Godly Play with Older People

The Spirituality of Childhood … for the whole of life

In his foundational text, Teaching Godly Play (2009), Berryman alerts us to the essential nature of play in the lives of children as they explore the uncertainties and risks of their unfolding lives and relationships. Through the ‘playful orthodoxy’ of the Godly Play tradition, the young mind develops a structure in which experiences and encounters with the Self, an Other and the Divine, can be contained, wondered about and processed. This structure becomes the place in which the child can nurture an identity that will carry them through the whole of the life cycle. Exploring our quest for a spiritual identity that will support us throughout life, The American Theologian Richard Rohr, in his book, Falling Upward: A spirituality for the two halves of life, (2012) describes how, ‘the task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s life and answer the first essential questions: “What makes me significant?”, “How can I support myself?” and “Who will go with me?”’. My experience is that Godly Play can play a significant role in the evolution of such a container for the growing child. Furthermore, with such a structure, we can move into the second half of life, with all its challenges and opportunities for more growth and maturation.

With this in mind, I would like to propose that Godly Play has much to offer those in the second half of life, older people and, indeed, those with increasing care needs, including those living with dementia. It is, of course, difficult and dangerous to generalise about the spiritual needs of any one group of people. Much has been written about the distinctive spirituality of older adults and it would be foolhardy to attempt to condense it here. Instead, in order to suggest some ways in which the spirituality of older people might best be served by Godly Play, I will use several guiding questions. These questions were posed by James Woodward in his 2008 book, Valuing Age, where he attempts to evaluate the spiritual experiences of older people.

1 What does God want of us at any particular moment of our living and being?

 Godly Play offers to older adults the possibility of recovering their inner childhood structure of containment for spiritual and relational experiences. Godly Play provides a space for the older adult to encounter and respond to themselves, to others in the circle and to the presence of God. This may be a space not allowed to them for much of their adult life, where their experiences may not have been respected or even attended to. However, in the midst of loss (of health, of relationships, of personal agency, of memory), the Godly Play process can help them to feel known and valued, and these experiences, along with all others, carry with them the possibility of communication with the Divine. For some adults this might not be a recovery but a totally new experience and, in that sense, it may become a conversion experience for them; a conversion to the depths of a spiritual life.

It is often hard to perceive God’s presence through the loss of identity that sometimes comes in the face of memory problems, dementia or declining capacity. Godly Play affirms our identity in relationship with God. The storytelling aspect of the Godly Play method encourages listeners to make connections between the stories of their own lives and those of the Christian tradition and narrative. This may help to create new structure and new meaning where personal stories have been eroded through cognitive decline.

2 How do we embrace finitude, the limitations of life and the choices placed upon us? More specifically, how can we face anxieties around death and non-being?

 In our work with children we have been accustomed to noticing those aspects of the Godly Play stories where there is a sense of hiddenness, littleness and growth. With older people, our eyes are opened to see that there is also much wisdom about loss, diminishment and death in these stories which offers a space to process these experiences for adults.

The Godly Play tradition encourages and celebrates symbolic and non-verbal language, alongside the more customary verbal means of communication. This is of value to those who find themselves in a world where logic often does not work and words may not mean what they used to if, indeed, words come at all. Beautiful, carefully-chosen materials may provide a way for adults to enter a deeply contemplative spirituality that exists, so often, beyond words.

The emphasis on the preciousness and playfulness of present experience in the Godly Play circle also comes as a relief and a joy to those who have a fragile sense of linear time, or of continuity from one moment to the next.

3 How do we enhance autonomy?

In the ‘second childishness’ that Shakespeare describes in As You Like It, autonomy and trust are attributes rarely given to and affirmed in adults in institutional settings. However, in a Godly Play session, the choices, activities, thought-processes and silences of the older adult can be valued and affirmed.

There are, of course, some challenges to working in this way with older adults, so each context in which we hope to use Godly Play will always require thought and careful preparation. In particular, playfulness can be a challenge to many of us who have lived the majority of our lives in a different mode. It can appear as ‘mere childishness’ until we have experienced that our own and one-another’s playfulness are valued as serious work. Presenting Godly Play as a new opportunity to adults and institutions requires careful thought and a sensitive introduction.

In a similar way, it is often considered that the Montessori pedagogical framework that has so influenced Godly Play is child-centred and, therefore, just for children. But might we consider that Godly Play (and perhaps the Montessori method itself) is more rightly considered person-centred, where individual choice, autonomy and freedom are valued as a way for a person to develop, or rediscover, their own innate abilities in relationship to others and to God.

There are certainly practical adaptations that might need to be made in regard to materials and method as we continually seek to serve the people who sit in our Godly Play circles.

Godly Play has developed out of a distinctive understanding of the spirituality of childhood, that is, the way a child might interact with his or her sense of Self, with an Other and with the Divine. It is my conviction that the framework created by this interaction is the foundation of a spirituality for the whole of life and, therefore, we should expect to see that Godly Play is able to nurture this spirituality through all the changes of life.

Stuart Lee is chaplain to a large alms house community and also practises as a psychotherapist.

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