25 May 2013

making do: the focal shelf

Recently I had the opportunity of presenting a Godly Play taster session to some of the children's workers at my English churches. Another local storyteller kindly loaned me materials for several stories so that I could furnish our space, surrounding the circle with lessons as we normally do in a Godly Play classroom. Understandably though, the local storyteller couldn't loan me the "top shelf" focal shelf materials since those were essential to their own classroom.

Most of my own Godly Play materials are in storage back in Finland. I was able to borrow the Circle of the Church Year materials (the "church clock") and Baptism materials (minus the Trinity symbols). So here's how I "made do":

This photo was taken before I had quite finished -
I did put the blocks into the clock correctly before we started!
The focal shelf, as its name suggests, provides a focus for the room. It is the most important shelf, and it locates Christ as having central importance. We have the Holy Family in the middle, which tells both that Jesus came among us at a particular point in history, and also that he is now everywhere, taking the whole world into his embrace. I represented this with my Risen Christ cross and a little Christmas ornament showing Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus.

(Of course the true Holy Family materials also tell of a family made up not just by blood but intentionally, incorporating the lowly (shepherds) and outsiders (the Magi, who were not Jewish). But I had to make do with what I had, and since I was not telling that story this time, I felt that what I had was good enough.)

On each side of the Holy Family we have a reminder of one of the names Christ gave himself, one of the metaphors he used. To the left we have "the Light of the World", the Christ candle. This was relatively easy to provide; we already had a white pillar candle and base at home. Below it are the (borrowed) liturgical materials about the sacrament of baptism, which pick up the theme by talking about us receiving the light of Christ.

To the right we have "the Good Shepherd", and below that the liturgical materials about Holy Communion, when we gather around the table to recall his words ("This is my body...") and to meet him in the bread and wine. I didn't have the World Communion materials, not even the Good Shepherd, but I had a Central American cross depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd. At the beginning of my session I introduced people to the space a little, drawing their attention to different things, and I asked them to imagine Communion materials below the Good Shepherd image.

I used the furniture I found in the space I had; the focal shelf was made of a piano bench! The bench was high enough that I felt I needed to stand the crosses up somehow, so I made use of two brass flower vases that were already in the space. I covered this shelf/bench with a white cloth (a damask cloth napkin) since we were just at the end of Eastertide. (Usually there is a cloth, in the appropriate liturgical color of the season, beneath the Holy Family but not covering the whole shelf.) Below this are the liturgical materials for the Circle of the Church Year.

If you don't have easy and regular access to Berryman's books, the UK Godly Play site has really helpful resources about how to furnish a Godly Play space. (Even if you do have Berryman's books, you might find these resources a useful supplement.) In thinking about what to do for a focal shelf, I drew on my memories of the document, "Designing and building a Godly Play room", which can be found on the same UK Godly Play page. [[Since writing this post, I've also remembered this post about the Focal Shelf on the Three Great Days blog.]]

Just as a point of comparison, the very first focal shelf I ever created had a Christ candle and a tiny Holy Family. I regret, though, that I had no Good Shepherd at all. The shelf was spread with a cloth of the right color, and although I had no church clock I did have the other three liturgically-colored underlays laid out at the base of my shelf. I placed Advent materials on the left, spatially liked with the Christ candle, and Lenten materials on the right. (Endings that are also beginnings, circles and cycles link World Communion with the Circle of the Holy Eucharist, the Faces of Easter, and indeed the Circle of the Church Year. So in a classroom they are typically linked spatially as well.) Our space was tiny. I had so few materials that I didn't surround our circle with the lesson materials, but kept Noah's ark and our one parable box in this same set of shelves.

Is your focal shelf as you would like it to be? In what ways have you been able to "make do"?


  1. You did a great job of making do. I think it's important that we model this, so that the bar to beginning GP isn't so high that people get intimidated.

    1. Thanks, Sheila. When I look back at that first focal shelf, I think everything on the top of it was stuff I already owned. That, too, helps lower the bar - especially for anyone wanting to do GP at home.

  2. So very true, I almost never have the whole shebang, but I almost always have the Holy Family - although this grew slowly - for ages I just had the risen Christ and the Christ Child plus 3 sheep! Definitely the bare essentials...but it is so easy to have a candle and if i don't have the Good Shepherd - which is most of the time, I put a Bible on a nice book holder, which is actually a very important focus for our church tradition. I like that Godly Play can be as simple as a welcome, a circle and a feast.

    1. Your last sentence deserves a post of its own!

      Thanks for sharing your own perspective. I think David Pritchard, too, often puts a Bible on his focal shelf, by the Christ candle.


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