Spirituality: Can we find room for it in the classroom? (Guest blogger: Jennifer Mata-McMahon)

I have been working in the field of children’s spirituality since I began my doctoral work back in 2005. Way before I ever read the first article in this field of work I had always been interested in spirituality at a personal level but had not really considered it in my professional work. I believed it to be part of my personal identity, yet not have much of a space in my work with teachers or children.

I had worked as a preschool and kindergarten teacher for some years before pursuing my MA and EdM, and after attaining those degrees I went back to higher education to teach in the Early Childhood undergraduate program in a private university in Caracas, Venezuela, where I am from originally. Yet, neither in my work as a teacher or as a university instructor, did I think that spirituality would fit. It was not until I began my doctoral studies that I serendipitously took a course in the Human Development department, on children’s spirituality, that I knew it was even possible to research and publish in this field and still be taken seriously professionally in academia.

Since then, I have been enamored with the topic. Over the years, I have read every book and published article I have been able to find, and have published a few of my own as well. Along my path, I have come across a few teachers, scholars and fellow researchers interested in the topic. Working as an early childhood teacher educator, I have also encountered students (pre-service teachers) who are also intrigued and fascinated by this phenomenon. It is always good to find fellow travelers on this road.

One commonality I have found in those interested in this topic, particularly teachers, in-service and pre-services ones, is that they consider it important, they think it is part of their responsibility in caring for and educating young children, yet they do not quite know how to do it. The most common question I have encountered is “of course this children’s spirituality is important, but how do I support it?”

Firstly, there is the issue of the separation of church and state, which I promptly help teachers debunk. Because the First Amendment to the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” we immediate steer away from religion or religious talk in public settings such as public schools. Yet, that statement is followed with “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which opens the door to explore spirituality in all its facets, including religious beliefs and practices.

By explaining that separation of church and state prohibits public school teachers (and all others working in the public sector) to proselytize and advocate for one particular religious belief over all others, yet it also forbids any action by government schools to inhibit it, helps us understand where the opportunities lie. When searching for ways in which to support spirituality and spiritual growth and nourishment, it is crucial that we understand schools to be a place in which we should not inhibit the spiritual component of our students, our children, to be expressed. Once this is explained and comprehended, we can then start exploring ways in which teachers can support children holistically, including their spiritual selves in the classroom.

 

In my book Spiritual Experiences in Early Childhood Education, I explain what these experiences look like for kindergarteners. By observing kindergarteners closely in their school environment I was able to develop profiles for each of the four children I observed, and through those profiles, I found specific ways in which these children experienced and expressed their spirituality. Specifically I found, (1) joy (joyfulness and delight), (2) concern for others, kindness, compassion and caring, (3) relationships (importance and value of friends and family), and (4) imagination (use and exploration in play), where the ways in which these children expressed their spiritual selves.

In a more recent research project I have been working on with my colleagues Michael Haslip and Deborah Schein, we have set out to uncover what in-service early childhood teachers are doing to promote and nourish spirituality in their classrooms, for the children they work with. So far, we have encountered teachers that for the most part deemed spirituality very important for them at a personal level and also for them as teachers working with young children. From our preliminary analysis of their survey responses, we have found that in-service teachers support children spirituality by engaging the children in outdoors activities, interacting with nature, gardening or taking care of a class pet; by allowing children to express delight and joy and enjoying children’s spontaneous discoveries; and by engaging in story-telling, imaginative, creative and make-believe activities and play.

In public schools across Chicagoland, a program entitled the Calm Classroom has also been implemented in the recent years. In this program, children are taught to meditate and use meditation techniques each day for a short period of time. The anecdotal results have been that students are developing self-awareness, are capable of more prolonged focus on tasks, and share they feel a sense of inner calm, which helps them to be better friends and kinder to others. If you have not heard of this program and would like to explore it further, you can go to the Calm Classroom website.

If you would like to continue to reflect on how you are supporting children’s spiritual selves in the classroom, or perhaps learn more on how to do this to better inform teachers you work with, please complete the survey we have designed. You will be helping us collect more data for our study, but more importantly, you will be prompted to reflect upon what you do on a regular basis to support children from a spiritual sense and if you discover that you are not doing so, perhaps learn how you could begin.

 

Dr. Jennifer Mata-McMahon, Ed.D. – Assistant Professor at DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Received an Ed.D. in early childhood education from Teachers College, Columbia University in 2010, and has worked in the field since 1995. She is the coauthor of Ambiente en Accion (Environment in Action) (2006), author of Spiritual Experiences in Early Childhood Education (2015), and coeditor of Spirituality: An Interdisciplinary View (2016), as well as the author and coauthor of several book chapters and journal articles.

jmatamcm@depaul.edu

 

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