Holistic Planning: Strategies to Nourish Spirituality in the Classroom (Guest blogger: Dr. Jennifer Mata-McMahon)

As Early Childhood Educators we are taught to plan and implement developmentally appropriate experiences for children under our care in order to ensure their learning and development progresses adequately. We know from empirical research and evidence-based data, that developmentally appropriate practices, based on differentiated instruction and open-ended play, are the best pedagogical approach for young children (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009). Nevertheless, when studying child development, we tend to focus on the four major development areas: cognitive, language and literacy, social and emotional, and physical. Leaving aspects pertaining to the spirit outside the realm of what is facilitated in the classroom. I propose that under a holistic view and understanding of the child, we need to incorporate the child’s spirit, and look into ways in which we can not just support its development, but also nurture and nourish its growth.

In my book Spiritual Experiences in Early Childhood Education, I explain what children’s spiritual experiences look like for kindergarteners. By observing kindergarteners closely in their school environment I was able to develop profiles for the 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), were the ways in which these children expressed their spiritual selves (Mata, 2015).

While interviewing in-service (Mata, 2012) and pre-service (Mata, 2014) early childhood educators, I found that spirituality is considered an important and valued aspect of childhood. Teachers shared they would be willing to explore and learn how to nourish spirituality in the classroom. For the most part, teachers find spirituality important and would be willing to include planning for its nourishment for the children under their care. One common thread in my findings was that teachers, although willing, seemed to be unprepared and did not know where to begin, when addressing children’s spirit. In my recommendations I propose teacher preparation programs include this type of course work in order to prepare early childhood educators to best provide this support for young children. In my work as a teacher educator, I have included this in some of the courses I teach, incorporating it into our studies of child development, as well as curriculum design.

In a more recent research project I have been working on with my colleagues Michael Haslip and Deborah Schein, we have set out to survey teachers at a national level, in order to uncover what in-service educators are doing to promote and nourish spirituality in secular settings (Mata-McMahon, Haslip & Schein, 2018). So far, we have received 33 responses representing 16 US states. Analyzing the data from educators’ responses to the open-ended questions of our online survey, we found explicit ways in order for educators to more consciously nurture the spirit of young children. The following recommendations for early childhood educators, for practice and implementation, stem directly from the analysis of the data collected through this survey based study.

  1. Drawing on one’s personal spirituality as a resource. We found that educators pulled from their beliefs and spiritual practices, such as yoga, meditation and prayer, to inform the work they carried out in the classroom and the quality of the relationships they fostered with children and families. 
  2. Preparing a beautiful and well-organized classroom environment that includes spaces for quiet time and retrieval for children, allowing for pondering.
  3. Using a flexible schedule that allows for extending the time allocated to activities and conversations regarding spiritual inquiries, allowing for exploring children’s ponderings.
  4. Nurturing and developing loving relationships with peers and adults.
  5. Developing children’s love for nature through indoor and outdoor interactions with plants and animals.
  6. Maintaining a child-centered curriculum, in which children are allowed to follow and explore their interests.
  7. Emphasizing moral and character development by modeling and teaching children about virtues.
  8. Promoting social and emotional development, by making it a priority in the curriculum.

By recognizing and then affirming the inner life force within children, educators can create a new perspective through which to understand holistic child development and then translate that vision into their pedagogical practices and educational environments (Mata-McMahon, Haslip & Schein, 2018).

A visual summary and resource on this topic can be found in a video I filmed for my You Tube channel, entitled How can we nurture children’s spirituality? – Strategies for the Classroom.



Copple, C. and Bredekamp, S. (Eds.) (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs: Serving children from birth through age 8. (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Mata, J. (2012). Nurturing Spirituality in Early Childhood Classrooms: The Teacher’s View. In M. Fowler, J. D. Martin III, & J. L. Hochheimer (Eds.), Spirituality: Theory, Praxis and Pedagogy (pp. 239-248). Oxford, UK: Inter-Disciplinary Press. ISBN: 978-1-84888-091-7

Mata, J. (2014). Sharing my Journey and Opening Spaces: Spirituality in the Classroom. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, 19(2), pp. 112-122. DOI: 10.1080/1364436X.2014.922464

Mata, J. (2015). Spiritual Experiences in Early Childhood Education: Four Kindergarteners, One Classroom. New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN: 978-0-41583-470-4

Mata-McMahon, J., Haslip, M. J., and Schein, D. L. (2018). Early Childhood Educator’s Perceptions of Nurturing Spirituality in Secular Settings. Early Child Development and Care. DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2018.1445734

Jennifer Mata-McMahon, Ed.D. – Is an Early Childhood Educator, Researcher and Scholar, originally from Caracas, Venezuela, working in the field since 1995, with an M.A. (1998), Ed.M. (1999), and Ed.D. (2010) from Teachers College, Columbia University in New York. She is the coauthor of Ambiente en Acción (Environment in Action) (Unimet, 2006), author of Spiritual Experiences in Early Childhood Education (Routledge, 2015), and coeditor of Spirituality: An Interdisciplinary View (Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2016), as well as the author of several book chapters and journal articles on children’s spirituality.

Email: drjenmata@gmail.com

Publications: https://jennifermata.academia.edu/research#papersandbookchapters

Twitter: https://twitter.com/drjenmata

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/drjenmata/

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/drjenmata/

Website: http://drjenmata.webs.com

Website: http://www.jenmata.org

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkFQQWW5YuY37cbq-gZQgKg


Web links in text:

Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs: Serving children from birth through age 8 https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/books/developmentally-appropriate-practice-early-childhood-programs-serving-children

Spiritual Experiences in Early Childhood Education https://www.amazon.com/Spiritual-Experiences-Early-Childhood-Education/dp/0415834708

Sharing my Journey and Opening Spaces: Spirituality in the Classroom https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1364436X.2014.922464?journalCode=cijc20

YouTube Video “How can we nurture children’s spirituality? – Strategies for the Classroom. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTU0lYF896Y&t=1s

Early Childhood Educators’ Perceptions of Nurturing Spirituality in Secular Settings https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/KBiS7rDG7DQU9JqvpvVM/full

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