Excerpt from Spiritual Conversations with Children
Birds fly, fish swim, and chil­dren play. —Gar­ry Landreth 

In Mark 8:22 – 26 we catch a glimpse of a play­ful Jesus. 

When a blind man asks for heal­ing, Jesus leads him out of the vil­lage — where pre­sum­ably there were few­er spec­ta­tors — and then as John records it, pro­ceeds to make mud with his own spit ( John 9:6). There is some­thing child­like and play­ful about Jesus heal­ing a blind man with mud made from his own spit. Per­haps Jesus tapped into his own child­hood self for this mir­a­cle. But things get even more play­ful when at first it seems the mud does not com­plete­ly resolve the prob­lem. The man sees some­thing like trees” walk­ing. The lack of effi­cien­cy found in two tries and the will­ing­ness to test the process are ele­ments found in play. Light­ness, free­dom, vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, and heal­ing flow from play. Jesus seems to have known that and like his Father has an infi­nite capac­i­ty for play. 

Play is the moth­er tongue of chil­dren. Adults com­mu­ni­cate through ver­bal­iza­tion, but chil­dren who are new to words com­mu­ni­cate through play and move­ment. Play is an essen­tial part of hav­ing spir­i­tu­al con­ver­sa­tions with chil­dren. It is the pri­ma­ry com­mu­ni­ca­tion medi­um. In play chil­dren use toys or objects to express, engage, and work out their inner life. Play pro­vides a sym­bol­ic lan­guage of self-expres­sion” that can offer us clues to what the child has expe­ri­enced. Dur­ing play, chil­dren reflect on and make mean­ing of their expe­ri­ences, and they resolve the ques­tions that have been stirred up by those expe­ri­ences. Play allows a child a mea­sure of con­trol in a life gov­erned by adults and can help chil­dren feel more secure and safe. Play is more of a process and less of an out­come, which in itself is a free­dom and a char­ac­ter­is­tic of spir­i­tu­al con­ver­sa­tions. And we can be sure that since play is the pri­ma­ry mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion for chil­dren, God speaks the lan­guage of play. 

Play and Pro­jec­tion: Tools for Knowing 

Play and pro­jec­tion are tools for know­ing God and know­ing self when lis­ten­ing to God with chil­dren. Play can incor­po­rate won­der and mys­tery as well as cre­ate the con­di­tions for union. An exam­ple of spir­i­tu­al con­ver­sa­tions with chil­dren is play­ing out the scene of the good Shep­herd with wood­en objects depict­ing the sto­ry. The adult first tells the sto­ry of the good Shep­herd, accord­ing to a child­like ver­sion of Psalm 23, using wood­en objects. Then the adult invites the child to play the sto­ry. The frame­work of play­ing the sto­ry” is the sto­ry itself, sim­ply told by the adult. The child is then invit­ed to retell that sto­ry and to fill in the frame­work with their own vari­a­tions, imag­i­na­tions, and knowledge. 

For exam­ple, I have wit­nessed sev­er­al chil­dren move the Shep­herd to tame the lion, who rep­re­sents the ene­my want­i­ng to harm the sheep in Psalm 23. The Shep­herd tam­ing the lion is not part of the bib­li­cal sto­ry in this pas­sage, but it does rep­re­sent the deep­er long­ing chil­dren have for peace and har­mo­ny. I have also seen chil­dren move the lion to kill every­one, the Shep­herd and the sheep. The killer lion is cer­tain­ly not part of the bib­li­cal sto­ry either. Here we get a glimpse of the aggres­sion, anger, and frus­tra­tion that the child feels. The adult lis­tens and watch­es for the move­ment of the Spir­it as the child plays. Some­times the Spir­it will prompt a divine­ly curi­ous ques­tion, I won­der why the lion is attack­ing the sheep?” or reflect back, I see that the lion is angry.” 

Some­times the child will invite the adult into the play, You be the shep­herd” or You be the lion.” As the guest in the play, the adult allows the child to direct. Adults do not step in and reroute, direct, or cor­rect the play in any way. We rest in the unwa­ver­ing real­i­ty that the Spir­it is attend­ing what­ev­er is hap­pen­ing with­in the child. For the child, God is their play partner. 

Keep­ing Cather­ine Garvey’s five cri­te­ria of play in mind can help us to notice when a child has moved into play and remind us to sur­ren­der our need to prob­lem solve or direct the play. 

  1. Play is pleasurable. 
  2. Play is done for itself. 
  3. Play is voluntary. 
  4. Play involves deep concentration. 
  5. Play has links to the cre­ative process, prob­lem solv­ing, the learn­ing of lan­guages and social roles.

