Last month I shared ways to help our children learn through play. This month I found this wonderful article by Tanya Marlow about sharing her faith with her son through role-play. What a wonderful time of year to begin using this type of play to teach the story of Jesus’ birth.
Let Us Play
by Tanya Marlow at: Tanyamarlow.com
“You can be Jesus.” My little boy says this to me last Advent, when we are playing together in my day room on a particularly dark and rainy day.
I can “be Jesus” – he wants me to pretend to be the Son of God, made incarnate as a baby. I sit on the sofa, and in the few seconds I have before I respond to him, I try to sort through the complex emotions surrounding his request.
His favourite thing in the world is role-play, and every day he finds stories to enter into – Superman rescuing an orphan girl, or Cinderella going to the ball, or Aladdin on a magic carpet flying all over the world. The nativity story is just one more story to enter into, and it’s a good one, with secondary characters of angels and shepherds and the best, most holy kind of magic.
He is already talking, bustling around with cushions as props, arranging a stable as he prepares to be Joseph, and I try to catch my thoughts. I can be Jesus. Why am I struggling with the concept? It still feels slightly blasphemous – I think that is my problem. How can I pretend to be Jesus? Am I breaking one of the ten commandments, making a false image of God? What if I get it wrong…?
And there, right there, I realise what is at the heart of my hesitation. Play is dangerous, because I might get it wrong. We might stumble into blasphemy along the way. I am someone who needs to get it right. It feels written through my identity, like a stick of rock: I am someone who does the right thing, and gets it right. I am the good girl.
Playing is a kind of rebellion. To pretend to be God, even in play with my three-year-old, shakes and challenges my very core.
It was about two years ago that I first came across Alice Buckley’s blog, Play on the Word. A friend had recommended it to me as a good resource for parents who want to introduce Jesus to their children. When I read her site, it was utterly revolutionary: at once intuitive and counter-intuitive.
Her thesis is simply this: Children love to play. So the best way to introduce them to Jesus is not just through books or discussions but through play, either with art and craft, messy play (don’t get me started on my hang-ups with making a mess in play…) or role play.
I read her website again: yes, she really did mean role play. But that meant not just acting out lines and the ‘right things’, but improvisation. And that meant departure from the Bible, a filling in of gaps as we explored together how it might have been. Again, that question – what if I get it wrong?
But it felt peculiarly liberating, as I read her website, to realise she was giving me permission to share my faith with my son in his native language, the language of play. I took a deep breath and entered into the story with him.
First I played Mary, and he was the angel Gabriel. This Gabriel was so excited to share the news that his eyes grew wide and he bounced up and down at the annunciation. Then he switched to Joseph, and he was a very protective and organised Joseph.
I was now Mary in the stable, so I dared to play: I groaned, I rubbed my back in agony, I moaned at Joseph to make the pain stop. I said I was worried about giving birth in the dirt.
Joseph, to his credit, stroked my hair and told me he had found a broom, and started sweeping out the stable. Then he stopped, because there, on our blue and white carpet, was a one-penny piece.
“Mary!” my boy exclaimed. “Look! I’ve found some money. I’ll just go out to the shops and buy a present for baby Jesus so he has a toy to play with!”
It was entirely anachronistic, and entirely perfect.
I am exploring what it means to have a theology of play. Alice Buckley is helping me with that, as is my now four-year-old. I am more relaxed about it than I was last year, and I am catching some of that excitement of what it means to enter into the story. Play is a rebellion, but not against God, against my perfectionist and control-freak tendencies.
I still can’t articulate it properly – I feel like I’m on the cusp of discovering something more about myself, and creativity, and meditation, and God. I am the person who likes to be able to explain everything – but I can’t talk it, and I can’t fully write it, but I feel it, and I am experiencing it.
I am wondering if we are designed for play, even as adults. I am wondering if God likes to play, too.
“You can be Jesus now,” he says, and in a matter of seconds before we start the next part of our play, I consider how to be Jesus.
Through my head runs the mystery of God who created outer space contained in a dark womb for nine months, God who shaped the blue whale gripping onto Mary’s thumb, the Creator who spoke roaring waves into existence screaming with tiny lungs.
“Goo goo, ga ga,” I said, and as I look up at my son from the carpet, I gaze with fresh wonder.
Thank you, Tanya, for sharing your experience and your thoughts on sharing your faith through role play.
Why not try some role play with your little one this Christmas season? If your baby is too young to role play, take the time to tell the wonderful Christmas story. Your child will absorb your enthusiasm and begin to love one of the greatest stories ever told!