Toddler Group Inspiration – Small Saints

small-saintsA few weeks ago, I visited Ruth Harley’s  “Small Saints” toddler group in High Wycombe, along with one of our Diocese’s Children’s Workers. The group happens at the same time as a cafe in the church, so there were people of different generations using the church in different ways.

I managed to capture a bit of the storytelling – they were doing Jonah and the whale. Here are a few tips I noticed from how Ruth told the story.

  1. The children are involved – they’re touching the cloth and moving it. Under-5s are very physical.
  2. She keeps it short. The video is 90 seconds, and I’d only missed about a minute of the story. Toddler attention spans are not long.
  3. She asks questions. “What do you think happened next?”
  4. She lets the story be a story. She finishes by saying “that’s our story for today” – she doesn’t turn it into a moral. Children’s imaginations are sparked by stories – immediately repeating a moral can ruin the story’s power for them. (Wondering together about the story in an open-ended way is different, but difficult with a group primarily of 2-and-3-year-olds.)

Click here for the video.

Another brilliant thing Ruth did was have several of the songs in singing time be Christian songs that were sung to familiar nursery rhyme tunes. This made it much easier for the mums and dads to join in (and repeat the songs at home) since they already knew the music. Here are two.

To the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down”

God is with us when we sing, when we sing, when we sing,

God is with us when we sing, God is with us.

(repeat with “jump, stamp, clap, etc” – doing all the actions as you sing them. If you need to calm the children down, you can finish with “sleep.”)

To the tune of “Row Row Row Your Boat”

Worship God today, worship with a clap!

Joyfully, joyfully, joyfully, joyfully, worship with a clap!

(again, do the movements as you sing them – repeat with whatever movements you like, including suggestions from the children.)

Advertisements

Author we love: Lois Rock

If you work with under-5s, you probably know Lois Rock. If you don’t, you have a treat in store.

Probably best known for her toddler-friendly “My Very First Bible,” Rock has also edited and written books of prayers, and authored “My Very First Christmas,” which includes Christmas folklore and legends as well as the Christmas story.  She has also written Christening gift books and some secular non-fiction that can be used for pastoral care of families, like helping children adjust to a new baby in the house.

Many of the stories from “My Very First Bible” are also available as individual books – some in big-book format, which is great for large groups.

Her writing is clear and simple without being simplistic. She doesn’t talk down to children. She includes some of the non-story parts of the Bible, such as the Lord’s Prayer, by showing how they came to be told. And, in many cases, she adds vital details that are often left out of retellings for very young children – for example, it’s made clear, in her retelling of the Good Samaritan, that Jesus’s listeners wouldn’t have liked the Samaritans. So the crucial element – that the parable isn’t just about “being nice” but about rethinking who your enemies are – is maintained.

An extra note of praise must be given to the illustrator of many of her books, Alex Ayliffe. The illustrations, like the text, are simple without being simplistic, and contain lots of little details that children will notice. The colours are bright, and the shapes attractive even to babies. Sophie Allsopp illustrates some of her others, with wonder and charm.

Author we love: Jenny Koralek

Jenny Koralek has written three retellings of Old Testament stories for children aged 7 – 11: Queen Esther, The Moses Basket, and The Coat of Many Colours.

She’s also done collections of classic fairy tales, and a retelling of a Christmas legend about the Flight into Egypt.

The books tell the stories in beautiful, clear prose, and give enough background detail on the political situation in which they occurred – not always easy when working with the Moses and Esther stories for children.

Her illustrators (Pauline Baynes for the Joseph and Moses stories, Grizelda Holderness for Esther) do beautiful, intricate work that complements the text perfectly. It’s also worth pointing out that both illustrators use realistic flesh tones for the characters – they look like Middle Easterners, not Northern Europeans.

Highly recommended, especially the Esther story – it’s one of the few Old Testament stories with a brave female heroine, and you don’t see enough versions of it for children.

Starburst conference handouts and slides

This Saturday, I had the privilege of attending the Starburst conference in the Diocese of Peterborough, and leading workshops on All-Age Worship and Storytelling.

Below are the slides from the workshops, and all the handouts, in case you missed out. (The Worship Clock and the Elements of Worship sheet are missing – I don’t have access to them today, so I’ll post them tomorrow.)

For more on the Beulah Land “fuzzy felt” Bible storytelling, you can visit Mustard Seed Kids (be aware this is my company, so there’s a conflict of interest).

For more on Godly Play, visit Gody Play UK’s website.

