Your wonderings are welcome here

Torah Godly Play -- Noah's Ark  
(All images courtesy of Jake Belcher and Hebrew College)

This post is dedicated to Rachel, and baby Netta (welcome to the world, sweet friend!), who let me blabber on and on about trying to get to the sweet spot between well edited engaging coherence, and conversational spontaneity. Rachel gave me excellent advice "best not to overthink it!" Words for the wise! we go...

story baskets
Remember the goal we talked about last time -- the goal of children feeling such ownership, such comfort and belonging within the language of their tradition that they can use that language to form a vital and personal relationship with God and to consider questions of ultimate meaning in their lives? I alluded to six elements that Rev. Berryman identifies that can together help nurture that goal. Instead of spelling those out in detail just yet, I'd like to invite you to imagine with me that you are visiting a Torah Godly Play classroom, and we can experience those elements before I describe them.

Ok, ready?

Imagine you are walking into a beautiful sunny room. As you cross the threshold, a doorperson greets you warmly by name. Once inside you are invited to take a seat on the soft carpet, somewhere in the wide semi-circle around the storyteller, who is seated in the center. All around the periphery of the room are sturdy wooden shelves, all within reach of a young child. The shelves along one wall hold story baskets based on Torah portions, Jewish Holidays, and Tamudic stories -- each basket is a kit, containing elements with which to dramatize the biblical or traditional episode. Along another wall is an array of art supplies that will be used to process and respond after the story has been told. On a table in the center of the back of the room sits a mini Aron Kodesh (ark) with a mini Torah inside, two candlesticks and a kiddush cup, and a pushke (charity box) -- ritual objects connected with some of the fundamentals of Judaism.

Once you and all of the other participants are seated, the storyteller removes one of the stories -- the Noah's Ark basket -- from the shelf, and settles in to tell the story. The storyteller seems to be totally engrossed -- looking at the story elements, not asking for input right now -- and we are as well. Finally, after the (wooden) dove has returned to the ark with an olive branch, and the rainbow is stretched across the clear sky (at least in our imaginations), the storyteller looks up, and invites responses to a few questions in turn: I wonder what part of the story you liked best? I wonder which part of the story was the most important? I wonder where you are in the story or what part of the story was about you? I wonder what part of the story we could leave out, and still have all of the story?

art supplies

After a stretch of comments on these and other wonderings about the story, each of us is invited to chose an art medium -- watercolor, tempera, clay, beeswax, and many others -- with which to create a response of some sort to the story (or to anything else that arose in our minds at that moment!). The storyteller circulates around the room, pausing to allow any who want to reflect aloud on what they are creating, not complementing any particular outcome or creation.

Although there's more to a Torah Godly Play class session, I'm going to stop there, since we've covered the key elements that I want to focus on right now.

Let's think about telling the basic story, and then encouraging children to wonder aloud about its meaning, contours and relevance. So many interesting things emerge when we entrust our children with our sacred stories and traditions in this way (and trust those stories to elicit meaningful responses). The individual reflection/creative response time further emphasizes how each child's relationship to the story is valuable. This roots the child's connection to the tradition far more than a focus on memorizing content ever could.

Now we can consider more explicitly some of the elements that were drawn upon to facilitate this deep engagement. (These are based off of Rev. Berryman's Godly Play objectives, but paraphrased to fit a Jewish context)

  1. Storyteller (teacher) models how to wonder -- how to approach religious vocabulary with a spirit of inquiry and exploration.
  2. Children learn to work in community with the other children -- this happens when they show respect for each other's wonderings out loud, when they are respectful of each other's working space during creative exploration time, and when they work together during creative processing time if they choose.
  3. Children learn how to choose their own creative medium to respond to the lesson, in particular to the aspect that each one found most relevant or compelling.
  4. The space is organized so that the whole religious language system is present for the children to  interact and play with, to walk into and within. 
  5. Permission and encouragement is constantly given to draw connections between the language of tradition, creative response, and the child's own experience of the Divine.
  6. The flow of the class session follows a progression drawn from a traditional religious form: Shabbat, or Tefillah B'tzibbur (communal prayer). (Our imaginings did not cover this aspect here.)
All of these elements combine (hey, Captain Planet!) to indicate just how much the child is a respected, valued owner of and participant in the tradition, bearing both responsibility and privilege. 
The images that accompany this post are from a conference on early childhood education that I was honored to attend at Hebrew College in Boston a few days ago, and within that, a four part series on Rabbi Dr. Michael Shire's Torah Godly Play. I get the sense that this was true for many of the participants in the room, but I will speak for myself: despite the fact that Godly Play is normally used with children, there was something that felt so freeing and important about being invited to wonder aloud about what I might take out of the story and still have it be whole, or about where I am in the encouraged a depth of engagement with a story that I normally just find rather frightening (and confusing in its general use as a cute tale of a zoo boat).

After seeing the value in this rich classroom environment, the question then is: how might we translate aspects of this to a home environment, or any situation where there would not be a skilled facilitator/storyteller, and there would not be such full breadth of elements? Is there a way to have a self contained experience that can be opened up by a parent/caretaker and child -- or even by a child independently -- who may not have any prior exposure to the tradition?

My sense is, of course, that yes, that is most certainly possible! (That's precisely the hypothesis that I'm investigating with much hope here!) For the moment I will leave us with a classic Godly Play wondering: What could we take away from the classroom configuration, or modify, and still have the experience we need?