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Let’s play: Giving children faith-based play

Emerging after the age of “No Child Left Behind,” when parents and teacher were told they have to accelerate test scores, is an old idea with new implications and strategies: play.

In June, Clemson University hosted a Summit on the Value of Play, noting that children age10 or less may not live as long as their parents because of childhood obesity. They offered play as a no-cost remedy.

In some arenas, the church is ahead of the curve. For example, Christian Education Director Jean Osborne at Myrtle Beach’s First United Methodist Church suggested “Godly Play,” written by Jerome Berryman and published by Abingdon Press. “The child works the story and then gets him or herself into the story,” she said.

Osborne also recommended a conversation with the director of the church’s Child Development Center, Jeanne Voltz-Loomis.

Voltz-Loomis, who has earned a master’s in childhood development, has a passion for church ministry, particularly for early childhood education beginning in the church, she said. First UMC’s center has a play-based curriculum that influences the development of children’s minds, language, physical and spiritual life, she said.

One year, Voltz-Loomis found five or six wooden nativity scenes and put them out as the Christmas season approached. A playhouse in the form of a barn was set out with the figures and the children were told the nativity story. Some time later, Voltz-Loomis was looking for the wooden figures and the teacher told her the children wouldn’t let her pack them away. They were still playing with them. “I listened to them making up stories,” Voltz-Loomis said. “Maybe it wasn’t correct theology, but they were involved with the story.

“In telling the stories of our faith to our children, we have to give them the opportunity to play with the stories,” Voltz-Loomis said.

Faith-based tracks are appearing in national early-childhood organizations, such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), where Voltz-Loomis saw prop boxes used for children’s exploration at the beginning of a Bible-storytelling session, “Montessori in Sunday School.”

The demonstration story was on John baptizing Jesus. The props included simple but beautiful wooden characters. The river was a piece of winding blue felt. The story was told in rich and expressive language and the teacher ended the story with a soft, “I wonder … ,” making no further remarks and leading children to form their own questions: “Did Jesus hold his nose?” or “Did he have a towel when he got out?”

Then the children were introduced to several kinds of learning centers, one where they could play with the felt river and the figures; one with rocks and water; and a center where they looked at picture books that tell the story. There also could be a listening center with a tape player and headphones for a child to listen to the story, she said

A gazing center might include a beautiful rug for on which the children lie and look at a candle (with supervision) or a beautiful piece of artwork. “I keep emphasizing ‘beautiful’ because often children’s play items are left-overs or hand-me-downs,” Voltz-Loomis said. “The quality of items used makes the point that these stories are important and life-affecting.”

“Intrinsically children are taking in something they may not understand, but in their soul they know it has a meaning,” Voltz-Loomis said. As the children grow and change developmentally that memory is still there.

“The Way of the Child” is the United Methodist curriculum most familiar to her.

“Our own children are very musically inclined, she said. There was a tape from Psalty her family used at Christmas. “The children could sing the song, but they didn’t know “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit” was Scripture from Zechariah. Years later, they heard it in church and said, “Mom we know that from the song we used to sing.”

Voltz-Loomis believes the same concepts have something to say about working with older children and youth, too, but “there can be a lack of understanding when we plan curriculum.” While they’re able to think abstractly, they still need those hands on. You want to make their experiences as meaningful as you can. Her 5th grade class uses material called “Rock Solid” which she adapts to include more hands-on. What they need still is visual representations so they have a hook on which to hang their knowledge.

Moses as a baby is a great story, she said, and a lot of things they understand, but if presented with a plastic container with a baby floating in it, they can see it and they remember it.

David Elkind, one of Voltz-Loomis’s heroes and author of The Power of Play, says, for older children, having input into curriculum and taking part in family decision-making is considered “play.” “Learning allows us to acquire what is already known, play gives rise to new knowledge, skills and artistic products,” he wrote for The Boston Globe.

All play helps in the development of the brain and is important to the formation of a well-adjusted adult, said Dr. Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and head of the National Institute for Play at Clemson’s summit.

Children’s unstructured play time has been reduced almost 40 percent in the last 25 years because of school, organized sports, electronics and parents fear of crime – which is largely unfounded, comparing today’s and earlier crime rates.

“It’s a great cost to children not having (the opportunity) to play in nature,” Elizabeth Goodenough of the University of Michigan, said at Clemson. “By taking kids into the wild, it removes some of the wild in them.” Today’s children see nature as an abstract, she said. A visiting scholar at Clemson, Fran Mainella, told participants outdoor play has been shown to help children with attention deficit disorder.

Voltz-Loomis, a certified trainer for child-care providers, taught “Imagination in the Child’s Dance with God,” at a women’s conference at First UMC in Myrtle Beach.  It explores how young children can build their concepts of faith through imagination, play and a sense of wonder. She also led a workshop on multiculturalism and conflict resolution.

Asked about presentations in her home state, Voltz-Loomis said, “I never turn down an opportunity to help adults in their work with children. I would love to present it to any group that would benefit.”

“Children have this wonderful sense of awe and wonder that is the foundation of what we believe.” We need to find a way to encourage rather than squash that imagination and awe,” she said.

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