Have you ever wondered what Jesus meant when He said we needed to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven? I think at least one of the things he may have meant is that we need to play.
Daddy Pig (Father of Peppa) is an expert at everything. He is a skiing expert, a fishing expert, a boat driving expert, in fact, he’s a self-announced expert in any activity they come across. Or not. However, true experts don’t need to announce it.
Children are Play Experts.
Children are naturals at play. They need hardly any resources or encouragement. They can do it almost anywhere with almost anyone.
A few days after we recently moved house, I realised I needed to unpack the craft boxes. How? Because I found my children had taken a coat hanger, a water bottle and a sock and made a rocket!
Children do most of their ‘work’ through play. They do their thinking through play. They learn about how the world works, how to make friends, how to look after themselves, who they are and why they are alive. Given space and a rich environment, they learn maths, science and reading.
Children are naturally spiritual.
The recent research commissioned by Scripture Union found that “even those from a family with a less active faith were praying”. Even as very young children, before they could walk or talk, I found my children responded to God, and even blessed other people in ways which were beyond what they could naturally do.
Children are naturally spiritual, and like everything else in their lives, they best learn it best through play. They play meal preparation, house cleaning, family conflict resolution. They play with their fears and their hopes. They play their big emotions and their problem-solving skills. Through play they explore concepts and experiences in ways they can’t necessarily express in words.
I’ve seen my children develop their theology through their play. If you’re familiar with Godly Play or have watched children responding to a Bible story or spiritual encounter, you’ll know what I mean. Children seem to have incredibly easy access to spiritual things as if they haven’t yet learnt how NOT to respond to God.
Unfortunately, when children aren’t playing, it’s often us adults who are stopping them.
We stop their play with our words. “Oh, he’s just playing.” “Oh, that’s a lovely picture!” As if what we think of the finished product is more important than the by which process they created it.
We stop their play with our attitudes. “Don’t make such a mess!” As if being tidy and clean is more important than exploring and discovering. And what about conceptual messiness? Do we also need theology to be tidy?
We stop their play with our actions. We fill their timetables. We choose for them. We rush them through activities with little thought to the deep work they might be doing.
We stop their play with our budgets and purchasing choices. Buying lots of cheap toys and materials, instead of investing in quality, beautiful, and open-ended items. We fill their space, instead of creating wonder-filled, special places to be and to do important work.
We stop their play with our fear. Fear that they will ask questions for which we don’t have answers. Fear we aren’t doing enough. Fear they won’t turn out ok if we don’t do this or that. Fear they will stray off the path we have mapped for them.
So how can we stop stopping them play? I think we need to think about what we want to achieve and change our behaviour so that we are working towards those goals.
I want my children to be independent creative thinkers, to have a theology that is their own (not mine) and which shapes their lives and continues to grow as they do. I want them to be connected with God in such as way that their faith continues to deepen throughout their lives.
To achieve this, I need to step back, to watch them, give them space. See how they connect with God, perhaps share how I do. To learn from and with them. To give creative space to develop their own theology, especially when responding to Bible stories and spiritual encounters. To honour their faith experiences by what I do and say. To be comfortable with process, both theirs and mine. And to value play as a valid and essential vehicle through which they, and I, can grow in our faith.
What could you do?
Some questions to ponder:
What do you really think of play?
Re-read the list of ways we stop children playing: our words, attitudes, budgets, purchasing choices, fears. In which area could you make changes?
What do you do that is playful and how could you play more?
Some practical suggestions:
- Be intentional. Think about the space and resources you have and play about with them to get the most open-ended, inspiring place for play to take place. Consider making a birthday list of some good-quality, open-ended toys for your child’s next birthday. Consider investing in some toys especially to play Bible stories and respond to them.
- Observe. Really watch what children do. Look for the details. Listen to more than the words. This works well if you share a Bible story then provide a choice of 3 or 4 open-ended materials and watch what they use and how they use it, without asking them what they’re doing or interferring (harder than it sounds!). (For example you could put out a tray of art materials (e.g. paper, water colour paints, pastels, nice colour pencils e.g. lyra), play cloths for role play or den making, small world play (e.g. lego, play mobil, dolls/teddies or wooden people), and a set of construction resources (lego/blocks/magnatiles/sticklebricks).
- Ask open and optional questions like “Would you like to share with me about your picture?” Or even better, say nothing but just let them know you’re available for them to chat if they want to.
- Make Invitations to Play, places where resources are set out in an attractive, inviting way, with no specific outcome in mind, just space to explore. The Imagination Tree has a great section all about this with lots of ideas on how to get started. It could be as simple as a Bible story set up using Play Mobil and left out for them to find when they get up.
- Go outside together. Somehow outdoor play often lends itself more easily towards less process-orientated play.
- Invest in your own playful spiritual development. Have some fun with God!
- Read Rebecca Nye’s book, Children’s Spirituality (What it is and why it matters). It’s very readable and covers principles and practical ideas.
- Look into Godly Play, which is brilliant for developing a playful spirituality.