Godly Play “Big”: Bringing the Practices of Small Circles to Large Spaces

Godly Play “Big”: Bringing the Practices of Small Circles to Large Spaces

So how do you do Godly Play authentically in “big” circles like this one? By holding fast to those things that support the circle of children.

Inevitably, Godly Play has a way of busting from its traditional Sunday morning circles and moving into so many unexpected places where stories just want to be told. Experienced practitioners often feel called (or are called upon!) to do Godly Play BIG. In my two decades as a Godly Play practitioner and trainer, I have been part of communities that have offered Godly Play to the whole congregation in sanctuaries on a Sunday morning, at outdoor chapels for parishes, and most recently under a tent at the annual Wild Goose Festival. “The Goose” is a three-day festival of intergenerational and interfaith camping attended by over 4,000 people. For the past four years, Godly Play trainers have offered stories, wondering, and meaningful work opportunities to circles of children from 3-12 years old. The group numbers as many as 75 with 15-20 volunteers present as well.

Holding Fast to the Core Elements of Godly Play

So how do you do Godly Play authentically in “big” circles like this one? By holding fast to those things that support the circle of children – crossing the threshold with welcome and grounding, inviting everyone to “be ready,” ensuring that the story materials are beautiful, appealing, and visible to everyone, inviting authentic wondering that allows every reflection offered to be heard and equally valued, offering work responses that include engaging with the story materials, spaces for stillness, as well as materials for art responses. Finally, an invitation to cross back over the threshold that brings the experience full circle.

Doing Godly Play BIG at Wild Goose

As we planned for Godly Play BIG at Wild Goose, we considered each of these elements carefully.

Crossing The Threshold – We do this with the help of our amazing volunteers when children check in. Welcoming volunteers manage the drop off and safety piece of ensuring armbands and nametags are on every child and then a second volunteer greets each child individually and helps them find a mat on which to sit. A third layer of volunteers are already interspersed on their own mats so they can be a steadying influence for the five minutes it takes to settle everyone into the gathering which we call a ‘circle.’

Getting Ready – We ‘get ready’ together with the gift of singing together led by two wonderful song leaders. The songs are simple, engaging, and grounding which invite the children into a sense of calm rather than chaos. After three songs, the storyteller sits on a stool so that all the children can see, and uses a quiet voice in the microphone to invite the circle to get ready. Just as in a Sunday morning circle, we trust that children can get ready. We give this process all the time it needs and do not rush which sets a tone of deep engagement.

Presenting The Story – The story is told using the same language and gestures as would be used in conventional Godly Play circles. Our gaze is on the materials to invite the children to follow, trusting that the story is what is important. Practiced Godly Play colleagues move the materials simply and gracefully so that the materials, not the movers, are the focus.

Wondering Together – When the story is over, we shift into wondering and leave the story tableau in place. The storyteller changes their posture and gaze to invite the circle into wonder and repeats every answer offered into the microphone so that each child’s voice is heard by all. The children naturally raise their hands and, perhaps because they are deeply ready, are able to patiently take turns to share their thoughts.

Response Time – When the concentration of the circle starts to shift, the storyteller describes the work choices. “You may want to come to the quiet corner and work with this story or other quiet materials or you may choose the art materials. Each table has something different. There is rock painting at this table…” Then the smaller children are dismissed to an adjacent tent that has age-appropriate work materials (sand play, bubbles, play dough, a grassy area.) Work time at The Goose is always at least 20 minutes to allow for deep engagement.

Crossing Back Over the Threshold – Admittedly, dismissal is more chaotic than we would like! Children are often not ready for pick-up on the festival’s schedule – most would rather stay and work. We help children leave one at a time, but it always feels rushed. Finding a better way for saying goodbye at the threshold is our work for next year.

BIG Materials

I’m commenting on our materials last because while materials are important, they are really secondary to ensuring that you are creating a safe space where authentic engagement can happen. Here are two examples of materials used at Wild Goose.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan
Because parables are told in two dimensions, we used a large box spray painted gold . A frame holding Velcro on plastic canvas held the felt underlay, road, and rocks. With the help of Office Depot, we enlarged the art for the story and had it mounted and laminated on foam core and, voila, the story was true to its roots and still visible to all.

The Prophet Jonah
We invited our volunteers to assume different roles with a simple prop – a bandana. Jonah wore a rainbow one, the people of Ninevah wore green, and the sailors wore blue. With two real oars, the canvas drop cloth, and blue plastic sheeting, the water and the dry land were simple and recognizable. The plant that withered over Jonah? Well that was a volunteer, too! The storyteller told the story exactly as she would if she had been moving the props on the floor but this time the pieces moved themselves.

Ultimately, whatever invitation you accept to offer Godly Play ‘Big,’ use your experience with small circles to inform what really matters in the big ones!

Sally Thomas has been a storyteller and doorperson since 1997. Inspired by the innate theology of her own children, Sally has personally experienced Godly Play as a natural foundation on which to support anyone (including herself!) as we grow in our relationship with God. Accredited as a Godly Play Trainer in 2001, she has led Godly Play programs in churches in California and Colorado. Currently, she is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree at Eden Seminary in St. Louis.

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