The Grace of Playing

Courtney T. Goto, The Grace of Playing: Pedagogies for Leaning into God’s New Creation (2016)


Courtney T. Goto, The Grace of Playing: Pedagogies for Leaning into God’s New Creation (2016)Professor Goto was educated at Mills College (BA), Harvard University (MTS), and Emory University (PhD).  She is currently Assistant Professor of Religious Education and Co-Director of the Center for Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology.  She is a third generation Japanese American, United Methodist.

Her book, she writes, “is a conversation written by a Protestant primarily for theorists, students, and practitioners (xix),” but her audience does not need to be so severely limited.  The “practitioners,” however, do need to have a taste for theory.  She also writes that, “I am interested primarily in playing as it relates to adult learning (xviii),” but this book can also be applied to children, because playing is the natural bridge between the generations.  The book sometimes sounds like it is about religious education and other times about experiential therapy, but these activities are not incompatible.   

Dr. Goto identifies three main influences on her work.  First, there is Augusto Boal (1931-2009).  He was a Brazilian theatre director, writer, and politician who created the participatory theater of the oppressed, but he is difficult to categorize.  A second resource is InterPlay, which is “a spiritual but not religious community” that provides a philosophy and method for teaching “people improvisational techniques of dance, theater, and vocal music (2).”  The third influence is her mother, who is an artist.  The photographs and descriptions in Chapter Five show the beautiful and insightful art made by her mother, Naomi Takahashi Goto, for the Sacramento Japanese United Methodist Church.

This book concisely and sometimes eloquently explicates playing as a means for religious education and life.  It shows a mastery of the literature and grounds the theory developed in vivid descriptions of practice.

Goal and Structure of the Book

The Grace of Playing explains how the “pedagogies of play” contribute to “leaning into God’s New Creation.”  This graceful “leaning” involves an experience, described as a continuum.  At one end is “revelatory experiencing.”  At the other end is revelation.  Revelatory experiencing and revelation  “differ from one another primarily in magnitude rather than in substance (4).”  Revelation is a “destabilizing and re-orienting shift in awareness or feeling (3).”  It de-centers people from ordinary thinking and feeling to re-center them in Christ.  Revelatory experiencing also de-centers and re-centers, but it “draws attention to the human role in preparing for, receiving and participating in processes of Spirit (5).”

The phrase “leaning into God’s New Creation” is Dr. Goto’s way of saying that pedagogies of playing help people enter the Kingdom of God.  Her phrase, she writes, avoids patriarchal language and provides a term more open to persons of diverse faiths and is more accessible (34).  This “New Creation” is where people are engaged in “relating to one another more deeply and thereby allows them to create and be created anew (114).”

She writes, “My strategy has been to offer the language of playing to open up to view what is being created together in revelatory experiencing, which at times religious educators and learners know by feel but may not have brought to critical reflection (114).”  She uses the language of playing to provide “richness, depth, and empirical evidence toward developing a theory of facilitating revelatory experiencing,” so that the concepts of playing and revelatory experiencing are connected to interpret each other as well as “to open up” revelation to “critical reflection.”   

The book explains the pedagogies of playing from four angles:  the psychoanalytic (Winnicott), theological (Moltmann), the historical (Rhineland nuns playing with dolls to venerate Jesus and the playing of holy fools during the Middle Ages), and the aesthetic (playing with beauty).  Winnicott’s psychoanalytic theory of play and Moltmann’s theology of play are described and critiqued while case studies are added to help describe the historical and aesthetic perspectives on play and to conclude the book.

The book’s connection with psychoanalytic theory and practice is through Winnicott.  “Winnicott’s insight is that a human being behaves in ways that range from spontaneous creativity to guarded, routinized, or scripted behavior.  As long as a person feels free and safe enough, she can express some measure of spontaneity or creativity.  Winnicott describes this way of being as the ‘true self,’ which he believes is central and instinctual to being human (34).”

The book’s connection with theology is through the work of Moltmann.  Dr. Goto’s “own thinking about revelatory experiencing as decentering/re-centering resonates with Moltmann’s understanding of the value of playing.”  She also writes, “for him and for me, this liberative playing that immerses and confronts people is not at all disconnected from revelation.  In fact, it is necessary for moving toward the new creation to which Christ’s resurrection points (46).”  She then writes that her book  “expands Moltmann’s ideas by exploring what playing and loving look like in practice (135).  It is “playing for love’s sake.”

Psychoanalytic theory and theology are joined in an “important metaphor for Christian life.”  The work of Ann Belford Ulanov, a Jungian therapist and theologian who wrote Finding Space (2001), contributed to Dr. Gato’s discovery.  The metaphor Dr. Goto uses is people playing “hide-and-seek with the Holy Spirit (53)” in the transitional space between what is me and not-me.  She writes, “Nowhere is the metaphor of hide-and-seek more poetically expressed than in the Song of Songs.”  God and the human soul take turns “longing for and seeking the hidden other (53).”    

The example used to show aesthetic playing is the creating of “a pretend garden” inside a Japanese American Church that resonates with a real oriental garden outside on the church grounds.  The playing invites the congregation to re-think their personal identity and community mission.  This helped the church become a “good enough mother,” as Winnicott might say, and to “tutor the imagination,” as Paul Pruyser might suggest.

