Finding meaning

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Reflecting on their own lives, connecting with a group and experiencing nature put children in touch with spirituality Clearly, some children are raised in families who offer wonderful support for their spiritual growth. Likewise, there are many examples of positive practice in settings. The following aspects all contribute to a child's spiritual development.

Reflecting on their own lives, connecting with a group and experiencing nature put children in touch with spirituality

Clearly, some children are raised in families who offer wonderful support for their spiritual growth. Likewise, there are many examples of positive practice in settings. The following aspects all contribute to a child's spiritual development.

CONNECTION

Any developing personality has to start with growth of self-knowledge and self-esteem. The stable family plays an important role in helping a child gain a sense of personal continuity. At two, three and four, young children love to hear stories of when they were babies or to share recall of past family events. They are also keen to share and listen to predictions of what will happen when you are a big girl. These shared experiences and concerns help young children to start to have a sense of self and connectedness within the larger family. It also works in reverse.

As a grandparent, I find my little granddaughter is a source of my spiritual growth and strengthens my identity. I am sure that all grandparents must share this. As we marvel at and support the growth of a new generation, there comes a renewed hope for a future which extends beyond our own lifetime. The family then has a powerful effect on each person's sense of identity.

When a child moves to a nursery or school, we share the responsibility of helping them to feel connected. A skilled practitioner will help each child to feel unique and special but also to start to feel part of a larger enterprise - to experience the sense of community and the love, compassion and concern for others in the group. Spiritual connection shows itself in a climate of mutual trusting relationships.

Question to consider

* What songs and stories do you use to help children feel part of a community?

Suggestions for practice

* Work with small groups to help each child create their own personal history in a simple book entitled 'The Story of Me'. This can include photographs and drawings which chart their growth from babies, important family events and pictures of the key people in their lives.

* Tell autobiographical stories, starting 'When I was a little girl...', to help children start to understand about the continuity of life.

INDEPENDENCE

A child will not grow physically, intellectually, socially, morally or spiritually if constrained, and so a requirement for growth of the spirit is that we let our children fly.

We all appreciate the value of children becoming physically and functionally independent, but the link to spiritual development is through independent thinking. Kahil Gibran in his book The Prophet describes this well. He gives a profound and perceptive definition of a wise teacher who 'does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you (the child) to the threshold of your (the child's) own mind'.2 In nurseries and schools where this happens, children's own views and beliefs are invited and discussed.

The outside environment is potentially a very rich area for independent and spiritual growth. Many early years establishments take great care to create interesting and beautiful outdoor areas, even in a small space. Forest Schools go just that step further.

In Denmark, Forest Schools have been an important aspect of early years education for the past 20 years. The Forest School is based on the belief that children can be educated to appreciate the natural world and to understand the need to care for nature. Forest schools are now spreading rapidly in this country.

Nursery children visit the forest area frequently and in all sorts of weather. The aim is to encourage them to grow in confidence and independence, to learn to take risks and to gain skills in and knowledge of aspects of the outside environment, while they develop observational skills. They learn how to whittle sticks, light a fire and extinguish it safely. Anyone who has seen children deeply and joyfully involved in these activities cannot doubt the inner satisfactions that are being experienced.

Question to consider

* What spiritual messages do children gain from your outside area?

A SENSE OF WONDER, AWE AND MYSTERY

These are the easiest aspects of spiritual development to foster, as young children are so impressionable. To them, most of life is still a mystery.

They wonder at the mundane and constantly remind us more jaundiced adults of the joy of being alive. The most successful examples of encouraging awe and wonder are when the adults themselves are open to the miracles and mystery of life.

Case study

Alice, a pre-school worker, had planned to encourage children to observe and share thoughts about growing things. She also wanted to impress the group with the power and beauty of nature. Alice passed around some sunflower seeds for each child to look at closely through a magnifying glass. They talked about the shape and feel of the seeds and what might be inside the hard shell. Alice then asked the children to close their eyes and think hard about the little seed growing. When they opened their eyes, in front of the children were two huge sunflower plants growing in pots.

Jamie gazed in amazement and whispered, 'It's grown into the sun!'

Suggestions for practice

Create wonder in everyday activity.

* Provide water that sparkles through the addition of silver glitter in the water tray

* Burn aromotherapy oils to perfume the room

* Introduce a damp log outside that becomes a home to minibeasts.

SEARCH FOR MEANING AND PURPOSE

Bruno Bettleheim writes, 'Today, as in times past, the most important and also the most difficult task in raising a child is helping him to find meaning in life. Many growth experiences are needed to achieve this.'3 And yet young children constantly search for meaning through their questions, many of which confront the big issues in life. Some of these may refer to the child's personal circumstances - 'Why doesn't my daddy live with us any more?' Other questions may be more philosophical - 'Why does the moon look at me?' Yet others deal with more imponderable issues - 'Who is God?'

