By Christine Voreis Hides
Today’s children have more organized sports and activities, more screen time and less time outdoors than ever before. Parents, medical professionals and educators notice the developmental impacts of a lack of unstructured play in children’s lives. Play is important to our spiritual development, too.
Through play, the Holy Spirit can encourage us to remember ourselves as part of the story of the people of God. The seemingly impossible birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ require imagination so that we might truly experience God’s grace and love in our own lives. Play is practice for the imagination needed for living faithfully.
While once many preschools and kindergartens were play-based, most have now shifted to focus on academics. Timeless, classroom staples including blocks, sensory tables, clay and outdoor time are hard to find in many school settings. In communities with financial resources and an abundance of programming for children, the church’s unique ministry might be to become a place for unstructured play. Play can be one means of fostering an alternate narrative to the culture’s emphasis on achievement. How might we incorporate play into the life of the church?
There are several good Montessori based curricula for preschool and elementary faith formation classes. That being said, the materials can be cost prohibitive. Sharing with other churches or making your own materials can decrease the expense. Our church was blessed many years ago with a complete set of wooden stories, now out of print, developed by a deacon in the UMC. We continue to use these original materials and gradually add new stories from other sources. If you are looking for play-based faith formation resources, the UMC Ministry with Children site is a good place to start.
You don’t need a new curriculum to include play in the Sunday school hour. The addition of blocks, high quality art supplies and a sensory tub will provide ample opportunity for children, even for just 10-15 minutes per class.
Sand and water are two readily available sensory materials. When learning about stories with water, I fill a shallow plastic tub and include things for water play: shells when there is a baptism, animals for Noah, boats for when Jesus calms the sea. Sand trays are appropriate and engaging as the stories of Abraham, Moses and wilderness are learned. We make individual sand trays from inexpensive, 4 liter office supply bins with lids. The children create meaningful stories using simple materials like rocks, wooden figures and felt.
Children building a sheepfold from block
Be mindful of creating time for people to be together without an agenda. Coffee hour, youth group, and intergenerational activities are times when play might be appropriate. Most youth groups I know have their signature games, usually played across the whole church, preferably with the lights out. I don’t believe this type of exploration and play needs to be limited to youth (just be mindful of safety concerns). Creating casual settings for talking, sharing food and even playing hide and seek together is an important part of building meaningful relationships.
The simplest strategy for play may be getting outdoors during regular church programming. Sidewalk chalk, tag, bubbles, painting outdoors and gardening are activities that seem to happen less often in our highly structured society. Consider working with local conservation groups to see how your church might be involved with events like No Child Left Indoors and Earth Day. If you can’t go outside, what elements of nature can you bring indoors? Plants, animals, even leaves and stones all provide rich, sensory opportunities.
Going outside reminds us of how play contributes to faith development through experiential learning. Quite a bit of Jesus’ ministry was spent outside. His life and parables invite us to relate to nature: vines, sheep, weeds, seeds, light, palms, bread, water and wine. Being able to touch, smell, taste and see nature brings the story to life. Those who garden have a hands-on understanding of the Parable of the Sower because they have tended rocky and weedy soil. And, those who have walked in hot, dry places have experienced the life-giving, refreshing qualities of water.
How much richer will our faith experiences be when we have opportunity to play? Faith, like play, is more experiential than academic. Growing and stretching the imagination through play is an essential part of human development, one that nurtures soul, mind and body. Part of a church’s unique ministry is to be a place that fosters play that nurtures faith.
Christine Voreis Hides is the Director of Faith Formation at Grace United Methodist Church of Lake Bluff, Illinois. She regularly blogs at blesseachone.wordpress.com