Stop stopping children play!

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We need to stop stopping children’s play.

We need to help other adults stop stopping children play.

We need to step back, to watch, be led by them, and let ourselves play more.

Daddy Pig (Father of Peppa) is an expert at everything. He is a skiing expert, a fishing expert, a boat driving expert, in fact, he’s a self-announced expert in any activity they come across. Or not. However, true experts don’t need to announce it.

Children are Play Experts.

They are naturals at play. They need hardly any resources or encouragement. They can do it almost anywhere with almost anyone.

A few days after we recently moved house, I realised I needed to unpack the craft boxes. How? Because I found my children had taken a coat hanger, a water bottle and a sock and made a rocket!

Children are Play Experts. But they can be stopped.

Children are also naturally spiritual.

The recent research commissioned by Scripture Union found that “even those from a family with a less active faith were praying”. Even as very young children, before they could walk or talk, I found my children responded to God and even blessed other people in ways which were beyond what they could naturally do.

Children are naturally spiritual, and like everything else in their lives, they best learn it best through play. They play meal preparation, house cleaning, family conflict resolution. They play with their fears and their hopes. They play their big emotions and their problem-solving skills. Through play, they explore concepts and experiences in ways they can’t necessarily express in words.

I’ve seen my children develop their theology through their play. If you’re familiar with Godly Play or have watched children responding to a Bible story or spiritual encounter, you’ll know what I mean. Children seem to have an ability to easily access spiritual things as if they haven’t yet learnt how NOT to respond to God.

Children are naturally spiritual. But they can be stopped.

And unfortunately, it’s often us stopping them.

We stop their play with our words. “Oh, he’s just playing.” “Oh, that’s a lovely picture!” As if what we think of the finished product is more important than the by which process they created it.

We stop their play with our attitudes. “Don’t make such a mess!” As if being tidy and clean is more important than exploring and discovering. And what about conceptual messiness? Do we also need theology to be tidy?

We stop their play with our actions. We fill their timetables. We choose for them. We rush them through activities with little thought to the deep work they might be doing.

We stop their play with our budgets and purchasing choices. Buying lots of cheap toys and materials, instead of investing in quality, beautiful, and open-ended items. We fill their space, instead of creating wonder-filled, special places to be and to do important work.

We stop their play with our fear. Fear that they will ask questions for which we don’t have answers. Fear we aren’t doing enough. Fear they won’t turn out ok if we don’t do this or that. Fear they will stray off the path we have mapped for them.

We need to stop. We need to think about what we want to achieve and change our behaviour so that we are working towards those goals.

I want my children to be independent creative thinkers, to have a theology that is their own (not mine) and which shapes their lives and continues to grow as they do. I want them to be connected with God in such as way that their faith continues to deepen throughout their lives.

To achieve this, I need to step back, to watch them, give them space. See how they connect with God, perhaps share how I do. To learn from and with them. To give creative space to develop their own theology, especially when responding to Bible stories and spiritual encounters. To honour their faith experiences by what I do and say. To be comfortable with process, both theirs and mine. And to value play as a valid and essential vehicle through which they, and I, can grow in our faith.

Some questions:

What do you do that is playful?

How could you play more?

What do you really think of play?

In which ways would you like to stop stopping children play?

Some practical suggestions:

  1. Be intentional. Think about the space and resources you have and play about with them to get the most open-ended, inspiring place for play to take place.
  2. Observe. Really watch what children do. Look for the details. Listen to more than the words.
  3. Ask open and optional questions like “Would you like to share with me about your picture?” Or even better, say nothing but just let them know you’re available for them to chat if they want to.
  4. Make Invitations to Play, places where resources are set out in an attractive, inviting way, with no specific outcome in mind, just space to explore. This is a great link with lots of ideas on how to get started
  5. Go outside. Take children with you. Somehow outdoor play often lends itself more easily towards less process-orientated play.
  6. Invest in your own playful spiritual development. Have some fun with God!
  7. You might like to look into Godly Play, which is brilliant for this.
  8. A great book to read is Rebecca Nye’s book, Children’s Spirituality (What it is and why it matters). It’s very readable and covers principles and practical ideas.

Some activity ideas:

  1. Have a read of this and try out some process art. Yourself. Have fun! Then try it with some children.
  2. Have a read of this then set up an Invitation to Play. Observe how it is used. Try another one.
  3. Look at the toys and materials you use with your children and choose some to upgrade to quality materials.
  4. Practise playing yourself! What do you like to play?