Play is a term coined by Jerome Berryman to describe an approach to children’s spiritual formation that is based on creating a sacred space in which to present the stories of faith, wonder about them together, and then allow the children open-ended opportunities, usually with art supplies, to engage the story on their own terms.
This is play. It is Godly.
Godly Play is unique. It is what Jerome Berryman calls his interpretation of Montessori religious education. It does not tell children “how to do it” or exactly what they should believe. Instead, it gives them a way to discover how to come close to the mystery of God’s presence in their lives.
The goal of Godly Play is to teach children the art of using the language of the Christian tradition to encounter God.
In Godly Play, the invitation is given not for play in general but for play with the language of God and God’s people; sacred stories, parables, liturgical actions and silences. Through this powerful language, through our wondering, through the community of players gathered together, we hear the deepest invitation of all: an invitation to come and play with God. By engaging children through play in sacred stories they are invited to begin lifelong wondering about the God of love revealed through Jesus.
The Godly Play process includes:
· gathering the children in a circle
· telling the story using manipulative objects
· wondering questions that are open ended
I wonder what part of the story you like best.
I wonder what part of the story is about you, or who you are in the story
I wonder if there is any part of the story we can leave out and still have all the story we need.
· responding by using craft materials, books, pictures, etc.
Five Things to Remember about Wondering
- WONDERING DOESN’T HAVE TO BE VERBAL. Although I initially thought of the Wondering as “the verbal response time”, it doesn’t have to be verbal. Young children may simply point , for example, to show you what they liked best. (As the storyteller you might choose to name what they point at, but you cam also just echo their pointed gesture, or touch or even lift what they’ve indicated: This? Mm-hmm!) The Faces of Easter lessons encourage non-verbal responses in which children make connections between these lessons ans other stories or materials in the room.
- WONDERING DOESN’T HAVE TO BE ALL SERIOUS. Wondering can open us up to truly big questions, but it’s good to start off with ice-breaking questions, even if they sound silly. I wonder if these sheep have names. Dr Rebecca Nye says, “A facilitator who accepts whatever they say is …likely to encourage children to feel safe to say more,and to risk saying things that are really hard to express, which is often the nature of deep spiritual material.” (Children’s Spirituality,p.38) So we do not ridicule, but accept any answer that is earnest or honest.
- WONDERING DOESN’T HAVE TO BE UPBEAT OR ORTHODOX. The question about leaving things out (in particular) makes room for expressing disagreement and discomfort with the story. Our scriptures contain stories of those who wrestle with God, or bargain with God, or sulk about God’s actions, or even deny God under pressure. such doubts need not mean the end of our relationship with God – far from it!
- WONDERING DOESN’T HAVE TO FOLLOW THE SCRIPT. Berryman’s advice is to end the Wondering before the circle has spent all its energy, while there is still wonder in the air. What that means is that you don’t always get to all the questions recommended in scripts, not even when there are only four of them. The Wondering is a bit like the wind (or Holy Spirit); it can be eddy and swirl and suddenly take off in an unexpected direction ans you might find yourself following up on some of what has been raised: I wonder why that is? Entering into the spirit of the activity is far more important than sticking to the script.
- WONDERING DOESN’T HAVE AN AGENDA. Remember point 4: The Wondering is not a time for review – I wonder who remembers the name of the city Abraham came from? Nor is the Wondering a way to enforce a common interpretation – I wonder what the moral of this story is? Our wondering always has to be genuine. Remember point 1 as well: After you ask a question, leave a little time hanging so that everyone has a chance to consider it. But if nobody seems inclined to respond, go ahead an ask the next question. Look around the circle with interest (sometimes people new to Godly Play are not sure whether they are allowed to speak), but without creating pressure. if you feel the circle members are not engaging with these questions (even inwardly), it is probably time to put the materials away. But remember Mary – sometimes people just need to treasure these things, pondering them in their hearts. Godly Play honours that.
Ideas for Wondering Questions with Parables:
Parables don’t look at the world in an everyday sort of way. They prompt us to begin anew to make sense of life without the ordinary cultural limits. With parables there is no single answer. There are many right answers. The fundamental wondering questions for the parables are variations on: “I wonder what this could really be?” The wondering can go on and on, and the direction it takes will depend on the children who are gathered that day and what their needs are.
The Mustard Seed (Matt 13: 31-32, Lk 13: 18-19)
· I wonder what the person who put the tiny seed in the ground was doing while the seed was growing?
· I wonder if the person had a name?
· I wonder if the person was happy to see the birds?
