This page gives some background on children’s spirituality and guidance on worshipping and learning together at home.
Faithful daily living
All Christian churches today are increasingly talking about the importance of living out our faith actively every day whatever our age or stage of life. Towards the beginning of each of the gospels, we find Jesus recruiting. He calls. Those who are called drop what they are doing and follow, becoming almost instantly involved in what Jesus is about. They learn, apparently, by doing, and before long they are sent out in pairs to try out what they have learnt, reporting back before finding themselves, after the crucifixion, a tight-knit, interdependent little group left to get on with things, and very fearful.
They are not left alone for long, however. Within three days they encounter the risen Christ commissioning them to continue the work and promising the Spirit to inspire them in it.
Within the New Testament we find an inspiring model of ‘discipleship’, which is a lifelong journey of spiritual growth and development that enables us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, draw closer to God, and, inspired by the Spirit, do the work of the kingdom.
Nigel Varndell formerly at The Children’s Society reminds us that:
“Disciples are the people who try. They try every day to live lives a little more like Jesus, more compassionate, more loving, more caring, more just.”
Children often have church ‘done to them’ but, as we seek to nurture them as disciples in their own right, we can equip them to take up their mission, in the here and now not the church of the future. Also, we have now begun to recognise that the time we spend at church is minimal compared with the time we spend at home with our families.
For faithful living to become a daily practice, it must be nurtured within the home.
How can ROOTS help you?
All the ROOTS resources begin by looking at passages from the Bible. Most of the material for children and young people is based on the four Gospels; stories Jesus told, accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry and many familiar passages. As a publication committed to resourcing worship, everything ROOTS offers is grounded in prayer and in the possibility of spiritual growth. As a publication designed to resource learning, we offer creative, diverse, yet grounded and educationally sound activities to be used in widely differing settings, and with people of many ages and backgrounds.
ROOTS offers the following support as you develop your practice of discipleship at home:
Some background about children’s spirituality
Spirituality is fundamental to human flourishing, and it is a foundation of faith. Rebecca Nye, among others, has researched and written about children’s spirituality. She identifies six fundamentals for spiritual development that can be remembered by using the word SPIRIT as an acronym. Here are six pointers that reflect the ideas in her work as they might relate particularly to very young children:
Space – Worship spaces are ‘God is here’ places – a space set aside devoted to the opportunity to experience God. Small children are able to experience this atmosphere.
Process – Prayer and worship are spiritual processes, not an end in themselves. Valuing process means valuing the present moment, learning to be fully present, with the opportunity to experience God’s presence alongside others.
Imagination – The development of the imagination supports spiritual development and a fundamental capacity for prayer and the reading of Scripture.
Relationship – Relationship with God is at the heart of our faith and children will develop an appreciation of this through the relationships they develop with people of faith.
Intimacy – ‘Spirituality is about a sense of “coming closer”’: our capacity for coming close to God will be supported through experiences of real attention and value shown to young children by those around them.
Trust – We learn to trust by experiencing the trustworthiness of others.
Gerard Hughes, in his book, God in all things, suggests a definition of spirituality expressed as ‘signs of holiness’. Children and young people fulfil all of them.
- A sense of awe and wonder
- A sense of mystery
- A sense of seeking
- A desire to connect with ‘another world’
- The capacity to give and receive human love
- A sense of laughter and joy
- An awareness of what is both good and evil (engaging with difficult issues such as death, freedom, aloneness, suffering, right and wrong)
How can we create an environment in which these signs of holiness can flourish?
A reminder of how children learn
Relationships are key
Children are primarily experiential learners. Relationship is fundamental to this. The experience of being loved and secure is foundational to the development of faith. Home and family are very important here, as well as making provision for such experiences part of a worshipping community. A feeling of security, with freedom to explore and freedom from stress with people who will support them appropriately, is key to their development.
Small children learn through play. We see this in the baby a few months old who experiments with touch and feel, who responds to smiles and sounds. We see it in the toddler who develops an interest in particular things and sets out to reach them on wobbly legs, or sits and plays with them in distinctive patterns. We see it in the mimicking of adult behaviour by the child who solemnly collects a hymnbook and holds it upside down as they sing with everyone else; or the child who enters the pulpit and plays at speaking, holds the microphone to sing or kneels at the communion rail with hands outstretched.
Children absorb experiences as a sponge soaks up water, storing up their learning like treasure in a basket of infinite depth, to be brought out and sorted, revisited and evaluated over the coming years and for ever. Largely their learning is pre-conceptual: they know about things; they respond with delight, intrigue, persistence, perhaps even fear. When they analyse, it is through trial and experimentation rather than verbal explanation and rational argument. If we offer them positive, warm, appropriate experiences of faith and faith community in their earliest years, we offer them a treasure for life, a deep well to be dipped into again and again, a foundation for a complex life of faith that will deepen and grow over a whole lifetime.
Physical skills vary
Children in their early years vary enormously in the development of physical skills: some children learn to walk at ten months, some may not walk until they are almost two. Some children can colour in a picture long before they start school, others find even holding a pencil difficult when they are five. So what we offer must not depend too much on the physical ability to ‘join in’.
How to engage the youngest children in your household
Very early experiences are fundamental in all areas of human development. This is as much the case in faith development as in any other area of life. It is therefore important that the church makes good provision for babies and toddlers in the same way that it seeks to make provision for other members of the community.
Infants and toddlers absorb the atmosphere of worship and the fellowship that accompanies it as they learn from other early experiences, being part of a family, visiting friends and so on. Although we, the adults who observe them, do not at this stage receive appreciable feedback on their learning from these experiences at this stage, it is happening nonetheless. Under 5s should be included and valued in the worshipping environment whether in church or at home.