While there are no set answers to some of these questions, some basic principles are helpful. The first is to keep responses simple and honest, such as, 'God is very special to a lot of people who believe that God made the world and all the things that live in it.' That should be quite sufficient to satisfy an initial question, and the child will probably move on to the next burning query, such as, 'When is it lunchtime?'

The second principle is to admit that you do not have an answer but that you are really thinking about it. A child will be satisfied if you show that it is a very important question and that you are interested in discussing possibilities and finding out what the child thinks.

The use of picture storybooks can help young children to play around with ideas and think their way through big issues. Some books are particularly suitable. For example, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are encourages children to explore dreams and fears.4 Joanna Haynes describes this activity as philosophical enquiry.5 When providing for these enquiries it is important that:

* children set the agenda for discussion through their questions and responses to the story

* each child's contribution is fully respected

* the adult remains strictly neutral and avoids steering the discussion.

Those who work with young children are frequently touched by the traumas faced by many during their early years of life. It is amazing how some children do appear to withstand huge disruptions and selfish and sometimes cruel behaviour shown towards them. Other children are, sadly, noticeably damaged and life is a confusion to them.

Sometimes staff can help children deal with, and even come to terms with, aspects of suffering. A friend who is hurt or upset can be comforted and reassured; an absent daddy can be visited at weekends; a pet who dies can be buried with suitable rituals.

However, at times staff feel inadequate at dealing with some hardships that children face outside the nursery. On these occasions, all that is possible is to draw on are trusting relationships and to encourage children to talk.

The experience of bereavement, particularly of a loved family member, is particularly hard for children to understand. The sensitive story of Badger's Parting Gifts can help them to recognise good and positive aspects that arise from pain. 6

Case study

A nursery and infant school in the north of England accommodates some profoundly disabled children. Some of these children die during their school careers, and the head confessed to me that one of her most difficult tasks was not only to confront this herself but also to help staff and children through the experience.

During my visit I witnessed an assembly following the death of a lovely five-year-old girl. The atmosphere was thoughtful, with elements of joy in remembering. The children had contributed to a memory box, which included messages scribed by adults of some of the children's special recollections of Elise.

It held some of her favourite things, including a bright ball and a chocolate bar. Everyone sang her favourite hymn, 'Lord of the Dance'.

Finally, children sent their thoughts to Elise by blowing bubbles. This was not a sad occasion but intensely moving. Looking at the faces of those children I knew that it had touched them deeply.

Suggestions for practice

* Share precious memories. Show the children your memory box. Pull out one or two items (for example, a photograph of a dog that you had when you were young, or a fir cone that your own child gave you some years ago).

* Talk about why these things are valuable to you, although they cost little or no money.

* Introduce a memory box for the nursery. Invite the children to bring in some item that reminds them of a special time. Place the items in the memory box and share it at a certain time each week. A sense of occasion can help to set the tone for the gathering - try quiet music, a lighted candle, the box placed on a decorative rug.

* Ask the child sharing the memory to sit on a cushion. If the item is passed around, it should be handled with respect and care. It is important that the group is encouraged to listen to each child carefully and the children are given time to present their 'memory' as they wish.

* Continue sharing your memories with the children and support presentations from those less confident to do it alone.

CREATIVITY

Conversations with young children and observations of their models, drawings and paintings show very clearly their original thinking and creativity. All but the most damaged children enter the nursery with creative talents, and it is during the early years that these talents blossom or wither.

Young children need to be able to exercise their imagination and learn to draw on inspiration and on insight into their play.

Creativity is not limited to the arts. Children need a multiplicity of ways to represent their thoughts and ideas. This is expressed beautifully in the title 'The Hundred Languages of Children', which refers to the broad and rich creative opportunities given to Italian children in early childhood settings in Reggio Emilia.7 Ideas, like good garden compost, need time to mature. People who are well known for their creative ideas usually agree that their ideas tend to emerge when they slow down, reflect and mull things over.

Probably all of us would relate to this, recognising, for example, the regenerative effect of a relaxing holiday in the midst of a busy life. The notion is particularly applicable to young children. During the early years, when so much learning takes place, children need to have plenty of opportunities to develop, use and apply new ideas.

Question to consider

* Have you ever had an idea, a flash of insight, a desire to make something beautiful?

* What happened to these creative sparks?

* How well do you help children to channel their ideas in creative ways?