· I wonder if the person can take the shrub that grew so big it was like a tree and put it back inside the tiny seed?
Ideas for Wondering Questions for Sacred Stories:
The wondering that follows a sacred story is about our deep identity. This type of wondering engages the great story of Scripture to give our own stories context and a larger meaning. When the story is finished there is a pause. The teaching material remains in the centre of the circle for the children to continue looking at as they wonder.
· I wonder what part of this story you like best?
· I wonder what part of the story is the most important?
· I wonder where you are in the story? I wonder what part is about you?
· I wonder if there is any part of the story we can leave out and still have all the story we need?
Ideas for Wondering Questions for Liturgical Stories:
his kind of wondering connects what children learn in a Catholic school and their experience of worship in the church.
To probe how things work in the church you might ask:
· I wonder how many places you can find this colour in the church?
· I wonder who put the colour there?
· I wonder which colour is the most important?
For more information please see The Complete Guide to Godly Play series of book
Wondering Questions for significant Church seasons
Lent and Easter
I wonder how things grow?
I wonder why some things change when they grow?
I wonder what it was like to know Jesus?
I wonder how chickens know when it is time to hatch?
I wonder how God shows love?
I wonder how the people felt when Jesus died?
I wonder how Jesus felt when the people were yelling at him?
I wonder how the women felt as they ran to tell the other disciples that Jesus was alive?
I wonder how the disciples felt when they heard Jesus was alive?
I wonder how Jesus friends felt when he said “Do not be afraid?”
Advent and Christmas
I wonder how Mary felt when she saw the angel?
I wonder what an angel looks like?
I wonder what an angel sounds like?
I wonder how Mary and Elizabeth felt about their babies?
I wonder how excited they were?
I wonder what Mary and Elizabeth did while they were together?
I wonder what great things God has done?
I wonder how it felt to be in Bethlehem that night?
I wonder how Mary felt when she saw her tiny baby?
I wonder how the shepherds felt when they heard the angels singing?
I wonder what it is like to be visited by a wise one?
I wonder how Jesus felt about all the people who came to visit him?
I wonder what gift you would give baby Jesus?
Why is it important to learn Godly Play stories by heart?
Learning the stories by heart:
- Allows the story to take root in you so that it becomes your own ans nourishes your own spirit.
- Removes the distraction of having to look in two different places as you present the story. Focusing your visual attention on the materials actually helps you remember the language.
- Gives the children only one place to look, at the story materials. This focuses their attention as well as yours.
- Shows the children that you love the story so much that you know it by heart.
The language of the Godly Play texts is carefully chosen, and its important to be attentive to the language. but it is even more important to be relaxed and to enter into the story you are presenting. Telling the story from your heart, to the children’s hearts, is more important than getting it “right”.
Tips for memorizing stories
- start with the intent to memorize the script, word for word. It takes energy to figure out which words you’re going to use, which to leave out, and which to change; that energy is best saved for later, after you know the story. Of course, the final goal is not to recite the script. But departing from the script ans making the telling your own is much easier and more rewarding when you know every word of it.
- It is not a good idea to start Sunday night to memorize the story you want to present Monday morning. Memory is more reliable if it’s accumulated a little at a time. Six sessions of ten minutes each, spread over six days, will result in much stronger learning than one solid hour, besides being easier to fit into your schedule. Do some memorizing on the fly – whilst sitting at the traffic lights, whilst going for a walk, in the shower.
- work on short segments of a story at a time. Godly Play stories are well organised for memorizing, as the paragraphs are usually short and punctuated by movements of the objects. With a longer story, group several paragraphs into a section. sometimes, especially with longer stories, it helps to memorize backwards – the last paragraph or section first, then the next to last, and so on. using this way of memorizing helps you avoid the problem of knowing the first parts thoroughly – because you’ve practised the most – and having memory lapses toward the end.
- Use the materials or objects as memory aids. After all, that’s what they were for the ancient storytellers.
- Memory work tends to snowball, so try not to get discouraged if your first attempt seems fruitless. The first time I work on a story I retain very little, but with each session more sticks with me, and the more I learn the easier it becomes to add the rest. If a memory lapse does occur, it isn’t the end of the world – not even the end of the story.
Article from the Journal of Catholic School Studies, 83 (1) May/June 2011, pp. 20-28.
Berryman and the purpose of religious education: The significance of Berryman’s approach to religious education for Catholic schools
Brendan Hyde, PhD School of Religious Education, Australian Catholic University
Some Godly Play scripts from the Catholic Education Office Ballarat
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman
The Coming of the Holy Spirit
Feeding the Five Thousand