20 May 2012

Eastertide guest post - Beulah Land Bible Stories

This post's author is Margaret Pritchard Houston, Families Pastor for St. George's Church, Campden Hill (in Kensington, in London). As well as writing about children's ministry for the Church of England and Diocese of London, she maintains a blog about her work at St. George's: For All the Saints. If you follow that blog already, you'll have seen her photo of the St. George's Play and Pray area on Easter Sunday this year (I've reproduced it here, on the right.)

Is your eye, like mine, immediately drawn to that Easter image of Christ victorious standing before Martha at the empty tomb?

These are not the flannel-graph materials from the Sunday School of my childhood. So I asked Margaret to introduce them and give us a feel for what it's like to work with them.

I need to begin with a confession.  This is not an entirely objective review – my mother developed the Beulah Land storytelling materials, and I grew up using them, travelling with her to workshops and handing her the pieces she needed to tell the stories.

But this post is based not on childhood memories but on my own experiences using them in my own ministry at St. George’s Church, Campden Hill, in London.

What is Beulah Land?

Beulah Land are storytelling kits made out of felt pieces.  They are similar to the “Fuzzy Felt” toys popular in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  The full Beulah Land range consists of five different sets, which together contain everything you need for the Old and New Testament stories.  Our church owns sets 1 and 2 – these have, with the addition of a few pieces I made myself, been sufficient for a full year’s worth of storytelling, both Old Testament and New, but not as good as if I had all five sets.  I hope to buy sets 3 and 4 in the next few years.

The sets require self-assembly.  They come with all the pieces marked out on felt, and assembly instructions.  They also come with storytelling scripts and extensive notes on children’s understanding of Bible stories, which helps in guiding lesson planning.  The patterns of the pieces are also sent with your kit, so that if you lose a piece, you can remake it.

There is a full Beulah Land Curriculum handbook available, which contains worship outlines and activities for each story.  This is available separately.

What are the pros of using Beulah Land?

The first, and most important, positive aspect of Beulah Land is that the children respond to it with depth and imagination.  I leave the Beulah Land feltboard up after I finish telling the story each week, and the children have the option of playing with it.  I’ve seen children from toddlers to early teenagers engage with it, using the pieces to create their own landscapes and narratives, engaging with Biblical symbolism and imagery in a hands-on, child-led way.  Also, it provides a powerful visual vocabulary of Bible stories, which the children then use in their own artwork.  The library of images is broader and richer than the standard trinity of “heart, cross, Christmas scene” which is the limit of much of the popular imagination of Christian imagery.  Beulah contains a two-dimensional, easily replicated series of symbols for children to draw on in expressing their own spirituality and their own understanding of the Bible – altar and flame, dove, fruit trees, river, snake, desert, mountain, city, stars, moon, boats, pillar of cloud, storm clouds and lightning, fish, birds, water, and much more.  This is not to say that children slavishly copy the pictures they have been presented with – rather, Beulah Land gives them a wealth of Biblical imagery to play with in developing their own understanding of the stories, and it gives them ideas on how to portray these images in their own work.  How often has a child in your group come to you and said “I want to draw X but I don’t know how”?  Beulah Land gives them a starting point, freeing them to express their own creativity.  When I use Beulah Land with a group of ten children, I still have ten individual artistic styles.  What I don’t have are ten children coming to me saying “help me draw X, Y or Z.”  (I may still have one or two, but only occasionally – many fewer than I did two years ago when I began.)

Crossing of the Red Sea banner (made independently by a group of children)

Secondly, the scripts accompanying the materials are wonderfully written.  They contain Biblical language that is full of awe and wonder but not inaccessible even to young children.  They are easy to use, with the words and the actions (which pieces to put up and where) next to each other, so there is no flipping between pages while telling the stories.  (Of course, it is best if you memorise the scripts, but that’s not always possible.)  Each script contains a recap of what went before – often starting with “do you remember ...” before filling in the context in which the story occurs.  This can be helpful for children who may have missed the previous week or two, and grounds the story firmly as part of a whole.  The concept of Beulah Land is one of “metanarrative” – the Bible is not a collection of disjointed anecdotes, but a unified whole that begins with “once upon a time” and ends, after great trials and danger, with “happily ever after.”   The stories do not leave out the painful and difficult parts of the Bible, but nor do they linger (as is the unfortunate trend among some Fundamentalist materials, most notably the hideous “Left Behind” books) on gruesomeness for gruesomeness’s sake.

The pieces provide great openings for theological discussions with children.  “Why is God made of two hands and a heart, when nobody really knows what God looks like?” is one question I’ve been asked – leading to a discussion of what God might look like, why hands and a heart might be symbols of the nature of God, the nature of the Incarnation (this started when I said “when God became human in Jesus, he did look a particular way”), and so on.  My mother has reported children wrestling with the concepts of good and evil insisting on the Satan figure staying up through all of Jesus’ ministry – “because he never really went all the way away.”  I’ve overheard children playing with the figures independently placing the prison piece over Adam and Eve, and then Jacob’s ladder above them, explaining “they’re in prison because they’ve been bad, but they’re climbing to heaven.”

Beulah Land can be incorporated with some elements of Godly Play.  The stories leave themselves open for wondering questions, and are told with language that is rich and liturgical.  The storytelling materials are child-friendly.

Beulah Land materials are durable.  Occasionally the glue holding a tree trunk and tree top will fail and you’ll need to make minor repairs, but generally, once you have them, you have them for life.  They are not bulky to store, and they are lightweight.

What are the cons of using Beulah Land?

Unfortunately, at the moment, Beulah Land is only available from the US.  This means that you will need to pay a value-based import tax on them, which necessitates dealing with Parcelforce’s labyrinthine telephone system and spending a few days with your materials held hostage by HMRC before they can be delivered to you.  However, the extra cost is balanced out by the fact that since the dollar to pound exchange rate is favourable at the moment, you’ll make a substantial savings on the materials themselves.

Also, because for some reason, the US and UK use different standard paper sizes, and different numbers of holes in their binders, the storytelling scripts and assembly instructions do not easily fit inside a two-ring binder.  This can be got around by photocopying the materials onto A4 paper and then punching holes in the photocopied sheets.

The pieces do take quite a while, and occasionally some frustration, to assemble.  You can get around this by having a “Beulah Assembly Party” with your Sunday School volunteers, if they’re amenable, or if you have helpful children of your own, you can use unpaid child labour to help you assemble them.

Some of the pieces are quite small, and can get lost.

You have to provide your own feltboard.  These can just be ordinary felt display boards available from any office supply store.  Ours cost approximately £30. 

Cleaning up after a session in which children have played freely with the materials can be time-consuming.  Each tiny fish, every star, each small person, has to be individually taken off the feltboard and put back in its correct place.

What should I do if I want to try it out? 

You can start with the Starter Set, which is $175 (approximately £105).  This will give you four stories – Creation, Noah, Christmas and Easter.  See whether the assembly is easy enough, try out storytelling, and see how your children respond, both in their artwork and in independent play.  If you live in London, you’re welcome to come by St. George’s and visit our Sunday School to see Beulah Land in action.  You can also get in touch if you’re interested in having me come and do a training session with your staff and volunteers.

Thank you so much, Margaret. I had no idea when I suggested this topic what a close connection you had with these materials!   

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