Godly Play in School
"This is Godly Play. In here we have plenty of time so we don't need to rush things. And there aren't many of us so we can talk quite quietly. Godly Play is a way of telling the stories that the Christians tell, and sometimes it is a way of telling the stories that the Jews tell as well."
I always begin my Godly Play sessions in school with these words, to set the scene for children who only come to Godly Play two or three times a year.
More importantly I want to identify the content of Godly Play as Christian, as this gives children the freedom to believe or disbelieve the stories. I am in school as the Storyteller, not as an evangelist and it is crucial to respect children's own beliefs.
"I don't believe in God."
"Well who made the world?"
"Who made God?"
This discussion amongst a group of five and six year olds shows that even young children can start to think about and discuss their beliefs if we give them the space to do so. For me this is one of the strengths of Godly Play: everyone's contribution can be respected and affirmed.
What can Godly Play offer children in school?
I would include:
expressing and developing their own views
reflecting and making a personal response to a story
a chance to engage with difficult questions – our own personal death, what does it mean to be free, the search for meaning, aloneness and community
understanding religious language in context
respecting the views of others
an opportunity to "be" rather than "do"
It also fits in well with the RE curriculum.
A different place...
I have led Godly Play sessions in classrooms, the school library (a small windowless room), the staffroom and the school hall. I am lucky in that it is now established in a group room upstairs. The consistency helps the children to settle.
It took time to establish the best way to set up the room – my first attempt did not work at all and the children were restless and unsettled.
My second attempt reversed the position of the focus table and the orientation of the circle and led to a much calmer atmosphere.
I use a focus table with candle, Holy Family and Good Shepherd and, behind it, the Risen Christ picture painted by a member of our church. Only a few stories are kept at school, but these include the desert box and the people of God, the parable of the Good Shepherd and the Circle of the Church Year. Painting, pastels, crayoning, cutting and sticking and play dough are also on offer during Response time.
As I take groups of children throughout the school I make a point of orientating the new children in reception when they come to their first Godly Play session.
Instead of pausing at the foot of the stairs we take them straight up to the Godly Play room. The room is half set up with stories and art materials but without the focus table or the picture of the Risen Christ.
"This is Godly Play... Oh! No it isn't yet..."
We talk to the children about the need to be ready for Godly Play, including sitting in the getting ready position (cross legged with arms relaxed and hands in their lap) and then give them a few minutes to explore the room. The room we use is the only upstairs in the school and some of the reception children have never been there. They need time to get used to it, to look out the windows and comment on the view before they are ready to take part in Godly Play.
The Doorkeeper then takes the children down the stairs to take off their shoes and ask them if they are ready, while I quickly set up the focus table and the picture of the Risen Christ. As the session progresses we talk them through the different parts - story, wondering, response, prayer time, feast. Each year I am surprised how quickly these four and five year olds adapt to the rhythm of a Godly Play session.
A different kind of time...
Godly Play sessions in school operate in a different way to the rest of the school day. Before entering the children take off their shoes – this has two purposes: it gives them a sense of crossing a threshold and it also makes things gentler and quieter.
I don't use the school's behaviour system ("traffic lights" a series of gold, yellow, blue and red faces); instead we work on the concept of being ready. If a child is not ready they can choose to sit with the Doorkeeper who will help them get ready. On occasions I direct children to sit with the Doorkeeper; I think this is inevitable as some children find it hard to cope with a session that is structured differently to the classroom.
Often a few minutes apart from the circle and the child is ready to return. If a child is really disruptive they are taken out of the Godly Play session - but in ten years this has only happened twice.
Although I have done Godly Play with whole classes of 30 or more children, I prefer smaller groups of 7 - 10 children. The smaller group size creates a more intimate atmosphere, the children have more opportunities to talk and be heard and there is more space for the children to do things without feeling crowded.
In the early days of Godly Play in school I did some sessions without a doorkeeper; I wouldn't now.
In a Godly Play session Storyteller and Doorkeeper have complementary roles. Both are necessary to build the security that is essential to a Godly Play session. Most of the doorkeepers have been volunteer parents from both church and non church backgrounds.
Their sensitivity to the children's needs and the building of relationships has been one of the key aspects of Godly Play in school.
Schools are places of all faiths and none; it is important to recognise this and respect it.
I am very careful about using language in a way that reflects the language of belief rather than fact. For example in the story of the Holy Family when I lift up the baby Jesus and place him in front of the Risen Christ I use the words "And Christians believe that he is now in every time and every place..."
In the wondering sessions the children express their views freely; I try to intervene only to correct matters of fact (Jesus was not buried in a pyramid!) I stress that there are no right answers in Godly Play; everyone's view can be listened to and every child affirmed.
The session includes a time of prayer. Children are offered the opportunity to pray aloud, in their head or they can choose not to pray. It is up to them. There are groups where no one chooses to pray... and groups where the children try to outdo each other in the length of their silent prayer. (I once had twenty five six year olds, all choosing to pray silently while the class next door engaged in percussion practice...) Out loud the children say thank you for food and family or pray for those less fortunate than themselves. Often we are surprised by what the children choose to pray about as it reveals a depth of thinking and awareness of issues that may not have been expressed in the rest of the session.
How do children respond to Godly Play?
From time to time the school conducts an RE audit, including interviews with children. These were children's responses to the question "Tell me about Godly Play":
KS1 (4 - 7 year olds):It's learning about God. You see what it's really like. You get response time. I like it. You get a biscuit and for response you do whatever you like. It's fun. You hear good stories, you think of God, say a prayer and say Amen.
KS2 (7 - 11 year olds):It's fun. It's talking about God. It's playing and drawing around God. It's having fun around God. You get to paint and play. It's an interesting version of RE. We don't do enough Godly Play.
The RE co-ordinator's comments were: Godly Play is unanimously popular. Its very visual concrete approach captures even the youngest of children. The older children summed it up when they said "having fun around God".