Play Church

Taking Children’s Faith and Worship Seriously

We are so grateful for this opportunity to learn about the Play Church concept that has been spreading throughout Europe and now in the United States and Canada too. Some of the ideas presented in this article will need to be contextualized for your context, but we encourage you to take the time to do so.


If you were to go to church in Scotland next Sunday, you might see something wonderful in the children’s corner. In a Scottish Episcopal church in Edinburgh Diocese, there might be a group of small children gathered around a child-sized altar, quietly going about the serious business of playing church. Some will be arranging child-safe candles, toys, and scarves on the altar to tell the story of what they are hearing in church. Many will be wearing colorful robes. You might find a small child dressed as a bride, or another baptizing his teddy bear. This is Edinburgh’s Play Church project (, the first of its kind in the United Kingdom.

Inspired by play churches in Sweden, particularly St. Katherine’s Play Church in Malmö ( and the children’s altarscape in Linköping cathedral (, Edinburgh’s play churches are child-sized sacred spaces beautifully designed and equipped with everything children need to learn through play about what they see happening in church. There are candles and a cross, robes and altar linens, and material for the sacraments, including wedding clothes and a chalice suitable for children’s hands. Play Church owes much to the Montessori method of hands-on learning through free play; it is also inspired by the latest understanding of children’s spirituality. Moreover, Play Church is in sympathy with the principles of programs like Worship and Wonder (, Children and Worship, and Godly Play, which encourage children to wonder and to express their own sense of God’s presence.

The Edinburgh Play Church is unique because it is designed to be portable. It travels on constant pilgrimage around the diocese to spend each season of the church year with a different host congregation. Like its Scandinavian cousins, it is sturdy, beautiful and fully equipped, but it can also be dismantled and transported between churches in an ordinary family car.

I designed Play Church with the help of a team of clergy and lay people in partnership with Grassmarket Furniture, a woodworking studio in central Edinburgh. Its talented craftspeople were responsible for making the bespoke altar and engraving it with the diocesan crest, the bishop’s cross, and the words from Scripture that are at the heart of the Play Church project: “Let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14).

I wanted all the churches in the diocese to “own” Play Church, so I invited congregations to help equip it. Some generously donated items for the sacraments, such as the communion set and the baptism set (complete with baby doll). Others were inspired to get creative: for example, a church leader sewed all the vestments and made the bridal gowns; a woodcarver made the altar cross and candleholders; a children’s group worked with its leaders to design and sew the altar frontals for each season of the church year. Play Church came together through generous giving and creativity, and this was celebrated in a service of dedication at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh, in which the Bishop of Edinburgh blessed the Play Church altar (with the help of attending children!) and dedicated it for use in the diocese.

Since its launch, Play Church has been welcomed by a long list of churches. It has been visited by local schoolchildren and uniformed organizations (Boy Scouts / Girl Scouts). It has attracted pilgrims from other denominations and even was featured in ecumenical training for UK youth and children’s workers. The Play Church Visitors Book features many photographs of delighted children alongside their handwritten comments: “I liked you could dress up and there was play communion. My favourit [sic] outfit was the golden priest robes.” Grown-up comments include: “ I loved having Play Church because I was inspired when I saw how creative, generous, and beautiful worship was when the children led it. It has given me lots of ideas about use of symbol, touch, and welcome.” One church leader reported that the best thing about his church’s Play Church experience was that “adults and children [were] more at ease in each other’s company—‘at-one-ness’ in worship.”

This was wonderful evidence that Play Church was working as intended. It was also my answer to the few people who initially had reservations about the Play Church project: they were worried that Play Church was promoting a lesser version of church just for kids rather than including them in the main worshiping community. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have always seen Play Church as a powerful tool for including children: it belongs in the main worship space of the church, and children are invited to play with it during the service. Because the Play Church altar has been dedicated, I also encourage host churches to use it for communion. It’s very special for children to see their altar at the center of the whole church’s worship.

Some people were worried that congregations might object to children playing with holy things. I don’t believe children can taint holy things by touching them; rather, the holiness can touch the children. Adults who simply observe how children play with Play Church are fascinated by the care and respect with which they generally treat it and by the sensitive creativity they bring to it. It’s common for children to create whole scenes on the altar: the Nativity surrounded by Play Church candles, for example, or a Palm Sunday procession peopled with Playmobil and Lego figures and various unlikely animals! The thoughtful observer will see children using play to express their own faith and explore their own understanding of Bible stories and church. Toddlers have spontaneously reached for a child-safe tea light during prayers or communion and sat still with it cupped in their open palms. Many have been struck by this solemn, prayerful gesture, particularly in young children who can be wriggly and loud in church.

Finally, Play Church asks all of us this question: “When children play in God’s presence, I wonder how God feels?”

You can find out more about Play Church from There is an illustrated history of the project on the Diocese of Edinburgh’s website

In a Word

For Epiphany the school-aged kids at Sherman Street CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, helped create a banner. We glued pages from an atlas onto wooden stars to remind us that the light of Christ has come into the whole world. We talked about places in the world where there are difficulties, and we prayed together. It was meaningful, simple, and fun for kids (and adults) of all ages. Those who want to try this in their own congregations can purchase pre-hemmed rolls of 12-inch-wide burlap on Amazon. I used two rolls for these hangings. We used cotton balls to dab metallic gold paint around the edges of the maps for a little extra shine.

-Sandy Swartzentruber

Claire Benton-Evans is the Youth and Children Officer for the Diocese of Edinburgh and the Provincial Youth Coordinator for the Scottish Episcopal Church. She is the author of many all-age worship resources, including All-Sorts Prayer and All-Sorts Worship, and the popular series for children Beastly Bible Stories.

Reformed Worship 145 © September 2022, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.