What­ev­er toys or oth­er mate­ri­als used need to be care­ful­ly cho­sen. The toys must be both engag­ing and bor­ing enough that a sto­ry can be pro­ject­ed on them. For exam­ple, video games are engag­ing, but they are not bor­ing or blank enough to be used in spir­i­tu­al con­ver­sa­tions with chil­dren. Toys need to be able to facil­i­tate cre­ative, emo­tion­al, and expe­ri­en­tial expres­sion. Per­haps it goes with­out say­ing, but toys also need to be orga­nized and well kept. A space full of bro­ken elec­tron­ic toys will dis­tract rather than engage. The aim is to open the space for the child to be heard in the lan­guage most nat­ur­al to them. The aim is not to enter­tain or pla­cate the child. Play and enter­tain­ment are not the same. Inter­est­ing enough enter­tain­ment does not gen­er­al­ly draw us into con­nec­tion and self-rev­e­la­tion. Play, how­ev­er, chan­nels the con­nec­tive ener­gy of expe­ri­ence and exploration. 

Chil­dren project their inte­ri­or life through the objects dur­ing play. As a result, their pro­jec­tion is a help­ful tool for spir­i­tu­al con­ver­sa­tion in that it expos­es a bit of their inte­ri­or lives to the light of day and the pray­ing pres­ence of a lis­ten­ing adult. Chil­dren often project their most press­ing emo­tion or need dur­ing play, mean­ing that the objects they play with and the char­ac­ter­is­tic of the play mir­ror their own emo­tion or need. Chil­dren play out their con­cerns and sor­rows, their joys and tri­umphs. Chil­dren also play out their per­cep­tions of God, of self, and of the author­i­ty fig­ures in their lives. They often play the same theme over and over again as they work through it. When a child ceas­es to explore a par­tic­u­lar theme in play, the adult lis­ten­er can assume that the child has found a res­o­lu­tion that sat­is­fies them for the time being. Play allows chil­dren to not only get in touch with God, but it allows chil­dren to get in touch with their own inner wis­dom. When a lis­ten­ing adult is allowed to wit­ness these sacred per­cep­tions and pro­gres­sions, the room becomes holy ground. 

Cre­at­ing as Play 

Chil­dren also play by cre­at­ing. Hav­ing art mate­ri­als on hand like water­col­or paints and water­col­or paper or clay to sculpt can pro­vide anoth­er medi­um for pro­jec­tion. Chil­dren who are not famil­iar with Jesus or who may have dif­fer­ent reli­gious tra­di­tions not con­nect­ed to Jesus need not miss out on the gift of a lis­ten­ing adult. Invit­ing a child to draw or cre­ate some­thing that tells the sto­ry of their expe­ri­ence of good­ness, beau­ty, or truth encap­su­lates the ben­e­fits of pro­jec­tion and con­nects the child with their Cre­ator through the act of cre­ation. Chil­dren are born cre­ators and will build or shape almost any­thing to express them­selves. LEGO blocks are a won­der­ful medi­um for chil­dren to cre­ate their com­mu­ni­ca­tion with God. 

In any giv­en lis­ten­ing ses­sion, play­ing and cre­at­ing might look like imag­in­ing a sto­ry with the char­ac­ters from Inside Out, a Pixar film about feel­ings, to tell about anger, sad­ness, joy, fear, or dis­gust. It might look like play­ing out one of the sto­ries from the life of Jesus with wood­en toys. It might look like play­ing a game of Jen­ga while explor­ing exis­ten­tial ques­tions. Through imag­i­na­tion, play helps chil­dren inte­grate their out­er world and their inner per­cep­tion of meaning.”

Soak­ing It In 

The fol­low­ing are sug­gest­ed top­ics for con­ver­sa­tion with God, with oth­ers, or even with your­self. As a child’s con­ver­sa­tion with God includes activ­i­ty, allow these activ­i­ties to be conversation. 

  • Locate a place to observe chil­dren at play. The nurs­ery at your local house of wor­ship or a preschool are good places to check. Be sure to obtain per­mis­sion, explain­ing that you are seek­ing to learn to hear” chil­dren while they are playing. 
    • As you are observ­ing, notice your own thoughts or feel­ings. Do some of your own child­hood expe­ri­ences come to mind? 
    • Notice one child who cap­tures your atten­tion, ask the Spir­it to help you hear” what the child is say­ing through prayer. What long­ings or desires do you hear? Pray for this child while listening. 
  • Locate a child who will teach you to play. It may be a fam­i­ly mem­ber or a friend of your fam­i­ly. Ask the child to teach you to play. Allow the child to choose the activ­i­ty and direct you while you play. 
    • Notice your res­o­nance and resis­tance while playing. 
    • Notice when you lose track of time. 
  • What is one thing you liked to do when you were a child? Did you love to dance, ride hors­es, or paint? Take some time to rein­tro­duce your­self to this play practice.

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Tak­en from Spir­i­tu­al Con­ver­sa­tions with Chil­dren by Lacy Finn Bor­go Copy­right © 2020 by Lacy Finn Bor­go. Pub­lished by Inter­Var­si­ty Press, Down­ers Grove, IL. www​.ivpress​.com

Pho­to by Caleb Angel on Unsplash

Originally published February 2020