Starburst All-Age Worship (presentation slides)

Starburst Storytelling (presentation slides)

Basic Resource List Starburst

Going to Church No Diocesan Branding

Going to Church Older No Diocesan Branding

Helping Kids With Behaviour In Church

Whispering in Church

The Big Story – concepts

Pray and Play Corners_full versionPray and Play Corners_full version2Pray and Play Corners_full version3Pray and Play Corners_full version4

All-Age Worship Ideas, Part 2

Today, my dears, we look at STORYTELLING.

In the standard Anglican Eucharist, there’s a looooong section of pretty talky stuff, from the end of the first hymn through to the end of the prayers.  That’s about 30-45 minutes of very verbal worship, including:

  1. Opening collect, confession, and absolution
  2. Three Bible readings of wildly varying length
  3. A sermon
  4. Intercessions, also of wildly varying length

Yes, there’s some music mixed up in there, but overwhelmingly, the expectation is “sit still and listen, and learn orally.”

Anything that can be done to break up this chunk of text is a good thing – not just for children, who, in general, have short attention spans and less social conditioning to hide their boredom, but for adults whose learning styles may vary just as much as children’s do.

Which is not to say that you need to jazz up your service with bouncy castles, a juggling act, interpretive dance, stand-up comedy routines, and a mariachi band, but rather, think about ways in which, while maintaining your church’s tradition, you can perhaps open up the liturgy a bit to some creative new ideas.

The easiest way to do this is by trimming down the Liturgy of the Word – possibly cutting one of the non-Gospel readings – and thinking about how to bring the main story of the day to life in a meaningful way.  Note: THIS IS NOT NECESSARILY THE GOSPEL!

Here are some of the things I’ve done – and some of the mistakes I’ve made. Learn from my failures!

Acting it out.

This is the same Pentecost service I featured in Monday’s post. The children had made flames on sticks in the same Sunday School session as making their doves, a week or two before Pentecost, and had also practiced acting out the story.  We had one final practice half an hour before the service started.  The right-hand picture shows them going out into the “streets of Jerusalem” and telling the congregation the good news – I gave them a line to use: “Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and he is Lord!” if they wanted to actually talk to people but didn’t know what to say.

I was the reader for this lesson, which meant I could pause and nudge them if they forgot what to do – and the general atmosphere was welcoming and informal. They weren’t being judged on a standard of performance; that’s not what this is about. This is about enhancing their understanding of the story through inhabiting it, and helping the adults in the congregation see it through fresh eyes. We’ve all done it – heard the first line of the lesson, gone, “oh, I know this story,” and spent the rest of the reading paging through the notices to find out when the garden party is. If there’s something to look at, something happening, adults are forced to actually pay attention to the story !

If you like, you can also act out the story with adults and children together. The Candlemas story is good for this – choose a matriarch and patriarch of the church to be Simeon and Anna, and teenagers to be Mary and Joseph. If you’re able to have a real baby, even better!

You can also do ad hoc performances, with very little rehearsal. The Moses story on Mothering Sunday is particularly good for this one – with a blue length of fabric and some active seven-year-olds to shake it, you have a river, and then you just need a baby doll in a basket, someone to be Moses’s mother and Miriam, someone to be Pharaoh’s daughter, and, if you have extras, you can have a group of Egyptians and tell them to order around a group of Israelites at the start to establish the social order.

Again, this is usually all done by miming – I don’t give the children lines to read (except for the Passion Play on Palm Sunday). I read the text of the lesson – when I’m directing an ad hoc performance, I’ll take a break, and, with a slightly less formal but still reverent tone, turn from the microphone and give instructions (e.g., “all right, now the Egyptians, you can pretend to hit and order around the Israelites – be careful to only pretend.”).  By keeping my tone elevated, I don’t detract from the importance of the story, or break the mood.

LEARN FROM MY FAILURE: If the story you’re acting out is the Gospel, you’ll need to have the congregation sit for it, against all their instincts, or else they won’t be able to see.

Using Beulah Land

11338301463_6fbcfbd4a3_o

Unlike Godly Play, Beulah Land is large-scale enough to easily be used in All-Age Worship. You can use the scripts that come with it, or you can use the original Biblical text.

harvest

I told the story by moving the feltboard to lean on the front of the altar. After I was done, I moved it to the back, where it was still visible, but not in the way of the altar.  This feltboard shows a story from Harvest Festival, showing the people of Israel remembering how the Lord had saved them from slavery in Egypt, and offering him sacrifices of thanksgiving in return. The Beulah Land stories don’t cover that particular reading, but the pieces are so flexible that with a little imagination, they can be used for stories that aren’t in the manuals. (Our Diocesan Office has the first two Beulah Land sets, and these can be borrowed – email youthoffice@stalbans.anglican.org for more information)

Beulah Land also has a script for the Apostle’s Creed, so you can use it for that as well as for storytelling.

