Jerome W. Berryman is the founder of Godly Play and has wide experience working with children ages 2-18. He is the author of “The Complete Guide to Godly Play” series (Volumes 1-8) and “Teaching Godly Play”, as well as “Children and the Theologians” and the soon-to-be-published “The Spiritual Guidance of Children: Montessori, Godly Play and the Future.” This article is from the newly released Volume 8 of “The Complete Guide to Godly Play.” The photograph is from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Godly Play presentations for children (and sometimes adults) are organized around a spiral curriculum – that is, contact with the lessons not only repeats cyclically over time, but is open to more complex, flexible, and abstract reflection, as children and adults develop. This spiral is described more fully in Teaching Godly Play, and its strategy comes from the Montessori tradition of education.
The core of the Godly Play spiral continues to be presented as children mature. In a developed Godly Play room and program, children can branch out into the Extensions, Enrichments, and Synthesis Lessons when they are ready without losing the coherence of the core, which they will also see in new ways as they move through early, middle, and late childhood.
The “planes of development” concept, as Montessori caller her broad view of child development, incorporated her interests in social, educational, and practical classroom insights as well as cognitive development into a symmetrical rule of thumb that groups child development roughly into three year periods: 3-6, 6-9 and 9-12. When this is applied to Godly Play, it means that children from 3-6 years of age are introduced to the Core lessons, the Godly Play process, and organization of the room. For children from 6 to 9, it means that the Core lessons continue, but with Extensions and Enrichment lessons added. From 9-12 years of age the Core, Extensions, and Enrichments continue, and the Synthesis lessons are added.
This developmental approach is also good for thinking about program development. In small churches or new programs in larger churches you might have a single group from 3-12 years. Place an older and then a younger child around the circle so they can help each other. Later you might divide the large group into tow and then three developmental groups as the community of children grows. In this way the older children can help the younger ones make good choices by their example and teach their way of thinking by what they say to the younger children as their friends and leaders.
Montessori took a broader view of children’s development than someone like Piaget, who focused on their cognitive stages. She was interested in social, emotional, and educational growth as well as the changes in the way children think. A summary of the three general orientations she identified, as they are related to Godly Play, follows:
During early childhood, 3-6 years, the children are mostly interested in how the class works. How do you come into the room? Where do you sit in the circle and how do you listen? How do you find and get the educational materials from the self you want to work with? How do you find the art materials you want? How do you put things away? How do you have a feast? How do you leave the room? The primary thing that is learned during this period, however, is to love the materials and to seriously engage in the wondering with the other children about what the presentations mean. Whey young children learn, mostly by example, how to love the language of the Christian People, then, a good foundation is laid. This love is the basis on which middle- and late-childhood Godly Play is built.
In middle childhood, 6-9 years, the children who are experienced with Godly Play are now free from their previous questions to work smoothly and confidently in the classroom. They know many of the lessons with their senses, even if they cannot articulate the language that goes with them. The foundation for later growth has been laid with their body knowing. In middle childhood the emphasis is on speaking and reading. The reading, however, may still be at the level of single-word or paragraph-reading, but even good readers are not yet fully at ease with the printed page. This is why for example the parable synthesis lessons [“Parable Synthesis 1,” “Parable Synthesis 2,” and “Parable Synthesis 3” in The Complete Guide to Godly Play, Volume 3] are not presented until late childhood. They require too much reading, which might get in the way of mastery. What is most interesting about middle childhood, however, is that the children’s wondering becomes verbally richer.
During late childhood, the mentoring of stories in an authentic way continues to be of the utmost importance. At this stage children need teachers who are very experienced with all of the stories on the shelves and who are ready to challenge the older child’s questioning and resistance. It is not possible to predict what direction the children will go in their wondering and work, so a teacher needs to be ready to go just about anywhere with them as well as be ready to say, “I don’t know. Let’s look that up together.” This is difficult for an inexperienced teacher, but it is very important for older children to experience because they have become savvy school-goers. They are anxious to know what “the teacher” wants and what the “correct” answer is. This awareness also makes them devious and aggressively creative. This needs to be supported, but at the same time they want to know if “the teacher” knows his or her stuff so they can relax and rely on them as their guides. The energy required to help a circle of children in late childhood become comfortable with their questions, their bodies, their creativity, their uniqueness, and their awareness of God’s mystery in a community is enormous but the experience thrilling if one can match this multi-directional enthusiasm.
In late childhood the ability to be at ease with reading paragraphs and books suggests to children that they might now take books from the lower shelves of the Godly Play environment and look beyond the pictures to the text. Sometimes, however, this is not to their advantage. Some children might curl up with a book and not be as aware of the community of children swirling around them. They might also use their reading as a defense against an emotional involvement with the sacred stories, the parables, the liturgical action materials, or God’s presence in the silent spaces between words and the general mindfulness of the room. While an adult guide might want to move children in middle childhood toward reading, in late childhood the mentor might want to move the older children back towards sensorial involvement, as in early childhood, with the materials so they can once again grasp meaning with their hands but at a new level.
Goal of Spiral Curriculum
The overall goal is for children to enter adolescence with an inner working model of the Christian language system. Progress through the spiral curriculum provides children with the tools for ongoing spiritual development across the life span. This gives them the experience to understand that the Christian language system can have different kinds of meaning and different levels of meaning. This long term approach provides young learners (and adults) with the tools and sense of community to continue their spiritual development as long as they can breathe – and perhaps longer.