Practical tips when working with young children
- Take time to listen to them and don’t rush them on to the next activity if they want to talk.
- Respond with comments which open up a conversation; commenting with preverbal children about what they’re doing creates a verbal framework for them, e.g. ‘I see you’re making a boat, show me how it works.’, rather than, ‘What a lovely boat!’ which closes down the conversation.
- Be aware of and respond to non-verbal communication.
- Slow yourself down to their speed and don’t worry if you don’t finish what you planned to do.
- Provide open-ended activities and let the children explore unguided.
- Develop a ‘slowing down’ process to move from noisy toys to a quieter activity – the children will recognise the change of rhythm.
- Allow them to lead activities and use play and creative materials in ways that you had not imagined.
- Be there to help and facilitate where necessary and give them space just to be.
Notes on how to worship and learn together at home:
Children benefit if we give them enough space to be with God and God to be with them. A really practical way to provide more space in this way is to notice how you feel about and support pauses or silences. Children, like us, don’t find talking about their spiritual thoughts and reactions easy when it feels like answering a series of questions. Using really open questions and leaving good gaps before moving on supports the fact that spiritual responses need space, and that silence is not empty space but can be a way of saying or feeling something so important it can’t be put into words.
Physical space can make a huge difference to how we feel too. There are plenty of practical things you can try to improve the spiritual quality of your physical space.
- First, ask the children and young people what helps make a place feel like a ‘God is here’ place for them. They could talk about this, draw or design models, or take photos of places or objects that suggests this to them.
- Second, if you can’t overcome difficulties with the overall location, create a deliberate sacred space within that space.
- For example by rearranging the layout (moving away from tables and chairs, covering irrelevant clutter with sheets), or by investing in a good quality rug to gather together on (used only for this special time with the children), and by developing a threshold to mark the entrance and exit of this sacred space.
- Having a deliberate focal point will also help. There’s a lot to be said for familiar, permanent signals that say, ‘this is our way of making sacred space’, just as we do in Church.
- It may also be helpful to carve out time and set a pattern for your worship together to help with routine and build it into your daily lives.
Give plenty of opportunities for children to choose for themselves how to respond to material presented in your sessions. Some children may find it hard at first if they are not given a clear task – ‘paint this, colour that, write about ...’ – but supporting them in their struggle to really access their own imaginative responses, rather than giving in and letting them just complete a task you’ve set up for them, could be a critical factor in helping them find their own spiritual resources, meaning and insight.
Use open questions and, as you do, try to encourage and value the children’s attempts to process the issues. Sometimes that means valuing children saying or doing things in quite unorthodox ways, even ways that seem silly to us.
Examples of open questions:
How do you think Jesus felt when he was…?
How would you feel if you were one of the people in the story?
What do you think might happen next?
Why do you think this might have happened?
If we tend to assume too controlling a role, the children could mistake this for our lack of trust in God’s being able to reach people directly. If we really trust God, perhaps we don’t need to worry so much about speaking for God in telling the children ‘what God meant to say here was…, actually the most important thing is…’. In fact, by not doing that we might be modelling trust in a very deep way – signalling ‘I don’t need to manipulate this: I trust that God and God’s story is much bigger than anything I can do or say about this.’
When our role tends to be a bit too authoritative we might easily send a message out that we don’t really trust the child or their spiritual viewpoint. For instance, in a too authoritative role we might ‘correct’ a child who says ‘Easter is sad’, by saying something like ‘don’t be silly, Easter is a happy time’.
There are times when we might feel out of our depth and simply don’t know what to say for the best. Try to see these as key teaching moments – when you convey something very important about trust in a spiritual sense. Trust that the children may be able to help you say, or do, something helpful in response before jumping in with a nervous and hurried response of your own. Trust that God can help you, and the children, to discern a way through this: that this is not all ‘down to you’. This will help to slow you down and convey a powerful feeling of deep trust to the children.
Trust is clearly an essential ingredient to spiritual life, especially in prayer. But nurturing children’s prayer life is about more than telling them that they can trust God with their concerns, thanks and questions. We can convey important ‘trust signals’ in our attitudes to what counts as children’s prayer. Sometimes adults can seem as though they are praying even though little is really going on inside. Equally children can give the outward sign of not praying according to our criteria but perhaps a lot is going on inside.
So it helps to take a generous, trusting attitude to what may constitute prayerful activity for children. It may look as if a child is ‘just doodling’, or idly rolling balls of playdough, or gazing out of the window, rather than producing a representative drawing of the Bible story or listening attentively. But in these moments, God and the child may be in deep communion.
When we offer children activities that help them go deeper into the story or theme of the day, perhaps drawing or making, consider respecting them in the same way we’d treat someone deep in prayer, i.e. avoid disturbing or interrogating them. Similarly, if a child is disruptive, we can signal this trust that the whole process in which we are engaging is spiritual by appealing to spiritual, rather than social, reasons for keeping the peace by saying ‘be careful that you don’t disturb someone who may be speaking with God here’. This can help everyone to have a powerful expectation of the reality and mystery of what prayer could really be.
This material is taken from articles published by ROOTS to support subscribers, including a series by Rebecca Nye on Children's spirituality, and support for worshipping and learning with very young children written by Victoria Goodman.
Dr Rebecca Nye is a freelance academic researcher and consultant on children’s spirituality. She introduced Godly Play to the UK and has three children. Her books include Children’s Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters (Church House Publishing, 2009).
Victoria Goodman is a former teacher who works part-time as a Children and Young Families’ Minister at an Anglican church in Cambridge. She also leads Godly Play sessions in local schools and, with two colleagues, she runs the Spiritual Child Network website.