LEARN FROM MY FAILURE: If you’re reading the script AND telling the story, make sure you have a good microphone and that you’re confident enough in the words to be mostly off-book. If someone else is reading, make sure you practice with them ahead of time so they know if there’s a place where they need to PAUSE to let you finish putting up some pieces!

Using Props

I’ve done this once, and it was actually an unqualified success, so I don’t have a “learn from my failure” lesson here – and the reason it was a success is because I’d done it before, at a conference, so I’d had a chance to practice. So that would be my tip.

The story was the commissioning of the 70 Disciples – they’re sent out in pairs, told to bring nothing with them, and return to Jesus astonished at the power they’ve discovered in themselves, from him.

I’d been at a conference (see below) where the commissioning of the 12 was told in this way, so it was easy to adapt.  ecce

I took 5 chairs, labelled 1 “Jesus” and the others “Disciple,” and brought them onto the chancel at the start of the reading.

I read the Biblical text in sections, and moved the chairs around – when the disciples were sent out, I moved them away from Jesus, and wondered aloud how they might move and where they might go. “Maybe some of them stayed close to Jesus. Maybe some rushed straight out. Maybe some turned around at the door to look back,” all the while moving the chairs.

In a congregation more inclined to get up and move around, I would have invited congregation members to join me in moving the chairs – “how do you think they might have moved?”

When the Disciples went out among the people, I moved them into the congregation, right up close to people. “I wonder what the people in the villages thought when these strange new people arrived? What did they think or feel when they started telling them about Jesus?” And then I’d go back and read the next section of the Biblical text.

The chairs idea is very flexible, as it can be used for any story in which individual characters (as opposed to “the people” collectively) are important to the narrative.  But there are a few other easy ways to use props:

If you’re doing the story of Creation, you can use props to build a world as you tell it (some pot plants, stuffed animals, blue fabric to be the water, lamps to be the lights, a pop-up tent as the firmament if you’re feeling ambitious …

If you’re doing the Christmas story, you can start with an empty crib and add the figures to it one by one, wondering as you do so what each of them thought and felt at crucial moments of the story.

Blue fabric can be water or sky, red fabric can be flames.  An electric fan can create wind. A party popper, hidden in your palm and popped with no warning at “HAIL, O FAVOURED ONE!” can create a genuinely surprised reaction to the appearance of Gabriel in the Annunciation story.  Hiding an object under a blanket can create tension and suspense for any story that involves waiting for something to be revealed (e.g. the giving of the Ten Commandments – you can paint cardboard ones and hide them – Christmas, many of the Parables of the Lost.)

Items placed in the pews and brought up during the story can be useful – if you’re doing Noah’s Ark or the Peaceable Kingdom, you can place stuffed animals in the pews and have them brought up and create a safe place for them all and for any children who want to join them.  If you’re doing Harvest Festival and are dealing with some bit of Deuteronomy about giving our duty to the Lord, you can have images of the work we do in school and in our offices/workplaces/homes set about the church and brought up to the altar.

Puppets and Videos:

You may notice I haven’t said a word about puppets or about videos – two other very popular forms of storytelling.  This is because I have no experience in these methods myself – I’m not a puppet person, and the church I served doesn’t have video screens (though I have used videos in Sunday School and Assemblies).  This series is focused on my own experiences, not general rules – I do mention puppets and videos in my wider All-Age Worship training.  Please feel free, if you have personal stories of using these or other methods, to mention them in the comments!

Some General Guidelines:

