They are easy to set up, are suitable for any age or size of group, and you can use the same materials each time.
They provide safe space to explore spiritual things including Bible stories and how they relate to our lives, and relieve the parent or leader from the pressure to provide all the answers or a pre-prepared Pinterest-worthy craft activity.
So, what are open-ended activities and how do they work?
Open-ended activities are ones where the leader doesn’t prepare the outcome or designate the end result. I think there might be a spectrum of open-endedness, from activities where the leader starts people off then let them choose which direction to take an activity, through activities where examples or prompts or questions are given to stimulate the creative response to completely open-ended activities with freedom for participants to use materials however they choose.
It’s kind of the opposite of stating learning outcomes as you start, which has it’s place. It gives freedom for participants to explore and discover, rather than be taught and remember. It allows for true participation, where the activity of all those taking part are valued.
I’ve found that there’s an incredible power in letting people choose what to do. I usually find the best learning takes place when people make their own choices about what and how to learn and are given freedom to explore and discover things. This can be scary when applying it to faith, as what if they discover something about God which isn’t true? However I’ve never found children ‘discovering’ things I find heretical. Rather, I find their ideas stimulate my own wondering and journey with familiar texts, bringing me into to a deeper understanding and faith. For example, when exploring the of Jacob’s dream of a ladder in Genesis 28, one 6 year old said Jacob had a nightmare, as the passage said Jacob woke from his dream and was terrified. That got me wondering in a fresh way about how I’d viewed this dream, and how maybe I viewed nightmares.
How do you use open-ended activities at home?
This is how I open-ended materials to explore the Bible at home, very much based on the Godly Play method. In advance, I will pick a limited number of open-ended materials and set them up in a discrete space, perhaps on a mat or tray or tough spot. I usually pick things which provide contrasting activities such as jenga for building, art canvases and pencils for making a picture, cloth for dressing up or den making or something else and loose parts to make a process piece of art (more on that in a moment). I then make a comfy place to share the story together which I might tell off by heart using Godly Play pieces or Play Mobil or read directly from the Bible (I use the CEV as it’s very accessible, reliable and reads well). I then spend a few minutes wondering with my children about what our favourite part of the story it, what the most important bit is, if there is anything we could leave out and still have all the story we need, and where we might be in the story. My children are only 4 and 5 so this isn’t a long discussion at this point, but it often helps start the creative process of exploring the passage which we carry on with the open-ended materials. We then all pick which materials we’d like to use, usually different ones to give each other space, and explore the story using them. In a group situation I observe children and give them space to come and chat with me about what they’re doing if they choose to, but at home I join in as I’m doing this with my children. It’s our journey together. In a group, we gather together at the end, but at home we have more freedom to continue our exploration as long as we want to, so we rarely close the session. This might be a bit messy, but also leaves the space open for us to continue our exploration at any time, which I find my children often do.
With no prepared outcomes, some adults find this a lot harder than the children do. As adults, we’re much more used to prepared activities with goals and learning outcomes in mind. And these are good, but they’re not the only way to learn and grow faith. In fact, by deciding what I want the outcome to be for you I will often limit both your engagement in the activity and what you get out of it.
Using open-ended materials provided opportunities for everyone to engage in ways which they enjoy and are meaningful to them. As a children’s group leader for years, I’ve found it hard (but good) to step out of directed, guided, often cerebral ways of approaching a story, often with a moral outcome and a pre-organised craft. After all, it’s much safer to know what’s planned. However, it’s much easier to use the same materials for each story, allowing the participants freedom to use them however they choose to explore the story. They rarely disappoint.
I’ve enjoyed using this method at home for all sorts of play since my children were little and have seen the results of it up close. Children, especially under 5s, revel in this kind of open – ended approach, as many nurseries and pre-schools have adopted what is now a well-documented approach to learning. With very young children it’s important, of course, to make sure things are safe for them to use independently, so I avoid using buttons, small stones or Play Mobil. However, they are brilliantly creative and will happily mix and match items. A good way to do this at home is to have a ‘tinker tray’. This is a tray with different compartments in which you provide collections of different items. It’s linked with the theory of loose parts, something originally from architecture theory, and says the more loose parts, ie pieces which you can move, the more opportunity for creativity. A tinker tray could contain collections of natural objects such as pine cones, sticks, shells and stones, wooden objects such as wooden lolly sticks, match sticks, beads, buttons or craft items such as pipe cleaners, straws, nuts and bolts, wire. I’m often on the look out for things I have a little collection of, e.g. buttons. These can be bought, but often I pick things up from people who are decluttering and add them to my collection of collections.
