Over the past few months, beginning sometime in the Fall of 2008, the children who are part of the worship group I attend have been having their own experience with the Spirit, and they have been learning about some of the Biblical and Christian roots of our tradition as they do it.
The five children, ages 3-8 or so, are not being talked at. They are not poring over a Children's Bible. They are not being read to, and they are not being forced to sit in worship. They are not even clamoring to go outside as the weather warms up (if you can call 40-45 degrees "warm").
Each First Day, after spending 10-15 minutes in worship with everyone, they are shepherded to another room by an adult, where they calmly gather and sit on a rug, meeting the gentle gaze of the Friendly storyteller who greets each by name.
They all know what's coming: an important story told in a very simple way that they can understand but which won't require them to answer questions or repeat back anything they've heard.
On the occasions that I'm with the children, I'm there only to be present, to get a feel for what the kids are experiencing. There's no disciplining, no telling a child to stop fussing with her shoelace or to sit up straight. It's a loose environment but not a chaotic one.
These young Quakers clearly want to be there, and after the 15 minute story, illustrated with simple props made out of paper, felt, and wood, the storyteller offers a few questions, which are more like statements or even musings:
I wonder what part of the story you like the best.Maybe one or two kids answer; maybe none do.
I wonder if you've ever experienced anything like what the character in the story did.
I wonder what you wonder about the story.
At the end of the brief but slow wondering time, the storyteller invites them to pick out some art supplies--I wonder what you will work on today--and start their "work."
They are focused and clearly have gone to some deep and wordless place.
Siblings leave each other alone. No one suggests to anyone what colors to use or what shapes to draw. And everyone's work--their own expression of the story, of the Spirit, of their insides--looks completely different.
There are no copycats, not because they are told not to, but because they have been brought to their own Inward Teacher and are able to stay in touch with that Movement.
Once, when I was the storyteller, they were working so long with the art supplies that I briefly interrupted: I wonder who needs a lot more time to finish up. One of the children's arms shot into the air, a worried look on her face. I just nodded in acknowledgment. A few minutes later, she was done and we gathered together for a snack.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I remember when the First Day School Committee brought the recommendation to the worship group that we invest the time, energy, money, and faith in bringing Godly Play* into the lives of our youngest attenders.
I remember the report included a statement from a parent, worried that the spiritual life of the children needed all of our care, attention, and nurture while they were all still young, lest the time go by and we adults would have provided so little...
I remember the gift we realized we had in our midst, that the childcare provider was also trained in the method and curriculum of Godly Play. We easily approved the recommendation that we draw on her gifts and work with her to give this First Day School program a real chance.
I have seen great and wondrous results of such movement of the Spirit through the use of Godly Play and its Quaker counterpart, Faith & Play. Both can be readily adapted for intergenerational settings, just by adding a few introductory explanations to adults.
At first I was skeptical about having props and objects to tell the stories, given that unprogrammed Quakerism is an apophatic tradition, one based on the stripping away of outward symbols and ritual in order to get to the essential heart of the faith: waiting on God.
But I could not deny that Something Was Happening within each child, and as the weeks have gone by, the parents have been telling a bit of what their children have talked about at home, about their experience of having heard the story on First Day.
And I could not deny that Something Has Happened even to the adults.
During this past week's intergenerational Faith & Play session, we heard a story about our Quaker practice of listening for God and how God touches our hearts in a special way when we worship together. (NOTE: The brief quotes that follow are from that story.)
For those adults who were new to Friends, it was a doorway into learning a bit more about Quakerism and how the Spirit "helps us to know how to love, what to do, and who to be."
For the kids, they had a number of examples of how to listen for God "with our whole selves," how we might experience God, and why waiting worship means so much to us.
For me who has no kids and who has been a part of the lives of these children and their families since the worship group got started, I finally had the opportunity to share in a corporate experience of what the children go through when they have a Godly Play session and come back to the room changed in some mysterious way.
Though using this Montessori-inspired approach to religious education requires training for the storyteller** and some arts-and-crafts sessions to get materials together, the spiritual gifts that my own worship group has received make me a believer.
I have felt myself brought to the Inward Teacher in the same way that a wise word offered by an elder might guide me; and I have witnessed what I believe to be a similar Motion of the Spirit in my fellow worshipers.
UPDATE, thanks to Su and her comment:
The 2009 FGC Gathering includes a week-long workshop on Godly Play. Look at Workshop #20 (2009 roster) for a description; the workshop leader, Michael Gibson, has been one of the co-authors for the Faith & Play materials.
*Unfortunately, I have found that the Godly Play website for the U.S. is nowhere near as inspiring or creative as the curriculum itself, but if you want to read up on Godly Play from a more intellectual perspective, take a look. The U.K.'s website is more engaging, as is the FGC site on Faith & Play, which specifically focuses on Quaker stories and lessons in the manner of Godly Play.
**FGC, in cooperation with Pendle Hill, is offering a weekend teacher's workshop at Pendle Hill, May 15-17, 2009. To download a flyer for Playing in the Light, scroll down towards the bottom of this webpage and click on the link. [NOTE: I imagine the link will not be active or valid after the dates of the workshop.]