“Pray and Play”: Spiritual Care Through the Lens of the Child

Post by: Ben Freeman, MDiv 2020

Read on to learn about the intersection of play, experimentation, and the practical applications of an MDiv degree.

Mary Robinson, former Director of Chaplaincy at Boston Children’s Hospital, has said that “play is the spiritual work of childhood.” This thought, though sometimes missing the qualifier “spiritual,” runs through the work of many luminaries of child development and education, among them Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, and (Mr.) Fred Rogers. This summer, while completing my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Hebrew SeniorLife, concentrating on the spiritual care of LGBT elders, Robinson was a guest facilitator, presenting on developmentally appropriate spiritual care of children. Though I loved working with elders, my professional identity had always been based around children, and I found the guest session profoundly invigorating. The idea that among a chaplain’s many roles in a children’s hospital, one is to be the friend that temporarily allows kids to just be kids particularly resonated with me. In that moment several things clicked simultaneously: pediatric chaplaincy might be a powerful crucible in which to integrate my training as an educator and artist with my burgeoning identity as a spiritual care provider, pediatric chaplaincy a generative evolution of my long-standing love of kids. 

During Week 2 of T550, students created learning manifestos in small groups, integrating personal reflections on learning process with ideas from course texts.  

This fall, alongside pursuing a field placement at Boston Children’s, I’m taking a class at the Graduate School of Education, EDU T550: Designing for Learning by Creating, with Professor Karen Brennan. The class is a deep dive into constructionism, an educational school of thought that takes student-centered and discovery-based learning seriously, engaging learners in an iterative process of making, personalizing, sharing, and reflecting. The essence of this approach, as I understand it so far, is: “Do stuff! Make things! You’ll figure out what you don’t know – and how to learn it – by engaging your learning communities when the going gets rough.” In the course of the semester we’ve made dioramas, Scratch animation projects, collaborative learning manifestos, remixes and blackout poems. Final projects percolating for some of my peers include grief boxes – transforming the process of mourning through making – and designing a full-fledged escape room. For 90s kids, or parents and teachers of 90s kids, that may be reading this blog, T550 is very much like having Miss Frizzle in real life – “Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!”  

 This is a detail of one of the learning manifestos. I found that “[cultivating] withness” was one day of describing learning that particularly resonated with the practice of spiritual care.  

It may seem odd to write extensively about the Graduate School of Education in an HDS Admissions Blog post, but you have to understand: I was an elementary school teacher before coming to graduate school, and my respect for what children know that the rest of us have forgotten is the navigational instinct at the core of my ministry. Taking T550, in addition to being a simply joyful cornerstone of my week, has equipped me with a firmer theoretical basis from which to articulate to my divinity school peers what I feel passionate about and why, as well as giving me experiential evidence of what is possible when a room full of ostensibly serious adults commits to playing together for three hours a week. The effect is electric. Play may be “the spiritual work of childhood,” but I’m convinced that its transformative value as both balm and catalyst – a remixer of social experience – is deep and real and available to us well beyond childhood, if only we train ourselves to remember to access it. As I move forward in my studies at HDS I will continue to bring this pedagogical/developmental lens to bear on my work, aiming to facilitate experiences that support people’s capacities for creative expression and play. 

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