At Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Lexington, Kentucky, 11 children sat on blue towels and played quietly by themselves.

ãI am Picasso,ä Ross Martin said as he crushed Play-Doh into a pancake. Carter Leer re-enacted the story of David and Goliath. Kelly Keffer loaded animals onto a small Noahâs ark. Free time like this, with children choosing their own activities and no talking from a teacher, wonât be found at most Sunday schools.

But itâs a crucial part of Godly Play, a teaching method thatâs gaining popularity locally and nationally. Lexington Theological Seminary opened a Childrenâs Worship Center last month to teach Godly Play. The center is the first of its kind.

ãThis model offers unique dynamics of teaching the faith that are found in worship,ä said Sharon Warner, professor of educational ministry. ãItâs a model that is unique to the church.ä

Godly Play is unique because it uses props to draw children into Bible stories, then lets children respond in their own ways. For Godly Play, a church lines a classroom with short bookshelves. On the shelves are sets of small wooden figures. Each set represents a Bible story and the story sets are arranged on the shelves in the order in which they appear in Scripture. At the beginning of class, the teacher tells a story using one of the sets. The children then get 15 to 20 minutes of free time during which they can play with any set they like, read a book, create artwork or simply sit quietly.

At Good Shepherd, the ãdesert box,ââ a small sandbox thatâs perfect for staging the Israelitesâ wilderness wanderings, is such a big hit that children sign up a week in advance to play with it. The class ends with a snack.

As with any good teaching method, thereâs more here than meets the eye. Teachers structure the class to reflect their churchâs worship services. The story stands for the sermon, free play represents congregational response (most churches use singing or an altar call), and the snack introduces children to the concept of Communion. All of this introduces kids to the stories and structure behind worship. Analysis will come later.

ãThey literally grasp the language and the meaning it can convey, with their bodies, so they can grasp it later with their minds,ââ said Jerome W. Berryman, a pioneer of Godly Play. ãYouâre laying a foundation.ââ

Berryman started laying the foundation for Godly Play in 1971. Then a Presbyterian minister, Berryman was in Italy learning the Montessori method of teaching. Montessori education is based on the idea that children teach themselves and that they should be able to choose among activities in a prepared environment. He learned from those already applying the technique to religious teaching and refined their ideas.

Now the Roman Catholic Church, Reformed Church in America, Quakers, Brethren, Presbyterian and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) all offer versions of Godly Play, and the method is showing up in Pentecostal churches as well.