As a mother of two small boys, I spend my days playing and watching them play. I have also been involved in organizing and leading godly play in church and at home. Godly play was originally developed by Jerome Berryman, who wrote the book Godly Play. It is a unique way of approaching children’s worship that relies heavily on the work of educational theorist Maria Montessori. It is concerned with play itself, and not what can be learned through play, for in Berryman’s words “To make play instrumental is to turn play into work, to demand a product from the activity.” (Godly Play, 12)
I recently mentioned godly play at a young church meeting and someone stated “That is an unfortunate name…” This was not the first time I had heard this response and it seems that this negative reaction comes from a misunderstanding of play, which sees play as something frivolous or childish. Play is much broader and deeper than this. In play, we engage the senses and the imagination to help us understand a reality other than ourselves. Adult church is an act of play. Do we not dress up, use light, visuals, incense, songs, movement, etc in helping us understand the kingdom of God and God himself?
Berryman bases his own understanding of play on Donald W. Winnicott’s work on infant development and the use of transition objects. In a nut shell, Winnicott states that in the early days of a child’s life their needs are met by their mother’s intuition, which leads to sense of omnipotence because needs are met fairly simultaneously to their own awareness of the need. But, as an infant ages, the mother’s own needs reemerge and the child is forced to wait for her needs to be met. The mother is then recognized as an other. It is at this stage that a child often adopts a transition object, which they play with by choosing the object and letting go of it at will. The other is discovered. As the child begins to play, she understands what it means that they are not the same as their mother.
Soon after adopting a transition object, a child plays at peek-a-boo and finds the other. As the child ages they begin to be firemen, mum or dad, and superheros exploring otherness in a new way. As we grow to adults we are still exploring otherness. Healthy adult relationships retain an element of play, and art might be described as a playful exploration of the otherness of materials.
If play is seen in this light, there is nothing inherently childish in play. Instead, not playing keeps one childish and self-centered, unable to understand the other. Obviously we can play in different ways as we develop, but fundamentally our need to understand the other leads us to play. Without imagination and creativity we would have no access to spiritual understanding; it is in play that we create the space to know the otherness of God and his Kingdom.