Megan, a member of Christian Montessori Network Facebook group, continues this week giving us wonderful information on using Godly Play in the home with What is Godly Play Work Time? If you missed the previous posts, be sure to check out Why I Love Godly Play and How Godly Play Works and check back next week for even more great Godly Play conversation. ~Marie
One of my favorite church jokes is about a Sunday school teacher who describes an animal to her students – it’s brown, has a long bushy tail, has a mouth full of acorns and climbs trees. When the teacher asks her students what it could be, one little boy raises his hand.
“Well, it sure sounds like a squirrel, but this is church, so the answer must be Jesus,” he says.
One of my biggest concerns about Christian education is that we’re focused on teaching children the “right answers.” Who are these answers for – us or them? Too often, Christian education seems focused on making sure parents feel confident that their children are “saved” or “on the right path,” rather than inviting them into the mystery and beauty of a relationship with God.
As I’ve tried to explain the basis of Godly Play, a Montessori-inspired Christian education curriculum, one of the biggest questions is about the children’s time to work or respond to the story. Many people want to know: if we don’t give the children something to do, how will they use the time productively? How will we know that they “got” the story?
It might help to start by explaining what work time is and what it isn’t. Work time, also called response time, is a time for children to use the materials in the room to respond to the story or lesson they’ve just heard. What do they have to choose from? Generally, Godly Play rooms are filled with shelves of materials, each of which tells a story that will be heard as a lesson throughout the year. There are also high quality art and craft materials that a child can access on their own, sometimes books or blocks for building, and or a few other things. For example, my Godly Play classroom had a “peace corner” with some peaceful activities like a sand hourglass and a finger labyrinth for children to use. Each classroom is a little different, and you can decide what to include.
After a teacher shares a story, they invite the children to choose their work. Each child gets to choose for themselves what they’d like to do, and if another child wants to join, they have to ask. It’s alright for a child to say that they want to work by themselves. If that’s the case, the second child is simply asked to choose something else they’d like to work with.
Children take their rugs and find a space to do their work, which often takes the form of play. Here’s where Godly Play is a bit more mysterious and less straightforward than traditional Montessori. During work time, we’re not testing for knowledge or looking for a child to master a skill. We’re inviting them to respond creatively in whatever way they want to. It might look productive to us, or it might not. What’s important is their experience, their practice using the “language” of our faith to make meaning in their lives.
Why not do a craft, especially one that reinforces what has been learned that day? There’s nothing wrong with crafts, but consider this. After the story, we wonder aloud with the children, and one of the questions we ask is, “I wonder which part of the story is most important.” When you give them a craft to do, emphasizing one part of the story over another, you’re essentially telling them what’s most important – what they should remember, tell their parents or take home. Very often, I find that what I would consider most important as an adult is not what a child took away from the story, but is no less meaningful. If we want to invite children to explore their faith, rather than just fill them with knowledge to regurgitate, we have to be open to their interpretation and meaning of these beautiful, sacred stories.
Now, that doesn’t mean the children go wild during work time. Just like new students in a Montessori classroom, it might take awhile for children to get used to finding productive work and figure out how to participate. It’s okay to put limits on the children’s behavior if they’re being destructive or distracting to other children. But we’re not there to tell them what to do or how to respond, but simply to assist them if they need it. We also refrain from praising their work, but rather affirm their choices and efforts.
As lovely as this sounds, the teacher in me just wants to know that what I’m doing is making an impact.
When I worry about this, I often find myself reflecting on story a Godly Play trainer told me about her own classroom.
During a few of the desert stories, a character dies and is “buried” under the sand as part of the action. Week after week, this teacher saw a boy in her class choose the desert box for his work and take the people of God figures, burying each one in the sand. When they were all buried, he would announce to the teacher that they had all died, and then he would take them out again and say they were alive. He repeated this activity again and again, week after week during response time.
The teacher was worried – were the stories too morbid? Why was he so focused on burying all the figures? A few weeks later, she was chatting with the boy’s father, when he mentioned that they’d had a series of deaths in their family recently – a grandfather, an uncle and a family friend – and the boy had been having a hard time understanding the meaning of death and burial.
Instantly, it all came together for the teacher. This little boy was using what he heard in one of the stories to connect with a deeply meaningful event in his own life – the death of loved ones. Eventually, the boy found other work to do, but she now knew that what had seemed to her like a strange way to play was him processing his own life through the language of our faith and the Godly Play materials.
As teachers and Christians, we can have confidence that God’s word is meaningful and powerful. We don’t have to test for comprehension to make sure it got through. We can rely on the sacred stories that have been passed down to us from the ancestors of our faith and do our part by passing them onto our own children in ways they can understand and connect with.
That doesn’t mean that Godly Play looks down on other forms of celebrating faith. If you want to do a craft with your children, have them memorize Bible verses or do a Christmas pageant, that’s a great way to celebrate faith in your family. But consider what Godly Play might offer to your children: a space where they can actively create meaningful experiences about God for themselves. To me, that’s priceless.
Megan Cottrell is a mama, writer and journalist who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Megan’s life changed as a Christian when God spoke to her through a summer-long internship on the Westside of Chicago where she learned about God’s heart for the poor. She spent six years writing about race, housing and poverty in the city and was awarded the Studs Terkel award for writers who capture profoundly human stories.
Megan attended a Montessori preschool, but didn’t become formally interested in Montessori education until her son, Teddy, was born in 2012. Through her interest in Montessori, she fell in love with Godly Play, a Montessori-based Christian education curriculum, and has been a Godly Play teacher every since. She and her son work on Montessori-inspired activities at home daily, and she loves to watch him grow in independence and curiosity.