* How frequently do you provide children with sufficient time to be creative?

FEELINGS

All that we do in life is affected by our feelings, including our ability to be creative. Young children can release powerful feelings in dancing, stamping, in role play and mark-making. But negative feelings, such as anger and anxiety, which dominate some, can restrict imaginative and reflective thinking and actions.

Case study

Four-year-old Carla was afraid of being alone in the dark and was constantly anxious about going home when the night came. She believed that bad things happened to you when it was dark. It transpired that her granny had regularly punished her for noisy behaviour by shutting her in a dark room. This fear was with her daily. Sometimes Carla would stop in an activity and ask when it was going to be night time.

The staff in the pre-school setting discussed matters frankly with Carla's mother, who was unaware of the situation as she worked full-time. Carla's keyworker used the story Can't You Sleep, Little Bear by Martin Waddell to help her to confront and discuss her fear.

Other children contributed different views, including, 'night time is cosy - you can lie in bed and listen to your thoughts - it's peaceful'. They encouraged her to go into the role-play area, where use of dark curtains could simulate night time. In her own time Carla gradually became less fearful.

Most young children are naturally sociable and making friends soon becomes very important. Where settings encourage children to be open, caring and affectionate towards others, they strengthen a generosity of spirit which is becoming essential as we learn to live in a global community.

Transcendence is not a term normally associated with young children. But the word transcendence comes from the Latin transcendere, which means to climb over.

Young children do climb over and reach out to the limits of their world as part of growing up. A child experiences their inner strengths when they summon up courage to venture into the outside area alone for the first time. For example, when Ahmed lay on the carpet, closed his eyes and listened to a brief extract of Beethoven, he said softly afterwards, 'The music burst out of me.'

In our materialistic world, children are bombarded with stimuli and invitations to expand their lives. Many have sophisticated experiences at a very early age and this can lead them to look always for answers outside of themselves. We offer children something of infinite value if we help them to look for resources within themselves through relaxation and simple meditation exercises.

One of the requirements in the Welsh framework for the Foundation Stage is for children to 'be still and reflect'. Stillness and reflection do not come naturally to young children; they are such physical beings, and so full of life and vitality that the term 'spiritual' does not appear to fit.

And yet over time they will respond well to invitations to quieten themselves. Spiritual development can seem remote from the tenets of early education which stress the importance of activity and 'being'.

At the Maharishi school in Lancashire, children at four years are introduced to meditation and breathing exercises. Five-year-old children learn their Word of Wisdom, for example, love or peace, and repeat this word as they walk to school or play with construction. At this age they do it for five minutes twice a day and after that they add one minute for every year in school. Caroline Sherwood, in her book on meditation, aptly describes it as 'Making Friends with Ourselves'.8

Suggestions for practice

Help children to appreciate stillness. Establish a few moments daily when children close their eyes and remain totally quiet. Help them to recognise silence as a gift of life. Encourage them to relax as they lie on the floor and breath deeply, or make their bodies like flippy, floppy scarecrows.

Suggest that they think of beautiful things which they might share afterwards.

Case study

An example of provision that respects and nurtures children's spiritual growth is Steiner schools, where there is a strong emphasis on natural materials, on learning about natural crafts and on imaginative play using simple props.

The sense of community is tangible, through the ritual gathering around a lighted candle at the start and end of the day. Other rituals recognise and celebrate the natural cycle of life; children regularly bake their own bread and work in the garden and observe living things.

The practitioner is not there to explicitly teach but to demonstrate or model certain behaviours. According to Freya Jaffke, a renowned Steiner kindergarten teacher, these behaviours include a sense of order and rhythm, good habits and loving consistency. By doing this, the practitioner creates a 'mantle of warmth' that protects the child from the outside world and strengthens the child's inner resources.9

References

1 Dr Seuss (1961) The Sneeches. Random House Books

2 Gibran, K (1927) The Prophet. London, Heinemann, p20

3 Bettelheim, B (1975) The Uses of Enchantment. New York, Random House, p3

4 Sendak, M (2000) Where the Wild Things Are. Red Fox

5 Haynes, J (2002) Children as Philosophers. London, Routledge Falmer, p69

6 Varley, S (1994) Badger's Parting Gifts. London, Picture Lions

7 Edwards, C, Gandini, L, Forman, G (1995) The Hundred Languages of Children. Ablex Publishing

8 Sherwood, C (1997) Making Friends with Ourselves: Introducing Children to Meditation, Kidsmed, 10 Edward Street, Bath BA2 4DU

9 Jaffke, F (1996) Work and Play in Early Childhood, London. Floris Books

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