Diddy Disciples

Shortly before Christmas, a large, heavy envelope was delivered to our door, from Inter-Varsity Press, addressed to me, and proved to contain two hefty paperbound volumes, 8½ by 11½ inches, and a couple of cards from Inter-Varsity saying the books were sent “with our compliments.”  The books themselves bore the imprint of SPCK, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge—a publishing arm of the Church of England—and because my daughter works in Christian formation in England, I recognized them as the documentation for a new curriculum for very young children that is becoming well known there.  So, “Diddy Disciples” is crossing the Atlantic, and I get to tell you about it.

Diddy Disciples: Worship and Storytelling Resources for Babies, Toddlers and Young Children, by Sharon Moughtin-Mumby.  London: SPCK, 2017.
Book 1: September to December, 262 pages + 20 pages of pattern outlines.
Book 2: January to August, 360 pages + 30 pages of pattern outlines (some of which duplicate the outlines in Book 1).

I’ll begin by getting this out of the way: I really, really don’t like the name.  I’m allergic to cute or twee names for church programs for children.  “Diddy,” according to Wiktionary, can mean “tiny” in British English—a discovery I was relieved to make after looking up the word in several reputable sources where the only definition listed was “Slang: a breast or nipple; var. of titty, diminutive of tit.”  Perhaps across the Pond it also means “pacifier” in some dialects?

In any case, whether an apt American equivalent would be, say, “Itty Bitty Believers” or maybe “Binkie Believers,” SPCK and Inter-Varsity chose not to change the name, so “Diddy Disciples” it is, and at least we will not be confused by the existence of the same material under two different names, as has often happened in the past when publications crossed the Atlantic. 

The program is the brainchild of the Rev. Sharon Moughtin-Mumby, who has obviously invested a prodigious amount of work, research, and experience in its development. Moughtin-Mumby is remarkably self-effacing; aside from mentioning that she is “an Anglican priest and a biblical scholar,” she does not trot out her credentials; instead, along with thanking many church folk and colleagues for help along the way, she credits the children themselves.  She developed the program at St. Peter’s Church and its parish school, in Walworth, southeast London, where she shares ministry with her husband, the Rev. Andrew Moughtin-Mumby.  As described on the Diddy Disciples web site:

Diddy Disciples began at St Peter’s, Walworth when Sharon’s wriggly children were aged 3, 3, and 2, and it felt impossible to take them to church on Sunday.
When we started, everyone asked why. We only had five children and they belonged to the two leaders! Now we have thirty-five to forty-five babies, toddlers and young children every Sunday.
To start with, we aimed only at toddlers, but soon decided to include babies.

https://www.diddydisciples.org/diddy-diciples-the-story

After a brief general introduction, Book 1 launches into an explanation of the basic “Building Blocks” for a session with children.  These are essentially liturgical elements, which can be combined in different ways depending on the setting, the occasion, the children’s ages, and the length of experience the children and/or leaders have had together.  They fall into four types:  “Preparation Blocks,” such as “Welcome” and “Gathering Song;” “interactive Bible Storytelling” (“this is central to Diddy Disciples”); “Prayer Blocks” including “Thank You God,” “Prayers for Other People,” and “Saying Sorry to God;” and “Response Blocks” that include creative arts, sharing the Peace, and dismissal into the world.  Some sample lessons are then presented, to illustrate the range of complexity made possible by the process of combining as few as four blocks or as many as nine or more.

The “Building Blocks” are essentially liturgical elements, which can be combined in different ways depending on the setting, the occasion, the children’s ages, and the length of experience the children and/or leaders have had together.

Each type of Building Block has its own little visual icon in the lesson plans, in the form of a child’s drawing representing the action; this is just one way in which the contributions of children to the development of this program are visible and honored.  There are multiple suggestions for the actual content or material for each kind of Building Block—different choices for “Welcome,” for example, that can be used repeatedly, session after session, or varied.  All of them are built around “Seven Principles” (Book 1, pp. 23-26) that the method “celebrates:”

  • Movement
  • Repetition
  • Our voices
  • Children’s spirituality
  • Being part of the church
  • Learning
  • Feelings and emotions
Source: http://www.diddydisciples.org

Movement, repetition, our voices, and feelings and emotions mean that everything is done interactively, from singing to prayer to storytelling—and the storytelling is a mixture of dialogue, call-and-response, gesture, and song.  The leader is directed to introduce and practice certain gestures, song phrases, or facial expressions with the children before actually beginning the story, and repetitive routines and rituals help the children participate fully.  For instance, to tell the Christmas story, the leader invites the children to role-play the shepherds.  Before the story even begins, the children practice a “Gloria in excelsis” song, and are introduced to the idea of “freeze-framing” actions or emotions, “where you show an action … then freeze! Keeping absolutely still!”:

Let’s have a go at freeze-framing.  Can you show me …
Scared …  Ready to run …  Amazed …
Happy! Full of joy and excited …  Asleep …

Then in the story script itself, the children are invited, and prompted, to enter into the shepherds’ experience with their emotions, their faces, and their bodies:

Our story begins in the dark.
We’re shepherds, looking after our sheep.
That’s our job.  It’s not a job anyone else wants.
Let’s shake our heads to show it’s a job no one wants.
Lead the children in shaking heads
It’s dangerous and cold!  Can you show me cold?
But we’re poor and it’s the only job we can get.
So we’re shepherds and we’re looking for wolves and bears.
Can you show me a “looking out for wolves” freeze-frame?  …
And another one, looking that way?
Suddenly, the skies are filled with light!
The brightest light the shepherds have ever seen! …

Everything is done interactively, from singing to prayer to storytelling—and the storytelling is a mixture of dialogue, call-and-response, gesture, and song. 

The main bodies of the two books are the week-by-week lessons plans, with a range of possible combinations of these Building Blocks from which to pick and choose; and each book concludes with twenty to fifty pages of “Additional Information and Resources,” followed by another twenty or more pages of craft templates, such as a large heart shape, a pattern for a finger puppet, a blank face, and so on.  At first glance the craft templates look crude and sloppy—then one realizes that they, like the icons for the Building Blocks, are the work of children.  Each is captioned in the same way; for example: “Elijah (6) drew this face.  What can you make from it? Or would you like to draw your own?”

The other three of the Seven Principles—children’s spirituality, being part of the church, and learning—are evident in the story scripts themselves.  Moughtin-Mumby’s story scripts are lively, appealing, and accessible to very young children, but they are theologically rich and nuanced, not babyish, saccharine, condescending or moralizing.  Her five-week Advent/ Christmas unit includes a session on the Visitation that focuses on the Magnificat, asking the children first to imagine themselves as Mary, and sing, with gestures, to the tune of “The grand old Duke of York:”

My God is very BIG!
And I am very small!
My God is a topsy turvy God
Who turns things upside down!

And those who are low will be high!
And those who are high will be low …

… then to sing it again because “Mary’s song is going to become our song!”  But first, the children are invited to imagine themselves as Baby Jesus in his mother’s tummy, listening for the sounds along her journey … and then as John, in his mother’s tummy, jumping “head over heels for joy” when he hears Mary’s greeting.  The same kind of slightly quirky creativity and imagination is brought to many other stories.

Moughtin-Mumby’s story scripts are lively, appealing, and accessible to very young children, but they are theologically rich and nuanced, not babyish, saccharine, condescending or moralizing.

Nor does Moughtin-Mumby run away from stories that would seem too complex or troubling for small children: the syllabus includes the temptation in the wilderness; a journey through Holy Week, including actual footwashing (the cross is folded into the Easter story so as not to leave the children without the happy ending); and such outliers as the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.  The emphasis is on the New Testament, but there are units on “God the Maker” and the story of Moses.  The story selection follows the church year and, to some extent, the lectionary.

Theologically, I was struck by the extent of the emphasis on penitence.  “Saying Sorry to God” is one of the “Building Blocks,” and Moughtin-Mumby explains on pp.223-225 of Book 1 how essential it is to give young children tools to process the negative emotions that may flood them at this time when their worlds are expanding so rapidly—and how essential to reassure them that God always gives them a “new start.”  In the lessons that focus on the gospel, her scripts declare, in call-and-response form: “The Good News is … God always wants to give us a new start!”  I’m sure there is ample pastoral wisdom behind this emphasis, but I find it somewhat disquieting; I believe the Good News, for both children and adults, is bigger and more cosmic than the statement that God wants to give us a “new start.”

The books and web site together form a coordinated whole, admirably thorough and cross-indexed.  The book includes, on the title page verso (not the inside front cover, as the web site claims), the password to the “Members’ Area” of the web site, which invites the user to explore interactively the various options for Building Blocks within a unit, and experiment with combinations and substitutions, in a way that is beyond the capacity of a book.  This is extremely helpful, given the depth of detail in the material, which can seem overwhelming as one leafs through the books, especially since the book design is black-and-white, the font small, and the large pages crowded with information.  On the web site, there are color photographs, video, and sound clips for the songs, as well as effective use of colored tabs and text boxes to navigate the various units of background information, lesson modules, and lesson plans. 

All in all, Diddy Disciples is an exciting, valuable resource that deserves careful attention.  Even if not adopted in its entirety, it has much to teach us about sharing worship and scripture with very small children.  A training event was held in Philadelphia in January. Another was held at St. Thomas’s, New York on March 7, and I’m sure that once the present public health emergency passes, it won’t be the last.

© 2020 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard.  All rights reserved.

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