By Aaron Willett, SeaPres Communications
One Sunday morning, I witnessed a magic trick cast as a complex children’s sermon whereby a coin passing through an apparently impenetrable barrier created a metaphor for our own passage into heaven. As I sat there, befuddled by the theological implications and confused by the analogy, I realized that I wasn’t the only one—the children clearly shared my lack of comprehension. I asked myself, “Isn’t there a better way?”
Turns out that there is: story and repetition.
Two Sunday school curriculum models have emerged that meet these essential criteria. While they are distinct in their approaches, both Godly Play and Workshop Rotation teach from the story first. They are tactile—relying on sight and touch as much as the spoken word—and offer a number of ways for children to find their own place in the story. Both of these models are now being used in a number of churches across our presbytery.
Based on the Montessori movement, Godly Play is fluid and tactile. According to Jennifer Reeve-Parker, Director of Ministries to Children & Families at Mercer Island Pres., “It really allows time for kids to see the story in this really playful way. The wording is very specific and Godly play has this amazing routine to it.” Each Sunday, as the children enter the room, they become connected by ritual. Jennifer recalls the specific wording used to prepare the group, “This is a special place, and in this place we have all the time that we need. We can walk more slowly and talk more quietly because we know that we are with God and listening to God.”
Dani Forbess, University Presbyterian’s Faith Formation Lead, describes the opportunity found in the fluidity and freedom, “One of the most appealing things about the Godly Play rhythm is the freedom that it affords to the children. This can feel unsettling at times, especially as both children and teacher are adjusting to the new rhythm. But as it develops, it allows active boys to do the very thing they need to do – be active with the story! It also allows for more reflective children to get lost in the story, if they so choose. Whereas, the ones who prefer a more social approach can engage with a small group of children and work together on one story. The opportunity to engage the story in a way unique to oneself abounds.”
Part of the routine embraced in Godly Play is the liturgical calendar. Using a felt calendar, the children of MIPC (from four years old through second grade) mark the passage of time in liturgical colors. The colors provide another touchstone to connect the story of the Bible to their lives. Jennifer says, “They love getting-ready season, which is Advent… It’s really fun, and it’s a great way of teaching our church story.”
The richness of Godly Play is felt in more than ritual—each week the story is told not just in words, but with “manipulatives”: wooden figures and miniature props. Using the desert sand box, Jennifer showed me how the story of Abram and Sarai would be enacted, moving the figures across the sand, “…And then you go to the next place and you see their footprints in the sand all the way along. There’s always something to watch when you’re hearing a Godly Play story.” Dani describes children as young as three using the manipulatives to engage in a way that is personal and unique. She shares that the freedom this creates “is both challenging and powerful.”
Workshop Rotation Model
The Workshop Rotation Model gives children the opportunity to learn one Bible story over a period of several weeks across a number of different workshops. Each workshop has a theme around which the activity is centered. Possible workshops include art, music, science, cooking, drama, story, computers, movies, and games.
At MIPC, where both models are used, Jennifer and her crew of teachers first introduce the Bible story, then encourage the children to interact with it and “try it on. Whether it’s through an art project, watching a movie, or acting it out—[they] interact with it and then talk about it in small groups and figure out how it applies.”
Workshop Rotation allows a great deal of customization in each church community. Many curriculum resources are shared freely at rotation.org, and more are available for purchase. As Jennifer says, “You can really choose and make it your own.”
Tonia Davidson, Capitol Hill Presbyterian’s Children and Family Ministries Director, spoke of their own process of figuring out how the model “fit uniquely for our church.” Eventually they arrived at B.A.S.E. (Biblical And Spiritual Equipping) Camp and based their workshop titles around that theme. Their workshops include Rock Solid Productions (drama), the Story Telling Tent, Map it Out, Creation Station, Zion Flicks, the Table (cooking) and the Apostle’s Workout (gross motor).
Each workshop room is decorated to fit its theme. CHP’s Story Tent is draped floor to ceiling with flowing fabric and pillows. MIPC’s movie theater room is just like a small theater with tiered seating and low lighting. The time invested in these rooms pays dividends measured in excitement and attention span.
One of the advantages seen by Tonia at CHP is a greater involvement of men in leading workshops, “especially when I’m needing to recruit around specific talents.” She shared about men being involved as actors, artists, teaching science lessons and even one man who “did a workshop on baking that tied into the [Lord’s] prayer.”
Engaging Both Children & Teachers
Dani, Jennifer and Tonia all spoke of how the depth of the biblical story in both Godly Play and Workshop Rotation feeds student and teacher alike. They related times when parents have been surprised by how well their kids know the biblical narrative. Jennifer talked about how the children are more attuned to the liturgical colors in the sanctuary than many of the adults in worship.
Workshop Rotation and Godly Play are designed to pull children into the Bible’s story, helping them to find their own place within its pages.