What child isn’t! Stories are a vital part of any toddler group – sharing the excitement, the mystery, the repetition, the delight of ‘I know this one!’ Stories feed our imagination, help us to learn new things about ourselves, even discover how we see ourselves in the world.
Children remember stories – and church-based toddler groups are a great place to share the stories of our faith. The Toddler Project¹ (research amongst church-based toddler groups) found that many parents did not know the Christian story themselves, and welcomed toddler groups sharing the stories of God and Jesus with their children.
Godly Play is one way of doing this. Developed over 40 years ago by Jerome Berryman, it follows many Montessori principles as it presents stories of the Christian faith. The carefully crafted scripts are designed to be learned by heart, not by rote. Phrases and movements appear again and again, helping participants develop a language of movement and actions, not just verbal. It creates visual and linguistic connections between stories so that they are not just seen as discrete episodes.
Godly Play’s safe, sacred space and intentional presentation of the biblical narratives and liturgical actions (Baptism, Holy Communion), offers a way of nurturing the spiritual life of all who take part. So what happens?
In a Godly Play setting, the door person (welcomer) helps children settle and ‘get ready’ before they cross the threshold into the Godly Play space where the storyteller is sitting, ready to greet each child. Expectation that something special is happening is created and we need to be ready for it.
The storyteller chats with the children, perhaps welcoming them with a song. In a toddler group, parents or carers would be part of the community – not sitting to one side, but part of the circle, helping their children get ready and join in.
Godly Play presentations use articles which are made of natural materials and are handled with care. Part of the expectation is to wonder where the story can be found, or what might be in the gold box that contains a parable.
As the presentation unfolds, the storyteller resists the temptation to look up to make sure that the children are paying attention. The figures and pictures are moved to create the focus as the story unfolds, and many of the actions appear in different stories which help to create connections that might otherwise be missed.
Create a sense of wonder
Presentations are followed by a time of wondering which helps children explore the story. ‘I wonder what was your favourite part?’ ‘I wonder what we could leave out and still have all the story we need?’ ‘I wonder which part of the story was about you?’ Toddlers won’t always have the verbal expertise to answer, but they can move materials and absorb an atmosphere which says, ‘There is more to this story than we’ve just seen’.
Create space to create
Pre-prepared crafts are rarely found in a Godly Play setting. Instead, a range of creative materials offer children the chance to respond to the story as they want to. The invitation to choose something to help them think more about the story opens possibilities rather than closing them down.
Create space to end well
Godly Play sessions finish back together in the circle, sharing a feast (which can be as simple as juice and raisins) and ending with a blessing. It’s a chance to formally move from the Godly Play space into the next activity.
‘That won’t work with toddlers!’ I hear you cry. ‘They can’t sit still, they won’t listen, they aren’t able to respond in the ways you describe, they’ll just grab at the pieces.’ Yet Godly Play was originally developed with 3- to 6-year-olds in mind. Its multi-sensory and multi-modal approach allows children to engage in different ways. In many ways, Godly Play’s calm, reflective approach is the antithesis of most toddler groups! Yet in an increasing frenetic world, we need calm space, whatever our age. By using Godly Play regularly, children (and adults) become comfortable with its approach and enter more fully into the presentations through the words, actions and responses. What a wonderful way to help the stories of our faith become part of the lives of toddler group participants.