We use the Beulah Land felt storytelling materials in our Sunday School. I always have the pieces for that day's story set aside, but also a tray full of other pieces - fish, birds, and animals from the Creation and Noah stories, altars and flames, wheat sheaves, crowds of people, bursts of fire, clouds, water, planets, desert and mountain landscape pieces, fruit trees, rivers, doves, Adam and Eve, Jesus, Satan, the cross, the tomb, the burning bush, and so on. If children aren't interested in making something after we finish worshipping, they can play with the felt board if they like.
Very often, I've been troubled by how children have responded to this. Some of them will get silly about it, placing the large hands of the "God" figure (represented by two hands and a heart) on smaller human figures, or putting flames on people and giggling about them being on fire. Some will get together in small groups and set themselves the challenge of using every piece in the tray.
I've been torn about whether to intervene. On the one hand, I want them to use the pieces for spiritual play, to explore the symbols and imagery of the Bible. But on the other hand, I don't want to create a situation where they feel compelled to produce a "Bible picture" for adult approval, rather than explore the symbols independently. I've found the uncomfortable middle ground of telling them off for "not respecting" the pieces, but not specifically saying, "this is for thinking about God - you have to use it that way."
So today we had a group of girls, aged about 5-10 at the board. They were trying to use every single piece, and giggling about putting some of them on backwards. Since it was a fairly quiet day (thank you, Bank Holiday), I was able to get away from supervising the activity and engage with the children at the felt board.
"Why is there a fish?" one asked me.
"Well, from the story of Creation, when God made the world. And when Jesus fed the crowd with only five loaves of bread and two fishes."
"What's this?" another asked.
"That's the burning bush," I said.
"Oh, when God told Moses to set the people free," she replied.
I looked over to where a 10-year-old girl was piling felt pieces on the board three or four deep, seemingly at random.
"That's Adam and Eve," I said.
"I know," she told me, "because they have no clothes on." She pointed to a grey felt piece across Eve's midsection. "This is prison. Eve's in prison." She then pointed to Adam, who had an elephant across his midsection. "And Adam is getting trampled by an elephant, because they were bad and listened to the snake." Then she pointed to Jacob's ladder behind them, and as I turned around to deal with a child who'd splashed paint on his jumper, I heard her tell another child, "but they're climbing to heaven."
I've been being too hard on myself. The kids ARE thinking spiritually, even though they're probably ALSO sometimes just being silly, or just playing randomly. Either way, these images are becoming part of their symbolic vocabulary - they see them in the stories, and that DOES sink in.
"They're in prison, because they've been bad, but they're climbing the ladder to heaven." That's the Gospel, in a sentence, out of the mouths of babes.