Spiritual Development and Religious Education in the Early Years
A Review of the Literatureby Dr Jan Grajczonek. Below is a Summary, for the full version see here.
Nye and Hay (1996) argue that a young child’s spirituality is a more appropriate starting point for the religious education program. The notion of spirituality has been shown to be innate to all humans, something that comes or arises from our deepest humanity. The earliest studies exploring children’s spirituality and/or religious experience came out of the Religious Experience Research Unit from Alister Hardy (1965) who claimed that a religious experience was a central feature of people’s lives. Respondents described experiences from their childhood that had significance on their lives.
Edward Robinson (1977) researched and found that people’s religious experiences were commonplace and completely natural. Eaude (2003) said we need to understand children’s spirituality as worthwhile in its own right, rather than as an immature or embryonic version of adult spirituality.
After many interviews with children, Hay and Nye claimed that all children have an innate spirituality that they are born with which is not dependent on any religious affiliation.
Nye and Hay proposed that young children’s spiritual sensitively comprises three categories.
Awareness sensing- refers to those times when young children are completely attending to or absorbed in whatever they are doing and includes the here and now.
Mystery sensing- includes children’s sense of awe and wonder as well as their imagination. The place of imagination with children’s spirituality is pivotal and linked to play. It is through imagination that we, as adults, can consider new possibilities and transcend our present reality.
Value sensing- observed in children as they respond to events, stories experiences of which they try to make sense or meaning- either delight or despair, ultimate goodness and meaning.
Hart (2006) contends that for too long children’s wonderings have not been taken seriously and remained unappreciated. Wisdom is displayed by children in the way they often show remarkable capacity for cutting to the heart of a matter, for accessing profound insight and wise guidance. He suggests that it’s not an amassing of information but rather it is an activity of knowing. In some moments children find remarkable insight as they access this contemplative knowing that complements the rational and sensory. Bradford (1999) proposes by nurturing and satisfying children’s fundamental needs - that is nurturing the “human spirituality” - can lead to the development of a more “religious (devotional) spirituality”. The fundamental human-spiritual aspects of the essential needs of children according to Bradford include the need for: i). the experience of a profound quality of love; ii). a sense of ultimate security; iii). play, exploration, humour, hope and wonder; iv). affirmation of others; v). encouragement to participate in and contribute to the spiritual and social wellbeing of their family, friends and community. (pp. 3-4) These aspects can be simplified as love, peace, wonder, joy and relatedness. Bradford argues that these five essential needs or categories are fundamental to religious identity of all kinds. In other words, if a child’s fundamental human-spiritual needs are not met or indeed not nurtured, they then have no way or means of establishing a religious identity. A critical implication that arises from Bradford’s insights is that in the nurturing of these essential needs (which are fundamental to establishing a religious identity of all kinds) a pluralist approach that would acknowledge and respect all children’s religious backgrounds or their diverse religiosities, would be enabled.
Hay and Nye (1998, 2006) claims that spiritual education is the reverse of indoctrination and suggests that teachers have four major responsibilities
Helping children to keep an open mind: This involves teachers creating an environment that enables children’s personal freedom and self-confidence. Matters that can be openly addressed include: discovering a purpose in life, understanding their dependence on the community, what it means to be just, facing the reality of their own death, the need for meaning,
Exploring ways of seeing: involves encouraging children to take different perspectives on issues and not feel pressured to conform to a particular way of seeing and or illegitimating different interpretations. This would entail open discussion that counters narrow views.
Encouraging personal awareness: This is related to relationship, relatedness or connected ness with one self. Time is needed to enable children to come to know themselves deeply, to be conscious of who each is: their gifts, likes, dislikes, responses to how they do things, etc eg how they eat an apple.
Becoming personally aware of social and political dimensions of spirituality. Spirituality is expressed in and through a range of stories, rituals, symbols, art, architecture and so on and can be revealed in all subjects. A critical aspect of this awareness argues Hay is to acknowledge that spirituality is not the preserve of religious education and needs to be integrated in and across all disciplines and school life-which has social and political implications for the school curriculum.
Hart’s research into children’s spiritual development led him to design a series of steps or what he calls the “Ten sources of power and Perspective” which offers ways of empowering the innate spirituality of children. The essential elements are:
Who am I? ask questions such as “what is happening in your body when you’re angry? Hart says it is through the inward reflection and then outward articulation that we reinforce connection.
To thine own self be true. To know who we are creates an obligation to be who we are. We must embrace all parts of ourselves including those that cause us pain for it is in this way that we bring all parts together.
What am I here to give? This draws out our particular calling or purpose. Not just who we are but what we do and what we have to offer.
What am I here to learn? Rather than see life as in competition with others that leads towards success or failure, we should see life as an opportunity for learning. It’s important to give children the space to fail and to ask such questions as, ‘If you could teach someone about this, what would you tell him or her?” Hart claims the lull after anguish is the most teachable moments in a life.
Finding my voice. We must help children find their voice to express their purpose, to bring the vision to form. Teachers should encourage and provide constructive feedback and to have children practice a certain skill. We must never stifle the creative expression and silence the voice.
Mastering myself. We need to control our impulses rather than be controlled by them. We must help children take a deep breath and work through their initial frustration or discomfort, to persist rather than give up. In other words, assist children to build resilience, self-efficacy, and self-confidence. Spiritual work is in every day struggles, working through them is spiritual growth.
