Claire Benton-Evans was the Youth and Children’s Officer for Edinburgh Diocese for over 10 years until 2022 (Claire now works for the Diocese of Brechin and the SEC Provincially). Under her vision and hard work, Play Church was designed, project managed and released into the Diocese. This is the story in her words.
Play Church began with exciting ideas from Sweden, where 15-20 churches have play churches, such as St Catherine’s Play Church in Malmö (above) and the children’s altarscape in Linköping Cathedral (below). Rev Kate McDonald introduced me to inspiring articles about these projects, and we began to dream… Could Edinburgh Diocese create its very own Play Church? I invited a small group of diocesan clergy to form a ‘dream team’, and together we wondered: could we make something that was portable enough to travel from church to church in the Diocese, giving every congregation an opportunity to invite children in to play? Could we fill it with beautiful dressing-up clothes and everything else children would need to make themselves at home in a sacred space? Could we give our children this opportunity to learn playfully about worship, liturgy and ministry?
Photos from s:ta katarina lekkyrka Facebook page © Ajan Gendel and Catarina Liljeberg (above) and www.svenskakyrkan.se (below)
I visited the Children’s Chapel in one of Edinburgh’s Episcopal churches: Old St Paul’s houses this beautiful wood-panelled space, which features colourful paintings, quality liturgical fabrics and ornate woodwork. This is a very special child-sized chapel. It feels a bit like a secret den, tucked behind the pulpit, and there is no denying the time, effort, expense and care that went into its creation. It helped the team decide that our Play Church would have to be beautifully and durably crafted from the best materials we could afford.
Photos from YouTube (above left) and s:ta katarina lekkyrka Facebook page © Ajan Gendel and Catarina Liljeberg (centre and right)
I watched extraordinary footage on YouTube of two little boys from the Serbian Orthodox tradition “playing church” at home, complete with elaborate ritual, home made vestments and a thurible made of Duplo bricks. I saw pictures which showed the beautiful vestments in St Catherine’s Play Church, and the thoughtful play of children handling sacramental objects. I contemplated the capacity of children to wonder and learn through play…
Theory and theology
The immersive, tactile play experience offered by Play Church owes much to the Montessori method of learning through play. It is in sympathy with Godly Play and with the current understanding of children’s spirituality. Play Church seeks to include children in the whole worshipping, praying, bread-and-wine-sharing life of the Church, because children are fellow disciples with us on a shared journey of faith. I have been inspired by research in this area, and by projects which embrace this understanding of children’s spirituality, particularly the liturgy boxes devised by the Spiritual Child Network, and Edinburgh’s wonderful Play and Pray for very small children.
I had searching and often challenging discussions with clergy and children’s leaders. Some were concerned that Play Church might be promoting a lesser, “dumbed down” form of church for children: in fact it’s a tool for engaging and including them in the Church and all that happens in worship. Maria Bergius Krämer is a priest involved with the Malmö Play Church: she has written about the three- to six-year olds who play there “with the kind of quiet joy that reveals God’s work at hand.” When they attend a main church service, she says, “their eyes light up when they see a baby baptized. They know, because they have played.”
I learnt a great deal through these discussions, and was inspired by these church leaders’ own stories of inclusion: for example, one Rector doesn’t greet children returning from Sunday School with a special welcome to Holy Communion, because he wants them to know that they already belong there, around God’s table: they are part of the family, not special guests.
I summed up these thoughts in a letter to all Play Church visitors, which sits in an envelope in the Visitor’s Book. You can read it here. The shorter version for younger children is this:
The design process
The Play Church team met and consulted via email at intervals over a period of about eighteen months. Initial sketches became drafts and then experimental prototypes. I consulted with the Diocesan Mission and Ministry Committee, and presented the work-in-progress to Diocesan Synod. Every step was discussed, and a budget was agreed.
The building project
Initially there was a ‘chicken and egg’ situation with the building of Play Church. How could I commission someone to build it until the design team and I knew exactly what we wanted? But how could we decide on the final design without talking to someone who understood bespoke woodwork, who could explain what was possible and – crucially – indicate how much it might cost? The answer was partnership with expert woodworkers who caught my passion for the project and helped develop the team’s ideas (above and below). I worked with the inspiring craftspeople of Grassmarket Furniture, one of the social enterprises in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket Community Project.
Play Church drawings by Claire Benton-Evans.
I learnt that Grassmarket Furniture works with a talented pyrography artist who can produce very delicate designs, so I commissioned the diocesan crest at the bottom of the screen cross, and the words “Let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14) on the front of the altar. I searched for a cross design that would be particularly appropriate to Edinburgh, and Bishop John suggested his own pectoral cross, designed and created by Edinburgh-based artist jeweller Sheana Stephen. Sheana kindly allowed us to work from her original designs, which feature a central amethyst ringed by the Edinburgh city skyline and the outline of surrounding hills. These details have been beautifully rendered in the Play Church cross.