  1. Don’t succumb to the temptation to get cutesy or twee.  Take the stories – and the spirituality of the children and adults hearing them – seriously.
  2. Unless you have a really really good reason, stick as closely as you can to the point of view of the original. Feel free to wonder about what different people were thinking and feeling, but you don’t need to re-write the story of the Baptism of Jesus to be all about the dramatic backstory and life-changing conversion of some random Galilean who happened to be at the river that day.
  3. Allow openness of interpretation. Don’t finish with, “and what that story teaches us is …” or expect to receive instant summations of neat moral lessons from your congregation in response to your telling.  Allow time to “hear, mark, learn, and inwardly digest,” and for your congregation, including the children, to make meaning of it for themselves, over time. You’re giving them the gift of a story – let them explore it in their own time and in their own ways.
  4. If children are performing, remember, at all times, that the story they’re telling is more important than how they’re telling it. If you’re rehearsing, keep the focus on the fact that you’re doing an important job in telling God’s story to others – yes, you need to make sure they’re on at the right times and doing the right actions, but the message is more important than the performance skills.
  5. If you’re stuck with a random or dull story (see: Harvest Festival readings all about agricultural practice in Palestine 3000 years ago), spend some time thinking about what that story meant to the people who wrote it down, and where it fits into the overall story of salvation. Don’t be afraid to add a bit of context at the beginning – you can explain that the people were about to enter the Promised Land, that Moses was about to die, that he was telling them all about how to be God’s people and the promises they had made to God and God to them, and so on. Moses constantly reminds people of the Exodus in these readings, so you can act out that part of it and then act out the sacrifices the people were supposed to bring God. This can lead to wondering about how we show God that we’re thankful for what he gives us. Are we good at it? Do we remember to do it? Does God abandon us when we don’t remember to say ‘thank you’ to him? These readings, with a bit of context, can easily be brought around to broad questions of the relationship between God and his people, and our stewardship of the earth and of each other.

Next time: All-Age Worship maintaining themes and symbols THROUGH A SEASON – I know it’s August, but the best photos I have are of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, so that’s what we’ll do. I’ll try to get some good photos of Advent and Christmas this year and share those for next year!

Storytelling!

We had a lovely morning on Saturday exploring storytelling. The Powerpoint for the keynote address, “What Story Are We Telling?” is at the bottom of this entry – it looks at what the Bible has in common with Cinderella, includes a quote from The Princess Bride, and also asks us how the stories we tell ourselves might be holding our churches back. A lot of it was inspired by the Revd. Ally Barrett and the Revd. Jeremy Fletcher, from their work at the “Formed By Story” conference for Children’s Work Advisors. They’re credited in the document.

Here are a few photos. Unfortunately, since I couldn’t be in every workshop, and I was leading one, the photos are fairly limited! If anyone who was there has some more, I’d love to see them.

27034632234_11abcccf5b_k
Exploring Multi-Sensory Storytelling – we turned a tent into a whale, cutting and sticking on eyes and teeth.
27034635954_cd843a051f_k
We did this while listening to the story. Children who find it hard to sit still and listen may take in more of the story if they have something to do while listening.
27034624454_d4c5497dfc_k
Then we actually went INTO THE WHALE. The tent was set up over a full immersion font. If your church doesn’t have this, there are many ways of creating a similar dark space. Use an under stairs area with a curtain, or make a den out of chairs.
27034618304_02f466571c_k
Inside the whale, it was dark. We heard whale noises. We smelled and touched fish.
27035857693_4b5d2d94ae_k
This is from the second workshop, exploring Beulah Land – the feltboard storytelling resource.  We have Beulah Land available to borrow from the Diocesan Resource Centre – it comes with the script and all the felt pieces.
27612047116_c95715141a_k
It’s not that scary to have a go … here, Jessica tells the Exodus story.

What story are we telling (PowerPoint presentation)

New storytelling idea!

childrenThis blog has been very quiet, since I spent last week at the European Conference of Christian Educators, in High Leigh. With delegates from at least six countries, it was a fascinating and inspiring week, with many things I’d love to pass on to you.

I’m going to start with a very simple one, which we did several times and yielded very profound results.  It’s a storytelling method called a “Bibliologue” – a portmanteau of Bible and dialogue.  Those of you who use Godly Play, or who do wondering questions, will find it very familiar, but with a few important differences.  For example, the wondering takes place throughout the story, not just at the end, and the wondering is focused specifically on the characters, leaving out symbol, imagery, analysis, etc.

The structure is this:

Explain the ground rules.  There are only two: 1) there are no right or wrong answers, and 2) nobody has to participate who doesn’t want to.

Read or tell a part of the story.

Pause and invite the listeners to imagine they’re a particular character, and to speak, as that character, about what they’re thinking or feeling at this point.

Read or tell the next part of the story.

Choose another character, and ask the listeners to imagine they’re now this character, and, again, respond as that character to what’s happening now.

Repeat until the story is done.

Even with my years of storytelling, I was surprised at how effective this simple technique was for bringing the story to life in new ways.

We found it helped to focus not just on the main characters, but on the incidental ones – for example, in the story of Jesus calling James and John, Mark mentions that James and John left their father in the boat “with the hired hands,” and we imagined what the hired hands might have thought of what was happening.

