Why I Love Playtime

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At about 5:00 every afternoon I finish telling Bible stories on my porch, put on an  Australian kangaroo leather hat, change clothes, and walk to a nearby park for what can only be referred to as “playtime.”

Usually when I’m within eyesight of the park kids will start calling out “Mr. John” and running towards the gate entrance.  For twenty minutes we will play some kind of game, usually “lashing hat” which is their favorite.

It consists of me trying to hit them on the arm with my kangaroo leather hat (not too hard) and their running away.  Sometimes we play a variation where someone steals my hat and takes great joy in “lashing” Mr. John 🙂  Recently we started a game called prisoner where Mr. John was taken prisoner and had to escape jail.  This led to an embarrassing experience on Friday when the “prisoner” was forced to sit down and catch his breath.

In the beginning I visited the park every afternoon to get to know the children’s names, but now I look forward to gametime as an opportunity to connect them them in an unstructured way.

When reaching children one thing you learn very quickly is the need for structure or rules, and someone who isn’t afraid to enforce them.  This is particularly true for ministries like Bible club that I run four days a week at Tabernacle Baptist Church.  Since there is expensive audio equipment and the children are fascinated by singing into microphones, we have four very serious rules.

  1. No going past Mr. John:  I stand at the third row and teach them sitting on the back rows
  2. Nobody gets water, or goes to the bathroom:  both are on the Church stage and too close to the sound system
  3. Nobody gets on the stage for any reason
  4. And nobody touches the microphone for any reason

Unfortunately just having rules and enforcing them is not enough because some children just enjoy breaking them.  There is a group of three girls that always come by about 15 minutes before Bible club and try to come in, if they do get in the entire group will immediately run to the stage (knowing that I can’t keep all of them away) so I’m forced to keep the Church gate locked till they leave.  Also there are some children I won’t allow to come in Bible club knowing they won’t obey the rules, and at least three times a week I’m forced to “escort” children out of the Church.

To be honest I’m a big softie and don’t enjoy doing things like this, but at the same time having a ministry without structure (rules) means the kids will pretty much just do what they want.  And part of my calling as a missionary is not only to evangelize children, but disciple them so that they are prepared for the real world.

However after the structured ministry there is in my opinion a need for unstructured ministry where the kids are basically allowed to be kids. In fact I would go as far as to say sometimes the need for unstructured ministry is GREATER than structured ones!  

Children are filled with enormous amounts of energy.  For much of the day they are asked to keep calm and contain that energy in school or at home, so they are looking for a place to let that energy out. For children in Barrouallie that place is the park, unfortunately while there their energy turns to the wrong kind of things

  1. like arguing with and threatening each other
  2. Fighting
  3. Keeping others from using something they want (swings, slide)
  4. And creating lots of chaos
  5. An unstructured ministry like playtime gives children an opportunity to expend their extra energy towards a fun and positive game instead of fighting.

A few Saturdays ago a little boy learned how to successfully defend against the lashing hat during playtime.  Instead of running away as I lashed him with it he turned and grabbed onto the hat with both hands so as I tried to pull the hat free suddenly ten tiny hands began to lash Mr. John excitedly.  That day and the expression of absolute joy on his face was a reminder that though the work of missions emphasizes a structured ministry, it often begins during playtime.

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