I often find varying scale inspires different kinds of ‘work’, such as large scale fuzzy felt pictures made from abstract shaped pieces of felt. I used this in our intergeneration Easter Sunday service, choosing 5 colours which went well together and providing A3 size felt canvases for people to create pictures on. My top tip for cutting felt is to use very sharp scissors as otherwise it’s just a painful experience! I cut lots of shapes from my 5 colours, including a vague person-shape, then lots of waves and flames and similar. The pictures people made were really beautiful, as well as being their creative expression of the story we looked at. At the end of the service, we collected up the felt shapes to be used again. We could have glued them and sent them home, but there’s something quite powerful about ‘process art’, where the process, not the end product. is the focus. Rebecca Nye has process as one of her 6 key elements for helping people develop spiritually, and it’s one which is often over looked when we try to provide children with a take-home element to remind them of ‘what they learnt’ or more often, to show their parents. Now, I love a Pinterest craft activity as much as the next creative person, but there’s something special and important about creating something knowing it won’t be there tomorrow, like building a sand castle below the high tide line. It releases us to focus completely on process of creation, not worrying about what it will be or look like (yes, I know I’ve just said the felt looked good, but that was a secondary to the activity). If I only draw or create something to photograph it and put it on Instagram, I limit my creativity and expression. Theologically, this means I will rarely head out of the realm I feel I understand and can explain to others. I can’t process ideas about difficult concepts such as transition, grief or guilt. I can’t use creative expression to chat with God about private things or explore difficult passages of Scripture I don’t yet have a grasp of. By providing open-ended activities, we make much needed space for process.
One of the things I’ve noticed when using open-ended activities is that older children and adults are often not quite sure what to choose or what to do. Young children generally jump in and get going straight away. I think this is to do with the amount of access people have to open – ended materials and free play. The creative freedom they provide can be overwhelming when you’re not used to it. When introducing them at home or in a group I will often limit the options to aid choice, and give people tips such as, ‘Pick something you really want to try out’ or ‘Find something you feel comfortable using’.
I also see people often immerse themselves in an activity which seem to be an unrelated to the story we’ve shared together. This can be seem as if they are distracted, but I think the opposite is usually true. Open-ended activities by definition need to give space for people to explore what they choose. Therefore I can be confident the ‘work’ they choose is what they need to do at this time. Often people are processing something when they come to a session, in fact, in life we are all processing stuff all the time to some extent. Sometimes a free choice, self-directed opportunity gives people a chance to process grief or transition, or questions they have about God or life, or decisions they’re struggling with, or new seasons they’re working out to ‘be’ in. Sometimes their processing interacts with the story. Sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, the activity provides a safe spiritual space. Especially when leaders restrain themselves from asking people what they’re doing. This provides privacy and freedom, and people who want to share can always choose to do so.
What are the disadvantages?
With no prepared outcome, it’s hard to work through a list of things we want children to learn. Curriculums which use this approach, such as Godly Play, work through a set of stories, trusting that the children learn what they need to from each story. The stories are repeated in a cycle, knowing that we get different things from Bible stories at different times. The stories and the way they’re told is very intentional, giving opportunities for many different types of ‘learning’ to take place.
For me it’s been a case of developing more trust. I have learnt to trust that children are spiritual beings, that they are searching to make sense of the world and the Bible and their own lives and that given opportunity to ‘play’ with open-ended materials they do this important work. I have also learnt to trust God more, to trust that He is not a static object which we study but a proactive being seeking out connection and relationship with us, and that both understanding and connection often unfold in an open-ended activity. I chose to trust this process having read about it from people like Rebecca Nye, and now I can say from my own experience of watching many families and my own children use open-ended activities that it is a very powerful way of learning and growing in faith.