Let us start with a definition of ‘spirituality ‘ as I use it. When the 1944 Education Act was drawn up they used the word spirituality because they claimed that no one knew what it meant and therefore it could not be disputed.
Many definitions have been given since.
- I think the simplest definition is: an experience of awe and wonder.
- Hay and Nye give spirituality the definition of ” relational consciousness” (1) That is, an awareness of self, others, the world and God which adds value to a child’s life perspective. They claim that it is something which children possess naturally and I would concur with that on the basis of my experience with children.
If I combine these two ideas, then my aim in working with small children in the church context is to help them progress from their natural awe and wonder at the world , the God who made it and who did the amazing things that we read about in the Bible, together with their innate God consciousness , to a personal relationship with the God who loves them and wants to relate to them.
So why play?
Jesus called a little child to His side and set him on his feet in the middle of them all. “Believe me,” He said, “unless you change your whole outlook and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven. It is the man who can be as humble as this little child who is greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18.3 4 J B Phillips)
If we sit children down and tell them all we know about the Lord we are in danger of saying to them, “Unless you become like adults you cannot enter the kingdom.” Whilst I do not claim that children have nothing to learn from adults – that would be a nonsense – adults do have things that they can learn from children. What is significant in this context is how children ARE rather than what they know. We are challenged to become like children in our attitudes. We need to allow children to approach God in a way that is natural to them, such as through play.
A great deal has been written about why Jesus called us to be like children. I think it is children’s ‘status-lessness ‘ that is a central point. Children do not have a sense of their own importance, nor in the time of Jesus did they have any standing in the law so they could not earn their way into heaven by keeping the law. This nothing to earn, nothing to prove condition is a very good position from which to play.
Play is about …
There are many attributes of play which can support spirituality.
Play can be a mystery, elusive and ambiguous in nature; it is about finding out. Jesus spoke in parables; they were meant to be teased out – to be played with.
Play is enjoyable and enjoyment has got to feature in our dealings with children. We cannot stop at enjoyment, however. Children know that ‘this church thing’ is about God and if they do not ‘get God’ in some meaningful way then they will vote with their feet. Keeping them entertained until they are older and can decide in an adult way whether they want to follow Jesus is doing the children a great disservice and it does not work .
The idea of active engagement which play implies is important because it is something which relationship, including one with God, has to involve. Too many view their church attendance in a passive way. In contrast children playing and engaging actively helps to build a culture of giving rather than of consuming. Spontaneity and free choice are important facets of both play and relationship. Play’s limitless possibilities are suggestive of our limitless God.
Play is the voluntary movement across boundaries, opening with total absorption into a highly flexible field, releasing tension in ways that are pleasurable, exposing players to the unexpected, and making transformation possible. (G Gordon) (2)
This definition suggests that play can help make the transition between the physical and spiritual facets of life. Her use of the words ‘unexpected’ and ‘transformation ‘ is also helpful in exploring spiritual ideas which concern a God who cannot be put in a box and who desires that we in turn come out of the boxes of our own limitations and into His transformation.
When we look at children growing, playing, investigating the world and physically changing, we are being given insights into how God works in creating, changing and upholding the universe and changing us into His likeness. Children are made in the image of God. We all are intended to reflect God but perhaps our adult inhibitions stifle; perhaps we all need to play more.
Let’s get practical
I cannot talk about play and spirituality without talking about ‘Godly Play’. ” In most religious education children are told what God did. In ‘Godly Play’ children discover who God is.”3 Obviously the key to this is the differences between ‘told’ and ‘discover’ and ‘did’ and ‘is’. Godly Play is a very useful tool for helping children to respond to the stories of the Bible and to consider God’s dealings with people, but not every part fulfils the attributes of play. The story time is very structured but it is then followed by ‘wondering questions’ and children are invited to respond in ways that they choose. The latter does fit the definitions of play.
I think that the distinction between ‘told’ and ‘discover’ is important, but they are not mutually exclusive. And it is also true that we remember what we discover much better than what we are told.
There are things that children can be told: about God’s love for us, how Jesus died for all the wrong things that we have done and how He gives new life to us when we choose to follow Him. The Scriptures urge us to ‘Preach the word, in season and out of season.’ (2 Timothy 4:2) Therefore we work on telling the good news – in their language.
As I have worked with a number of churches over the years one of the first things that I have had to do is get the children off the chairs. People think that they need to keep the children under control and make them sit still. Many children are helped to concentrate by being able to move as they listen; something which is not possible while they are perched on a chair. They may fidget more on a chair as they try to move, than they will on the floor where they are free. “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I will begin”, is how ‘Listen with Mother’ started in my youth. It needs to be our starting point with the children. Then they are ready to listen and ready to play. Most play happens on the floor. ‘Godly Play’ happens on the floor too.
We might be surprised if whoever is leading the service on a Sunday morning were to announce that the children are going to play because that would suggest that what they are doing is not valuable; it is not the proper stuff that the adults are doing. So, what do we want for our children? Surely, we want the children to meet with God and come to experience his interaction in their lives. That experience can be helped by play; an experience that really is the proper stuff that the adults want too.
1 Hay D and Nye R, (2006) The Spirit of the Child, London: Jessica Kingsley
2 Gordon G: gwengordonplay.com/ pdf/whatisplay.pdf