Godly Play: Free response

Two children are making smiley faces out of playdough. One child is painting a castle with an imprisoned princess. Three children are working in the desert box. I'm not sure what they're doing but it seems to be a war between two villages that hate each other.

None of it (except perhaps the war in the desert box!) seems to have any connection with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which was today's story.

"You can do something to do with the whole story, or part of the story, or something that the story has made you think about," I say to the children.

But perhaps I haven't given them enough time to reflect on the story? Perhaps I could have explained it better? Perhaps the children just don't listen!

Does it matter that what the children choose to do often seems unconnected to the story?

When I started doing Godly Play one of the hardest things to accept was the idea of a free response.

Yes, I wanted the children to choose freely what they wanted to do, but I also wanted evidence that the story had meant something to them.

Sometimes I got it.

I remember the five year old who created playdough sheep looking for the Good Shepherd, another five year old who tried to bury the dark places under the sticks of the sheepfold and the seven year old who painted birds looking for seeds ("but they had all grown") after the parable of the Sower. But often it would be a mixture of playdough pizza, cards for Mum and Dad, the people of God being buried in sand after a sandstorm.

So why have a free response ?

Free response or set activity?

Our desire is for children to encounter God and draw closer to him. But this is beyond our remit, we cannot dictate either to God or the child.

What we can do is to create a space for children where they are encouraged to be reflective and creative.

We can hope and pray that this will bring them closer to God.

We also need to think longer term, beyond short term goals. For example a short term goal might be that children will understand the meaning of the day's lesson, and a set craft activity can be used as evidence to parents and leaders that this has been achieved.

But this presupposes a simple easily understood lesson, with only one interpretation and the Biblical narrative is not like that. God meets individuals through the Bible and our worship services but no two individuals are in the same place at the same time. God responds to our individual needs and each person may take completely different things away from the day's service.

The same is true for children. However we are more reluctant to allow children to make their own meaning from the Biblical narrative; often we feel the need to explain everything and a set craft activity that fits the lesson is used to tie this together.

It is extremely hard for adults to step back during response time. We want to see results often we want to see instant results. If a child's response appears unconnected to the story we want to redirect them so that they are on task. It is hard to accept that we might be imposing our own needs rather than allowing the child to express theirs.

In the early days I used to ask, "I wonder how this is connected to today's story?"

But I found that in replying the children were forced to make something up to satisfy my question, and this diverted them from what they were doing. My question did nothing to enrich them.

Free response and children's spirituality

If children are allowed a free response when working with the stories they often show an impressive grasp of the function of symbols. Often their work will reflect the themes of the stories: power, death, freedom, caring, suffering.

Children may work fairly "straight", using the materials to retell the story of the Ark and the Flood, the Good Shepherd and the Mustard Seed. But sometimes they use a variety of pieces to create a world that has meaning for them.

Sometimes this cannot be described in words but the richness of the world is there for us to wonder at...

I have found that only occasionally will children make a direct art response to the story.

But the children often become deeply absorbed in their creations and this in itself is an aspect of spirituality. Colouring in a pattern or creating something out of paper can leave a child's mind free to reflect on the story or on "something the story has made you think about".

There is also the element of choice within structure.

In both church and school settings children may have few choices about what they do. Particularly in the school setting, tasks are geared to doing and achieving the lesson's "Learning Objective" is written on the whiteboard and copied into their books; at the end of the lesson it is reviewed to see if it has been achieved.

Free response gives children the opportunity to make their own choices. It is fine for a child to spend the time flitting from one activity to another, or just to sit and watch the other children. The message is that this time belongs to them. It is about being not doing.

Back to the playdough...

It is easy to make assumptions...

"That's a smiley face," I say to one of the children working with the playdough.

"Yes," she replies, "You've got to be happy now. Because you're a long time dead. And you don't come back very often..."

"Only Jesus comes back from the dead," comments the boy next to her...