There are also non-verbal ways of responding – for example, one of the stories we explored was Jesus sending out the twelve disciples for the first time. The leader brought out 5 chairs, one labelled “Jesus” and four labelled “Disciple,” and invited us to come up and move the chairs to create a tableau of how we imagined the scene.  Were the Disciples staying close to Jesus or eager to get going? Was Jesus facing them as they left, or had he turned away?  Were the Disciples already branching out into pairs or were they staying together until they had to separate?

I plan to use this in my own Sunday School, and will report back! Meanwhile, if you give it a go, let me know how you get on, and share any top tips or “learn from my fail” lessons you learn!

Why do we tell the story?

I’m working on my talk for our upcoming Storytelling training morning (June 11th at St. Luke’s, Watford – free! Talk to Julie to book your spot, by emailing youthoffice@stalbans.anglican.org.)

Storytelling is central to so much of our work, and we often take it for granted. We talk about doing it well, but how often do we pause to think WHY we’re doing it in the first place?

And of course, our theology of storytelling – our thoughts on why we do it – will inform our practice.

These are some of my thoughts on the function of storytelling as part of worship and Christian nurture. Of course, many people will have elements of many of these – they’re not in direct competition with one another. But which ones are most important to you, and why, will probably affect which stories you tell, and how.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.storytelling

Stories pass on meaning.  Stories help us figure out the world and our place in it, the struggles of our lives, our relationships with one another, and – in Biblical storytelling – our relationship with God.  With this theology, the story becomes a gift or a road map – something you equip the child with to help them through their journey.  Central to this theology of storytelling is the idea that we each have to make that meaning for ourselves. We have to struggle with the story and figure out how to apply it to our lives. Storytelling based around this theology will strenuously avoid being didactic. It may focus on the struggles of Biblical characters, and of the whole people of Israel, more than their triumphs.  It will seek to address broad themes, such as belonging, loss, and salvation.

Stories create a group identity. When you come into a new organisation, you hear anecdotes about the people and events that have gone before, and by becoming familiar with these stories of the past, you become integrated into the group.  Storytelling that focuses on this theology may be focused on the stories of “the people” as a whole, rather than stories of individuals.  It may emphasise the historical elements of the stories more than the mythical.  It may focus heavily on the stories of the church since the time of Jesus, and on the saints, looking at the community of believers through the ages and our connections to them.  Part of creating this group identity is telling us where we come from – part of what binds the group together is the claiming of our shared history.  “This is who we are, because this is what’s happened to us.”

Stories create an individual identity.  One place in modern society where this function of storytelling is very obvious is in fan culture. By claiming a kinship to the story – be it Star Wars, Doctor Who, or The Hunger Games – a person makes that story a large part of their personal concept of themselves.  Storytelling that focuses on this theology may be very missional, seeking to change individuals’ concepts of themselves. It may focus very heavily on an individual becoming part of a particular subculture (like a “fandom” with fan fiction).  A personal testimony of salvation may be important to this kind of storytelling.

Stories explain our practice, both in our daily lives and in our worship.  This is rooted heavily in our Jewish ancestry. The Passover Seder is a good example of this – the night is designed to make children ask, “wait, what are we doing?” and providing parents with an opportunity to tell the Exodus story by way of an answer. This has become ritually enshrined in the Seder meal itself.  Joshua leaving the stones at the edge of the Jordan is another example of this – he specifically says, “these stones are left here to make children ask why, so that you can tell them this story.”  We see this in Christian worship most clearly at the Eucharist – in order to explain what we’re doing, the priest tells the story of the Last Supper, every time she or he celebrates Communion.  Storytelling based around this theology is similar to that based on the group identity, but links it specifically to a particular culture of worship.

Stories tell us who God is.  Think of how often God begins a discussion with his people by saying, “I am the Lord your God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who brought you out of Egypt …”  The Judeo-Christian God doesn’t take authority from abstract philosophical principles, but from a relationship – and a relationship is built on stories.  Storytelling based around this theology will focus very heavily on the character and nature of God, and his relationship with his people. It may focus on emotion and symbolism rather than facts.  The nature of the Trinity, and the ways of knowing God, will be central to this type of storytelling.

It’s important to note that storytelling serves almost all these same purposes within FAMILIES. Stories of your parents’ and grandparents’ lives provide a narrative of where you came from and a group identity, and stories that focus on particular family traits (“that Wilson sense of humour again!”) help family members build an individual identity that includes membership of that group as a dominant trait.  Stories of “why we always use real candles on our Christmas tree” or “why we always go to the same place for holiday” explain our practice.  When family members form new romantic relationships, telling the old family stories is a key part of bringing that person into the group and making them feel like they belong.  Storytelling in church is God’s family doing all these things.