One of the most influential teachers in my life is J. Donald Walters. In his book, Education For Life, he divides the years from birth to adulthood into six-year stages. The activities and ideas in this book will focus on the first two of these periods since that is where my experience lies. A basic familiarity with the kinds of development occurring in these stages will help you determine which activities are best suited to your child.
The First Stage of Childhood
The first stage covers the period from birth to six years of age when the focus of attention is on the development of physical awareness and control. The close observation of adults that is common to this stage makes the avenues of imitation and playa ready means of approaching children spiritually. Since they will be watching you throughout all aspects of your daily life, give them the opportunity to observe you in your own spiritual practices. You will likely see them playing “church” or “temple” in the same way they play “house” or “school.”
As a child I loved to go to my cousins’ house because they had a sunken living room. In my young mind that room became an old cathedral. The two stairs leading up to the entry hall represented the dais, and the bookcase on the far side of the hall was the altar. When everyone else was in the back yard or another room, Would sneak into that living room and, oh, what “miracles” and “sacred ceremonies” took place there!
I have a friend who shared with me her own story of playing church, though she made it clear that at the time she considered it real, and not play. At special holidays when the family would gather for big meals, she would insist that they have church before eating. She would usher the family into the living room, where everyone would participate in doing Bible readings, singing hymns, and saying prayers, all of which she had selected earlier. Only when the service was finished could they have their meal.
This is a period in children’s lives when habits and attitudes that will influence them for years to come are being developed, so let some of these habits include spiritual activities. Even though what they do will be a modification of what you do, it will help spiritual practices become a natural part of their lives. For example, if they are watching you pray, speak out loud so they can hear you, and then invite them to say a little prayer too, if they choose. You can also help them set up a little altar where they can copy what you do when they “play.”
Secondly, play itself can be incorporated into spiritual activities. A friend who was following an Eastern tradition went to India to visit her spiritual teacher. When she asked her teacher what she should do for her young daughter’s spiritual growth, she was told to get a doll of a particularly beloved saint, in this case Krishna, and let the little one play with it for fifteen minutes a day. When I knew the little girl as a six-year-old, she had developed a deep sense of devotion to Krishna as represented by that doll. Along with hearing stories about him, the hours that she had spent combing the doll’s hair, arranging flowers for it, dressing it, and honoring it in numerous other ways fostered an extremely strong, personal relationship. Knowing my own passion for such playas a child, had I had a doll of Jesus, for example, how well I can imagine many hours joyously spent feeding the poor, making “blind” dolls see, and healing the sick.
Acting out inspirational stories is another playful way to bring a love for spiritual teachings into a young child’s life. A chance to play “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” or “Saint Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio” is a fun way to bring the stories of old to life. Pretending about situations that might occur in the child’s own life can also help to establish expansive behavior. For example, you, as the adult, might say, “Let’s pretend that we’re out playing and I fall down and hurt myself. Then you take care of me.” This would give the child the opportunity to play out compassion and caring for another. (With certain children you’ll have to be careful that they don’t see pretending to be sick or hurt as a new way to get attention for themselves.)
The Second Stage of Childhood
The second stage covers the years from six to twelve. During this period children enter a time when they are able to recognize, define, and understand feelings. By developing the ability to step back and view their behavior from the outside, children can learn to become aware of their own feelings as well as those of others. A fellow teacher of mine shares the following story.
“In one of my classes we had been discussing the value of cooperation, but I sensed that little real learning was happening. One morning we had a rare snowstorm, and I let the children go outside for a special recess. Within a few minutes the initial excitement had degenerated into anger and frustration as the children became engaged in an all-out snowball fight complete with snow forts and burgeoning arsenals of snow weapons. I quickly brought them back inside for a ”cooling off’ period. After a few minutes I asked how many people had really enjoyed the recess. No one raised their hand. During the ensuing discussion, I challenged them to take part in a “cooperation experiment.” In order to return outside, each student had to pledge to actively look for ways to help the others. What a change took place! Instead of arguments, there were friendly discussions. Instead of shouts of anger, there were peals of laughter. Even the architecture was different, with lofty snow castles replacing the squat snow forts.
The experiment was a grand success. When we were back inside again, I asked the children to describe the difference in feeling between the first and second recess. Since the snow, the children, and the playground were all the same, it was easy for them to realize that it was cooperation that had made the difference. Since each child now had personally experienced the advantages of cooperation, it took only gentle reminders to bring out their harmonious behavior for the rest of the school year.“
The period from six to twelve is a time when many children are particularly receptive to spiritual teachings. Because feelings such as devotion, love, and compassion play such an important role in the inner life, this stage offers a special opportunity for helping children understand and internalize some of the deeper aspects of spirituality. Activities that help children take a situation or teaching inside, to actually feel the essence of it, can be truly transforming.
On the following pages you will find many ideas that offer children the opportunity to explore some aspect of their inner lives. While most of the activities were developed for this second period of childhood, they can be altered to meet the needs of other ages. Greater simplicity, less structured form, and fewer details make an activity more appropriate for younger children. More details, involvement, sophistication, and depth make an activity more appropriate for older children.
Guidelines for Visualizations
Since many of the activities will involve guided visualizations, I would like to take a moment here to offer a few suggestions for those who are unfamiliar with this type of exercise. The child will be better able to visualize if you speak calmly and slowly, pausing between thoughts. Some children are able to actually see pictures as if they were watching a movie in their minds. Others simply imagine what they are guided to “see” as if they were listening to a radio. Either way is fine. When making up your own visualizations, familiar images such as clouds, the ocean, peaceful lakes, and beautiful meadows win help children create clear pictures in their minds.
After an activity is completed, let the children know that you are happy to listen to anything they might want to ten you. Try to offer a supportive, respectful response without giving the impression that certain types of experiences are better than others. The joy that they feel within as a result of these activities should be their motivation to continue, not the praise of an adult for making the “right” response.
Also, be careful not to ask too many questions or probe too deeply. Too much inquiry can lead children to feel as if they are supposed to have some grand, deep experience every time. Children can be tempted to make up something to tell you, or they can be confused into thinking that they have to “perform.” The simple feedback that they give you on their own and your ability to understand their non-verbal communication will help you immensely in designing future activities.