The final chapter draws the book together by a case study “to explore when, where, and with whom playing happens for love’s sake in everyday life (15).” It involves the  “performance artist, healer, and teacher” Masankho Banda.  He invites some of the inmates in a San Francisco juvenile detention center to de-center their impoverished self-awareness and re-center it in being loved and loving by playing in song and movement with Banda.  This summary case confirms how playing can create an alternative world in which people can re-imagine who they are and what an alternative future might be for them “to move toward the fullness of what God intends (115).”

This book does not minimize the risks for the religious educator who uses the pedagogies of playing.  The teacher “must set up the environment for playing so that learners will know where and how to enter the spaces in which creating and authentic relating can happen.”  The teacher also needs to create trust by being trustworthy.  The greatest risk is that “the educator must be willing to play with learners, which often upsets expectations about the roles of both teacher and learner.”  This involves the teacher in “daring to be creative, modeling authenticity, and dealing with unexpected emotions and insights as creativity and imagination blossom in the process (130).”


Professor Goto concludes that revelatory experiencing appears in classrooms, worship, and everyday life.  Her comments about revelatory experiencing in a classroom speaks by analogy for all three settings and for all ages:

The content of classroom learning is not simply material to be absorbed or received, but to be taken up, played with, and re-created.  The point is to enter with others into interactive, participatory relationship with content given by Christian and/or other tradition(s) through the creative process.  At the same time, learners and teachers are being formed into a faith community as they depend on one another for inspiration, mirroring, and the flow of movement between creativity and imagination.  In moments of playing, the teacher is not the central source of knowledge, to whom all learners are connecting.  Rather, learners and teachers are ‘living an experience together,’ through multiple, simultaneous connections that grow organically as people explore possibilities of the content provided.  Both the content and the process are meant to form the faithful in embodying the message of love in creative, often courageous ways of being (123).   (Emphasis by Dr. Goto)

The grace of playing is vital, because where “freedom and authenticity are impinged upon — whether in families, in schools, in workplaces, churches, or elsewhere — true self will not play because it is not safe (131).”  The safety needed for playing takes place when “pedagogies of playing form learners in faith in three ways — in partnering with Spirit in the creative process, in engaging the community in making tradition new and relevant, and in tending to the needs of those who suffer, including ourselves and others who wait to be “found’ (135).”


Sometimes it sounds like Dr. Goto suggests that playing can occur without a game (36).  That is a very stimulating idea and deserves further reflection.

A game involves players, a limited place, a limited time, “pieces of value” for the game, a goal for the game, and the rules to reach that goal.  It is difficult and perhaps impossible to play together successfully if any one of these six elements is missing or unclear.  Game structures show how to play together and provide safety for the players.  They also help identify anti-gaming and cross-gaming, as when people refuse to play or play by different rules so that playing is frustrated.  All three major examples of playing in the book carefully describe the game in which the playing takes place.

The first example is about playing in the Middle Ages.  The playing with devotional dolls was a clear and contained game, but the playing of holy fools was very dangerous.  Some onlookers refused to play, misunderstood the game, and even attacked the holy fools (Chapter Four).  In the 14th century Chaucer was fascinated by the difference between activities in “game” and in “earnest.”  He addressed the need for clarity about which is intended in his Prologue to the Miller’s Tale.  He wrote, “And eek men shal nat maken earnest of game (3186).  The tale that followed described the chaos, pain, and hilarity caused when playing and being in earnest get confused.

The second example describes the beautiful game called “The Garden Series (Chapter Five).”  This game of insight is clearly outlined and successful, but there is always the possibility that some people will engage the game in earnest rather than play and try to take it over for non-playful uses or merely to sabotage the game’s beauty, as when Laszio Toth stepped over the velvet rope in St. Peter’s and attacked Michelangelo’s Pieta in 1972.  Some onlookers took away pieces he chipped off with his geologist’s hammer, thus, frustrating aesthetic playing and even its repair.

The third example is the game Masankho Banda proposed to the inmates in the detention center (Chapter Six).  He invited the inmates to play the game of love and acceptance with him and he refused to be drawn into the anti-gaming or cross-gaming they proposed, which involved working at destructive substitutes for love and their lack of acceptance for themselves.  Banda consistently and clearly modeled the game he invited them to play, so when they did engage the game he embodied, their lives were changed.

The rich relationship between games and playing is hard to tease out.  In part this is because playing is hard to define.  This is one of the many reasons why Dr. Gotto’s book is so valuable.  Even Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the great theorist of the creative process, thought he was studying play at first before he isolated what he later called “flow.”

A discussion of playing stimulates thoughts about flow, play, love, and contemplation.  This is because these four dimensions of the creative process grow out of the wondering of infants.  This common origin is why the psychological, social, biological, and spiritual dimensions of the creative process share the same structure, as I have proposed in several books.  When Professor Goto provides us with the theoretical basis for the pedagogies of playing, she is also alluding to a wider and deeper foundation for the religious education of all ages.  It involves the graceful unity of the four dimensions of the creative process, which is our deep identity, given to us at the beginning, when we were created in the Image of the Creator.

Jerome W. Berryman
Senior Fellow for the Center for the Theology of Childhood

2 thoughts on “The Grace of Playing

  1. Dianne Delaney

    A most interesting book and very appealing! I certainly will put it on my list for the new year.

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