by Rabbi Dr Michael Shire
In 1996 I took the opportunity to meet the Rev. Jerome Berryman at Christchurch Cathedral with his Godly Play classroom. I had read about Jerome’s method of attempting to explicitly nurture the spiritual life of very young children in a Montessiori based educational format. Sitting on the floor in that classroom, I was transformed by the wonderous and spiritual experience of a Godly Play lesson. But even more significant was the time spent discussing the theological approach that Jerome Berryman, an Episcopal Priest, was advocating for terminally ill children in hospital, special needs children and children inured to openness about wonderment and awareness of the world around them.
Godly Play is an innovative approach to religious education that seeks not so much to tell stories of faith in order that we will ‘know’ them, but as spiritual practice of finding meaning, identity and God through storytelling and wondering. The pedagogical ideal of this approach is that, from the earliest age, children are invited to experience and become increasingly aware of the spiritual call within sacred stories and of their own deep response as something naturally afforded by religious narrative.
Godly Play’s theological basis is Christian, and has developed over three decades in the USA by Jerome Berryman. However, it’s respect for and attention to childhood spirituality, through its unusually contemplative and playful style, addresses concerns common to Jews and Christians.
Godly Play was developed by Jerome as an outcome of his work with Montessori based Religious Education combined with a contemplative reading of sacred texts (lectio divina). In Berryman’s analysis this is a return to the nonverbal, relational communication system that is foundational to spirituality, and with which we started as children before shifting to a reliance (arguably over-reliance) on language to express the spiritual.
As such it uses specially created artifacts and symbolic objects to enable a trained story teller to powerfully engage children (and adults) in the wonderment of scripture, parables, liturgy etc. It is not like anything else that we have witnessed in Jewish Education and in some ways is counter cultural to the norms in our community of ‘grappling’ with the text or deconstructing it. It might be considered much more an ‘Encounter’ with the text. In addition Godly Play is not merely an educational method but a means to also enact the theology and liturgy of Jewish language. The time spent together in Godly Play is an enactment of a liturgical experience as much as it is a telling of a story.
As you can imagine Godly Play is a complex and intricate approach to religious education inviting participants into an encounter with sacred time and sacred space as a community. There are already approximately 5000 Godly Play classrooms in churches around the United States and in the UK, Australia, and Germany. Scripted stories of Christian scripture and parables (including some key narratives from the Torah and Nevi’im) have been published and there is an International training programme for participants organized in local regions.
Recently I introduced a Godly Play lesson at Hebrew College’s at second Annual Early Childhood conference and at Boston Limmud. Due to the interest from participants, I will be hosting a Godly Play training seminar on March 11 and 12 2012 in Boston with fellow Godly player Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and our local Godly Play trainers. I invite anyone interested in this method to contact me at Hebrew College in order that we might more clearly actualize the religious life of our young people through new paradigms of sacred teaching and spiritual learning.
For a deeper understanding of Godly Play read books by Rev Jerome Berryman:
Rabbi Dr. Michael Shire is the Dean of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education at Hebrew College.