Equipping Play Church
Play Church belongs to the whole Diocese of Edinburgh. It was funded by the Diocesan Mission and Ministry Committee, and it was important for congregations to feel a sense of ownership. I invited churches to donate items to equip Play Church, and produced a kind of “wedding list” of suggested gifts (below). I was overwhelmed by the generosity of individuals and congregations who sourced, bought, designed, carved and sewed all the beautiful things that now travel with Play Church.
The fabric screen (dossal) that hangs behind the Play Church altar is a key feature, so for this I held a design competition for children. The winning design by Phoebe Pryce of St Mark’s Portobello is simple, striking and colourful, and has been beautifully recreated in fabric by Rev Ruth Green, who also made all the dressing-up vestments and clothes.
The Dedication of the Play Church altar
Play Church was a project two years in the making, so it deserved a big launch. We invited everyone who had been involved in the project, including woodworkers from Grassmarket Furniture, donors and creators of Play Church’s beautiful accoutrements. The Bishop of Edinburgh – with the enthusiastic help of children – dedicated the altar in a special all-age service of Holy Communion, and celebrated from the Play Church altar itself. St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh hosted this special occasion, and Fischy Music led us all in song (and dance!) It was a wonderfully vibrant service, full of joy and playfulness; it was especially moving to see the children gather to help Bishop John bless and dress the altar, before gathering round to receive Communion.
Children from St Cuthbert’s Colinton helped to devise and lead the service, which included an interactive reading from Proverbs. Wisdom speaks as a person who was with God during the creation, but her words could belong to Jesus, who was there in the beginning with God:
I was like a child by His side.
I was playing every day,
enjoying His presence all the time,
enjoying the whole world,
and delighted with all its people.
The Play Church Pilgrimage
Since its launch, Play Church has always been on the move, following a kind of pilgrimage from host church to host church across Edinburgh Diocese, from the Borders to the city and from the east coast to West Lothian. Each host church finds different ways to engage children with Play Church, including special all-age services, school visits, ‘Come and play’ open afternoons, decorating the altar for Pentecost and using it as the centrepiece for Harvest. One church placed Play Church at the heart of all-age Holy Week and Easter. It’s a continual delight to see what each host church will come up with next!
Holy Week with Play Church
Q: What has been the best thing about your church’s Play Church experience?A church in the Diocese of Edinburgh
A: Adults and children more at ease in each other’s company – “at-one-ness” in worship.
The Play Church has provided a great opportunity for the children to learn about the liturgy and sacraments through interactive play.Old St Paul’s, Diocese of Edinburgh
The Play Church Visitors Book has captured comments from children and adults, and is rapidly filling up with pictures from each host church. Above are some of my favourite comments from the Visitors Book; other comments have been gathered via feedback forms from host churches.
You can read some collected feedback from the first year of Play Church’s travels here.
The play church project has come together through shared inspiration, creativity, teamwork, skill, expertise and generosity. I would especially like to thank the following people, on behalf of the Diocese of Edinburgh:
The play church dream team: Claire Benton-Evans, Diocesan Youth and Children Officer; Rev Kate Reynolds, Rev Lynsay Downs, Rev Canon John McLuckie, Rev Ruth Green, Rev Andrew Philip
The Diocesan Mission and Ministry Committee and Diocesan Office staff
The following creative people and generous donors for their contributions:
The Play Church altarscape carpentry and pyrography: Tommy Steel, Susan Harper and the volunteers at Grassmarket Furniture
Prizewinning dossal design: Phoebe Pryce of St Mark’s Portobello
Dossal, vestments and bridal gown: Rev Ruth Green
Design for the cross on the altar front: Sheana Stephen, artist jeweller
Altar Frontals: St James’ Goldenacre
Altar linen: St Ninian’s, Comely Bank
Hand-carved cross: Peter Tucker of St Andrew’s Kelso
Candles: St Mark’s Portobello
Hand-carved candle holders: Arthur Williams of St Mark’s Portobello
Communion set: St Cuthbert’s Colinton
Baptism set: Holy Trinity Melrose
Children’s Bibles: St Fillan’s
Visitors’ Book: Rev Lynsay Downs
Bishop’s cope and mitre: from Bishop John and our link Diocese in Cape Coast, Ghana
Bishop’s crozier: donated by Mrs Jean Smithson of St Mark’s Portobello, in memory of her late husband, Bishop Alan Smithson
Lavabo set: St Luke’s Wester Hailes
For the Service of Dedication, special thanks to:
Bishop John Armes
Rev Canon John McLuckie
Rev Annie Naish
Young readers, intercessors and servers from St Cuthbert’s Colinton
The cathedral staff
Refreshments: the congregation of St Mary’s Cathedral
Rev Jim Benton-Evans
Liturgical advisor: Rev Canon Ian Paton
Service booklet illustrations: Rev Ally Barrett
Creating your own Play Church?
I hope you’ve been inspired by this story. If you would like to create a Play Church for your own church or Diocese, do get in touch. I’d be happy to talk through ideas and share my experience of managing this project.
Claire Benton-Evans, Provincial Youth and Children Officer.