At Play Before God

St. Catherine Play Church in Malmö, Sweden

In a garden in Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city, sits a small octagonal house. It has a cross-shaped window facing the street, the walls are painted a light grey color, and the door is bright red. The house is actually a small church called St. Catherine, and it is built for children to play worship.

It all started in 2008 when my parish was on the brink of starting its sixtieth anniversary. We decided on the theme ”Child Anew” and wanted the children to be at the center of the celebrations. My colleague and I brought the idea of a play church to the planning team, and they accepted it enthusiastically.

The idea behind the play churches, found in 15–20 churches around Sweden, is to introduce worship and the sacraments to children through play. We provide the space, vestments, water, chalices or whatever else might be needed, introduce them, and then retreat. This allows the children to shape their own worship. The pedagogy is very clearly influenced by Montessori.

We wanted the children of our parish to have this opportunity, and we wanted something that didn’t necessarily shape the children into believing  a church can only look one way. We chose a design proposal submitted by Scott Moore, an ELCA pastor living in Germany, and Thomas Bechstein, an architect. They had designed an octagonal building, echoing the baptistries of old, with the baptismal font near the entrance and a free standing altar near the big cross-shaped window.

St. Catherine (named after St. Catherine of Alexandria) opened in June 2010. A seven-year-old bishop knocked on the door, and a host of children anointed the walls with small oily crosses. Since then, the church is open each summer, and the children come to play baptism with a doll, to play weddings or holy communion. The room is never noisy; the three- to six-year-olds who spend their Tuesday afternoons there play with the kind of quiet joy that reveals God’s work at hand. And when they come to St. Andrew, their eyes light up when they see a baby baptized. They know, because they have played.

Maria Bergius Krämer is associate priest St. Pauli Church in Malmö, Sweden.

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