Those of us who spend time with children understand the honor of being invited to play pretend. In these moments, children give us a glimpse into their world. The characters children play, the situations they create, the words they choose all speak volumes about their experience in the world and their understanding of that experience.
I was once invited to do a creativity workshop with children at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. I walked into the workshop armed only with a couple of stories from Scripture, an open mind, and trust in the children and the power of God. I knew that just as imaginative play helps children sort out their social relationships, it could help them sort out their relationship to God.
The children were delightfuland their insights were amazing. We simply read a story from the Bible and stopped every so often to talk about what the words meant to us, much as you would do with any bedtime story. As we read the story of Zaccheus, I asked the children to talk about what it's like to be a child and therefore shorter than the sea of adults that makes up the world. We brainstormed ideas for how they could manage to see over the adult crowd.
Then I asked them what they thought it might feel like to be Zaccheus? What would it be like to be a short little person peeking out of a tree and then have someone as big (in stature and importance) as Jesus pick them out of a crowd? One of the girls showed me with her body what she would feel likeshe made a shy wince and then followed it with a broad smile and a proudly puffed chest. Another child took a more verbal approach sharing, "I would say 'Hey Jesus, I'm glad you saw me up here! Wanna come to my house for dinner? Maybe Mom would let us stay up and watch Cartoon Network! Ask your mom if you can come over.'"
The anachronism of Jesus watching TV wasn't important in this exercise. What mattered was that the story morphed from just another Bible lesson about someone these kids didn't know to a situation they understood on an emotional level. Since that day, I've had the opportunity to do this kind of workshop in other local churches. Each time, I've seen children connect with God in a very real way through the power of pretend.
The same principles that drive these workshops will work in your living room. There are no expensive books, toys, or supplies required, just your time, attention, curiosity, and willingness to follow where your child's imagination leads.
It doesn't take much coaxing to get a child involved in a game of the imagination. Just grab your Bible (a favorite children's Bible is fine too, although the illustrations can be distracting for some children), and your kids and you're ready (if you only have one child, invite a few friends to join you).
Find a familiar and fantastic story, one with lots of dramatic possibilities. The kids in my workshops have fun with the story of Noah (Gen. 7 and 8), Jesus calming the storm (Luke 8:22-25), the loaves and fishes (John 6:1-14), and Jesus turning over the tables in the temple (Matt. 21:12-17). Read the story and pause every few phrases to ask your children leading questions. You might ask, "What does a big storm sound like? Can you sound like a big storm?" As your child thunders around the living room ask, "If you were outside in a big storm how would you try to stop it? Do you think that would work? How big would you have to be to stop a real storm? What kinds of things could someone that powerful do?" If your child answers these questions readily and appears interested in playing by all means keep going. If, however, she seems more interested in something else don't hesitate to abandon ship and try again another time.
Keeping It Flowing
Improvisational actors and comics work with something they call the "yes and " rule. It simply means that in imaginative work you never say "no" to an idea. You can offer your own additions to your partner's ideas but you shouldn't shoot down or bend the suggestions of others to match your own plans. Correcting your child's ideas will stop the flow of play and could result in your child feeling self-conscious about contributing ideas in the future.
There are times when the "yes and " rule is difficult to honor, such as when your child offers an idea about God or Scripture that seems just a little "off." But think creatively and you can make even the most absurd idea work for you. For example, if your child says, "Jesus took out his tricorder and scanned the storm because he thought it was really the Starship Voyager experiencing a warp core breach," roll with it. Instead of explaining that Jesus didn't live in a time of Star Trek re-runs or even television, you might say "Yes, and how do you think God would help the crew of the Voyager in a scary situation like that?"
As your child offers ideas, listen for opportunities to dig in to spiritual truths in a deeper way. Don't worry about getting through the whole story; the real point of this game is to help children grow in their understanding of God. If your child thinks Noah was scared being on the Ark, you can respond, "Yes and sometimes when you're scared, I try to help you feel better. How do you think God might act like a Mommy or Daddy for his children?" A conversation like this might take you down a whole other path, but that's part of the fun.
Mining the Message
There might be prayers, stories, or ideas that surface during your playtime that really resonate with your child. Jot them down quickly and stick them on the fridge. You can refer to them for future playtimes, use them as a family prayer, discuss them with other family members later, or include them in your child's scrapbook.
Consider keeping your own journal about your sacred playtime with your children. It's a wonderful way to track the work God is doing your child's heart.
Bringing fresh life into your family's faith is an ongoing process. Exploring new ways to discover God's truths is always worth the effort. Through creative playtime, you'll develop a way of meeting God that is unique to your family. The style of play you enjoy, the stories you choose, and the perspective you bring to these stories will be a one-of-a-kind reflection of your family's relationship to God.
Sarah Sawyer is a freelance culture writer, performer, and former preschool teacher based in Minneapolis. She works in collaboration with Entertaining Company (www.entertainingco.com) a co-operative artists' group.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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