Seeing our future. We need to assist children to visualise and rehearse their intentions in their minds, to focus consciousness.
Where am I now? Asking questions of children such as, “What does that feeling look like in your body?” What is the sound, movement? Hart says that by asking such questions we can help children develop their consciousness by realising that they can have a feeling, but they are not the feeling.
Hearing the inner voice. This centres on intuition. The first voice (ego-centred voice) chatters constantly offering commentary and judgement about all sorts of things including self-criticism, fear, judgement of others. The second voice is that Hart calls the inner voice which lives deeper down. We need to discern between these two voices. The inner voice generally feels more generous and limitless working from abundance, rather than feel self-interested, and limited working from lack. If we practice and become more aware or conscience, we are better able to recognise the difference between the two. The inner voice can arrive in unexpected ways, through a dream, a gut feeling or a flash of an idea.
Listen with your heart. Listen ‘with’ not ‘to’ the heart. Listening ‘to’ the heart involves paying attention to our feelings and sensations about something listening ‘with’ the heart turns the focus outward, toward others- we listen in order to understand, to appreciate, and to love. This step will assist the children to becoming empathetic, compassionate and loving.
List of activities that schools encouraging students spiritual development would be likely to exhibit:
Giving children the opportunity to explore values and beliefs, and the way in which they affect people’s lives
Supporting and developing those children who already have religious beliefs in ways which are relevant to them
Encouraging pupils to explore and develop what animates themselves and others.
Encouraging students to reflect and learn from reflection
Giving pupils the opportunity to understand human feelings and emotions, the way they affect people and how an understanding of them can be helpful
Developing a climate or ethos with all students can grow and flourish respect others and be respected.
Accommodating difference and respecting the integrity of individuals
Promoting teaching styles which:
Values questions and gives space for thoughts, ideas and concerns
Enables pupils to make connections between aspects of their learning
Encourage pupils to relate their learning to a wider frame of reference, for eg asking why, how and where as well as what
Monitoring the success of what is provided
Baumgartner and Buchanan (2010) understanding of spirituality includes 3 elements
A sense of belonging- nurtured when children are given opportunities to contribute and given important things to do or thanked when they have shared, helped, cooperated so that they experience their value as members of the classroom community
Resect for self and others, nurtured when children are encouraged to manage conflict peacefully, when their opinions, likes and dislikes are asked for, setting open-ended art projects.
An awareness and appreciation of the unknown, nurtured when curiosity is encouraged, organising mini spiritual retreats, noticing and appreciating the beauty and mystery of nature, allowing children to question, not over emphasizing facts.
The approaches do not depend on children’s religiosity, but rather their starting points are with children’s innate spirituality.
Nurturing a young child’s spiritual development Godly Play is the time given to wondering with children as they are invited and encouraged to wonder about many aspects of the scripture story at the end of its sharing. Berryman (1991) emphasized the importance for children coming to know and believe in God as loving and benevolent and in doing this they would be better able to face the existential issues such as death, freedom, aloneness and meaninglessness.
Eaude (2005) discusses programs which include time and space for reflection, wonder and awe and prayer.
Nye and Hay (1996) argue that the starting point should be with children’s innate spirituality.
The Catholic education stated in its document, ‘The religious Dimension of Education in a catholic school’: Not all students in catholic schools are members of the catholic church; not all are catholic... the religious freedom or the personal conscience of individual students and their families must be respected, and this freedom is explicitly recognised by the church. On the other hand, a catholic school cannot relinquish its own freedom to proclaim the Gospel and to offer a formation based on the values to be found in a Christian education; this is its right and duty. To proclaim or to offer is not to impose, however; the latter suggests a moral violence which is strictly forbidden, both by the gospel and by church law.
The United Nations 1989 placed emphasis on children’s participation rights including their right to participate in their own religious traditions and that these religious beliefs are respected, articles 1, 14 and 26. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The essential common areas of focus for nurturing both children’s spiritual and religious development include approaches, strategies and activities that pay attention to and activate:
their imagination and creativity;
their sense of wonder and awe, of mystery, of identity and belonging of connectedness to themselves, others, nature and for some to God or and ultimate, of security and serenity,
their participation in and contribution to community and to the wellbeing of family, friends and community members.
Also emphasized was the critical nature of the creation of a safe and secure environment in which children would feel free to share their spiritual experiences.
Conclusion Children’s spirituality and their spiritual and religious development have been shown in literature to be of central relevance and importance to who they are and who they will become. Their identity, sense of belonging and sense of meaning, as well as purpose in life are all linked to, and affected by, their spirituality and the ways through which that spirituality might be nurtured. Therefore a religious education framework that pays attention to and implicitly and explicitly seeks to nurture all aspects and characteristics of children’s spiritual and religious development with the catholic child are and/or early childhood centre occupies a significant place across all aspects of, and within, the centre. We need to consider 3 themes highlighted in the literature.
Articulate a clear and concise understanding of the notions of spirituality and religiosity and their relationship with each other.
The framework would need to consider the characteristics attributed to children’s spirituality
The framework needs to incorporate an approach that encompasses appropriate pedagogical and environmental elements to develop those noted characteristics in ways that nurture and contribute to young children’s spiritual and religious development.
All children are born with an innate spirituality and as they grow and develop it’s vital that they are educated in the ways and means to not only express that spirituality, but also provided with the ways and means that will nurture and activate their spiritual and religious development thus enabling them to become whole persons.