The notion of the spiritual dimension of humanity has developed for centuries, mostly linked with religion, faith or divine nature of an invisible higher being. It is only in more recent times that spirituality has been investigated outside religious contexts. For example, spirituality is considered as an innate ability of the human being, including young children, to show awareness and consciousness of the surrounding worlds through curiosity, wonder, a sense of compassion and love. We often hear children asking big questions about the meaning of life and puzzlement about the world: Who made the first person on earth? How does the world become the way it is now? Is God more powerful than the sun? Is Heaven bigger than the Earth? Do animals understand what we said? Why do we need to care about the environment? These questions reflect children’s daily observations and the cultural messages they encountered. These questions show children’s curiosity and thinking in relation to spirituality.
The covid-19 pandemic has caused big challenges for children and family lives on a global scale. Connecting with family members and friends was a luxury for many in the context of staying at home and self-isolation restrictions. Children’s learning had to be monitored at home, to a greater extent, and that had never happened before in the most recent decades. All of this has urged us to rethink education and develop more holistic approaches to children’s learning considering the ultimate importance of mental health and wellbeing. Addressing children’s spiritual development arises as an urgent call in these challenging times.
The importance of spiritual development for young children
The early childhood pioneer Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) advocated revolutionary visions such as the value of early childhood in its own right and the importance of holistic learning for young children. Froebel’s educational philosophy and kindergarten practice were linked to his religious thinking drawing on Christianity, but as recognised by contemporary scholars, Froebelian legacy has left a clear print on the importance of seeing the child in connection with the family, community, nature, divinity and the wider world. Froebel addressed the importance of engagement with nature in providing space and time for children to develop a sense of wonder, peaceful mind and connection with and care for living things and non-living things, which creates moments for them to pause and listen to the world around them. Froebel saw play as the highest phase of child development, as the self-active representation of the child’s life, and as the most spiritual activity of the child.
Therefore, children’s spiritual development is not a new phenomenon in the context of early childhood heritage. However, somewhat narrowly defined spirituality focusing on the Euro-Western Christianity might have distanced early childhood educators with diverse backgrounds in relation to religious and secular experiences. On the other hand, within the Early Years Foundation Stage (2021) in England, there is no recognition of spiritual development as part of young children’s learning or guidance for educators to support and promote children’s spiritual growth. This might have led to a lack of confidence among the early childhood educators in discussing and supporting children’s spiritual development in their practice.
Contemporary research recognises the complexity of defining spirituality and the transcending nature of spirituality beyond religious-secular binary boundaries. Spirituality is commonly acknowledged as the child’s ongoing pursuit for a sense of his/her place in the universe. This enables children’s capacity for developing more abstract conceptions of wonder and relational connections between self and others including key people, living and non-living things, and aspects that they have developed connections with. As addressed by researchers and scholars, spirituality is an important dimension of young children’s holistic development linking to autonomy, compassion, resilience, responsibility and wellbeing. Spiritual development encourages children’s deeper understanding of themselves and empathy for others and helps children gain appreciation of the wider impact their behaviour and actions have upon themselves, other people and the world itself. Not addressing spirituality in early childhood settings deprives children of a significant learning experience.
Nurturing children’s spiritual development in early childhood context
As mentioned earlier on, the complexity in defining spirituality combined with a lack of recognition and guidance in the Early Years Foundation Stage (2021) in the area of children’s spiritual development leaves early childhood educators faced with the challenge of how to implement spirituality as an important domain into practice. It is fortunate that the wealth of early childhood heritage, research and scholarly work can act as valuable resources for educators to draw on and develop their own reflective practice in nurturing young children’s spiritual development.
Develop an open-mindedness towards spirituality
It is important that early childhood educators develop open-mindedness towards spirituality and recognise that spirituality is not a closed entity purely focusing on children’s experience and appreciation of the divine being, the almighty God, but extends to something beyond religious beliefs. It might also be helpful for educators to develop their own vision of spirituality in support of children’s spiritual growth as part of holistic learning and wellbeing. For example, you might find yourself deeply resonating with a Froebelian perspective, seeing spirituality as a mechanism by connecting the child to the family, community, nature, divinity and the wider world; or you might feel more connected to viewing spirituality as the child’s developing sense of their place in the universe.
Create an inclusive and safe learning environment
Research evidence shows the importance for early childhood educators to create an inclusive, safe learning environment and provide sufficient time via the role of being sensitive and supportive listeners to enable children to speak, talk and express their feelings, wonderments, confusions and puzzlement about family, nature, faith, religion as well as the unknown aspects in their lives. This supports young children to develop confidence and resilience for deeper, wider and diverse ways of thinking and understanding of the world around them. Educators offer further support when children encounter challenges in understanding and exploring difficult aspects. For example, when children deal with the loss of family or community members, something small such as sharing discussion of the person’s life and his/her contribution to the community via photos or memorial objects from the family might create special moments for all children to develop compassion, sympathy, sense of celebration, pride and resilience. These moments would create spiritual space for the community to keep together in difficult times.
Play, nature and spiritual development
It is time for early childhood educators to be confident about the role of play and engagement with nature in supporting children’s spiritual development. It is important to address here that play and engagement with nature are interdependent in nurturing children’s spirituality due to children’s ways of being with nature via play experiences. Nature acts as a meaningful space and environment for children to play in and play with, whilst play is a unique experience to enable children’s inner contemplation and reflection via natural environments and outdoor spaces. By engaging with nature, children learn about biodiversity and ecology, they take responsibility for the local community environments, and they develop deeper understanding of who they are in relation to nature. In the 21st century, the ‘natural’ nature might be difficult to be present in early childhood settings, but even a small sized garden acts as a spiritual place where children themselves and adults can talk, play, imagine together, experience connections and develop relationships with the wider world.
Work with families and community
It is also important for early childhood educators to work alongside families and communities in supporting young children’s spiritual development. Community and culture are central to educators’ understanding of each child, as family and community cultural values affect children’s perspectives and experiences. Educators working closely with families and communities invites a shared understanding about children’s life experiences. For instance, educators celebrate cultural traditions including religious or non-religious rituals with children and families in early childhood settings or community spaces via special events and routine activities. In this way, educators can support children to explore, question and reflect in the pursuit of their place in the family, community and the world while remaining confident and respectful. The connection and continuity between home and setting is crucial in supporting children’s spiritual development, as in other areas of development and learning.
There is a need to demystify young children’s spiritual development in the 21st century. Spirituality is addressed as an important aspect of young children’s holistic learning linking to autonomy, compassion, resilience, responsibility and wellbeing. Spiritual development encourages children’s deeper understanding of themselves and others and helps children gain an appreciation of their place in the wider world.
The lack of recognition of spiritual development as part of children’s learning alongside the lack of guidance for early childhood educators to support children’s spiritual growth in the Early Years Foundation Stage (2021) in England is a stark contrast to the significance of spirituality for young children. It is strongly hoped that this article provides space for open dialogues among early childhood educators to enable deeper thinking and understanding of their crucial role in nurturing young children’s spiritual development.
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