Discovering God through story and play

Godly Play is a catechetical programme for children

Children have an amazing capacity for understanding spirituality, but is often underestimated because they don’t have the vocabulary to express it, says Cora O’Farrell, a lecturer in Religious Education in St Patrick’s College of Education, Dublin.

Cora is part of a team made up by Kate Cavanagh, Rita Moroney and Jessie Rogers, who are introducing the Godly Play programme to Ireland. 

Godly Play teaches children the art of using Christian language – parable, sacred story, silence and liturgical action – to help them understand the mystery of God’s presence in their lives.

It uses the Montessori approach to education which puts the teacher in the role of a storyteller guiding the children to make their own discoveries, rather than telling them what they need to know. Godly Play is not about learning off lessons but understanding how each of the stories connect with the child’s own experience and relationship with God, by engaging with their curiosity and imagination.

The programme was developed by an American Episcopalian pastor, Jerome W. Berryman, after he encountered the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd programme in Rome in the 1970s. He set up the Centre for Theology of Childhood centre with his wife and the Godly Play programme has now expanded worldwide across all Christian denominations.

Although it was originally developed as a resource for children aged 3 to 6, Godly Play is now being used with a wide range of age groups in a diverse settings including churches, schools, hospitals and care homes for the elderly.

Cora has used it with her own student teachers and she says they have found it very beneficial. “The response from the students in college was overwhelmingly positive,” she says. “I have also done a little bit of work in schools with it, and what I like most about it, is that it is invitational. You are free to respond whatever way you want, it is not indoctrination. It is something I wanted to give my students in Religious Education and it doesn’t demand the person delivering it to be immersed in theology.

“I was really taken by it, and I am interested in seeing does it have a place in primary school classrooms but also parish catechesis – it is a great way of developing children’s spirituality.”

When Cora first heard of Godly Play she decided to attend a training course in Britain and to try and track down Kate Cavanagh, who is originally from Northern Ireland but was based in Britain at the time and using the programme. Jessie, a lecturer in Theology in Mary Immaculate College in Limerick and Rita, a member of the parish pastoral council in Scariff, Co. Clare, were also researching the programme, and the four ladies came together to form a core group in 2012.

Taster sessions

Since then they have launched Godly Play centres in Limerick, Clare and Dublin, and offered training and taster sessions throughout the country. 

In Godly Play there are usually two adults present, each with a set role – the storyteller who leads group time and tells the story and the ‘door-person’ who greets the children and offers help in more practical ways.

“The children are crossing the threshold into a different space,” Cora explains, “and the door person would ask them are they ready to come into Godly Play so they understand that this something unique.

“They sit down in circle around the storyteller in the centre who will give a presentation on a scripture story or a presentation from liturgy – an old testament story, new testament story, a parable, something from the baptism liturgy – using a learned script and specific gestures,” Cora says.

“Then the storyteller goes through a series of wondering questions with the children to explore the content presented – ‘I wonder which part of the story you liked best’, ‘I wonder which part of the story was most important’. It is a collective wondering, and the teacher or storyteller is not there to say what the correct answer is.”

A major part of the storyteller’s role is to lead this ‘wondering’ period, inviting reflections, observations and accepting all contributions as equally valuable. There is no attempt to reach a conclusion or to explain what the story means. It allows the child to experience for themselves  how God can speak in personally meaningful ways through Bible stories.

“After that the children are allowed to respond in whatever way they want, some might want to use clay or colouring, read the Bible, play with materials themselves – they choose what they want to do,” Cora says.

“The storyteller doesn’t check that work – it is not corrected or marked. Then we come together for a little feast, which usually means sharing a drink or a treat.”

Every story in Godly Play has its own handcrafted set of figures or objects, which the children are encouraged to handle and play with. There are also set scripts for the stories where the emphasis is on simplicity, and silence and gesture are an important part of this.

Jerome Berryman says one of the misunderstandings about Godly Play is that it costs a lot of money. “What it does cost is a lot of time, awareness, consistency, an appreciation for the method, and the time it takes to become fluent in the presentations.

“That is all very difficult to be sure, but it is not pounds and pence.”

He advises getting a copy of the second edition of Teaching Godly Play, How to Mentor the Spiritual Development of Children (2009) so you can master the method, and The Complete Guide to Godly Play Volumes 2, 3 and 4 to learn the presentations. However, he says if you have no materials, you can use your hands as if you did have them.


“There is a lot of Godly Play in Africa. They make their materials out of what they have or just put down something in the circle for the children to focus on and let their imaginations do the rest. They are closer to an oral storytelling tradition than we are, but the point is that Godly Play is much more than the materials,” he says. 

“Godly Play is really creative and it actually draws out the best in children,” Cora says. “It honours their immense capacity, which isn’t always recognised in religious education.

“The more I experience it the more I have grown to love it and even to deliver it is an amazing experience,” Cora says.

“It allows children a space to express a spirituality that they don’t have a language for. They can express it through the medium of art or gesture, and it allows that silent space that they are not really getting anywhere else in their lives,” she says.

“The spiritual lives of children in Ireland are not honoured to the extent that they should be and if it is not honoured in childhood then it is almost quenched in adulthood. A lot of stuff is dumbed down for children, but they have an amazing capacity that we can underestimate. Parents can see that children are thirsting for this.”