Elusive, contested, dynamic, complex: some thoughts on teaching Spirituality at HE


The context for these reflections, as it was for the work in first place, was a Spirituality and Young Children module for undergraduate students in Early Childhood Studies.

ECS students focus on the early years of a child’s life from (Pre) birth to approximately 8 years of age and the field, according to our handbook, draws on a number of academic disciplines to give you a broad and reflective understanding of early childhood. ECS students study some modules that focus on child development from a psychological perspective, others that consider more sociological aspects including the role of family and culture in development. “You will be encouraged to consider how childhood itself can be viewed in very different ways by different people. “

In other words these are not theologians or students of the phenomenology of religion, but they are people with experience and a theoretical understanding of the phenomena of childhood.

Exploring contemporary definitions of spirituality meant looking at the literature

From a more or less conservative Christian standpoint (or at least resolutely within an incarnational standpoint in Christian Theology) the work of Kees is important: he would place the study of spirituality at an interdisciplinary level amid anthropology, psychology, sociology and the social sciences, encompassing professional understandings, theological insights, textual and theological study)

Eaude says it is inherently elusive and contested – something EC students are strangely familiar with in another context, since they have grappled with definitions of play since their first taught session in the Univ. – and this has a further echo later in this paper.

What does the literature mean by Spirituality? – and can this ‘biographical’ construct be applied to young children??

We used the work of Andrew Wright quite heavily, esp by mid-point in the Semester. when I felt it was time to look at academic definitions of Spirituality:

Universal search for meaning – common theme in modern writing on spirituality, and I’ll return to it in my final section. Spirituality is an elusive and dynamic concept whose complexity is revealed when viewed in the light of: a mind–matter dualism; the contrast between the sacred and the profane; and the notion of spirituality as the cultivation of self awareness.

Despite their differences, these three routes have in common a concern for the ultimate meaning, purpose and truth of human existence.

Eaude again:

In many ways, the term ‘spirituality’ poses similar problems. This has, for me at least, the connotation of being primarily interior and individual, based within a religious tradition. Yet what I seek to describe is something more basic, and wider, than religious faith or commitment, rather more akin to a universal search for meaning and identity.


What ways did I use (and how successful were they) to explore concepts of Spirituality? – what did the students think about defining spirituality

We began not with the literature but with three clips: from Into Great Silence; from Kundun and from the Snowman.

Their responses were very varied:


The Snowman was the most striking for me, particularly because of the music factor. The visual also played well with the music and it did have that effect of kind of an ‘out of body’ experience.
I felt that the most relevant clip for me was The Snowman as well because I think it got all the areas that I believe spirituality to be in. (Music, Nature, Soft/Quiet places) Though the Dalai Lama film was interesting, I think I couldn’t get past that they were actors and it was a film (silly I know since The Snowman was a cartoon, of all things) BUT I felt it had to do with more of the religion-y things than something more spiritual-though religion and spirituality do go hand-in-hand at times. Die Grosse Stille did have a “dark factors” that I didn’t particularly like, but the music was soothing and I can see people going into a tra[n]ce over it and reaching into something more spiritual for them.
Like C, I really think it is hard to give a general idea of what spirituality is that will satify a large crowd, BUT, to me, it is (on very simple terms) to feel and be aware of something greater than ourselves. If things can provoke this feeling or awareness, whether it be via music, nature, quiet, or whatnot, than I would say that that is all that matters. For me in these films, it seemed to go down to the music (which all films had) and that is what does it for me.


to me the dali video struck me as more spiritual except i wonder how much of that was to do with tradition and story telling. The monk film i felt i was to involved with how hared the life seemed it was an extreme to me. You would need to be very devoted to the religion. but that may not be the same as spititual (not to me anyway)


I found the most striking clip was the snowman, and perhaps the most spiritual. However this may be because it brings back many childhood memories so i can relate much more than i can for the others. I feel its a very powerful clip particularly with the music. I also find it a very pensive clip which personally i think contriubtes to something being spiritual.
I think they can all tell us something about spirtuality in different ways depending on what you think is spritiual. The issue of religion may also be important; i personally do not think spirituality is always associated by religion.

perhaps the most well-reasoned of the responses was

This clip (Kundun) struck me of more for it involved a child which is my areas of interest. However, I asked myself is ‘Children’s spirituality’ different from “adult” spirituality?
Spirituality has different meanings to different people depending on their world view or philosophy of life
These clips description of spirituality demonstrate how culture, religion and spirituality are intertwined and are therefore all relevant to anyone belonging to one of either. This may as well show us that children are socialised into whatever spirituality notion or belief they are brought into.
How the child may express his or her spiritual beliefs will undoubtedly be influenced by, and may parallel the child’s cognitive development
Like adults, children draw on previous experiences of life including religious and spiritual beliefs to make sense of life events and to cope with crises. They will have a range of preconceived ideas, fears, concerns and fantasies which are usually linked to their stage of cognitive development and prior experiences.
May we say then, that the child’s spiritual development grows when they make sense to their experiences in relation to the adult’s meaning of the notion of spirituality?

This has an echo for me in the work of from Ping Ho Wong’s “Conceptual investigation” (2006): the success of the spiritual education of the common people still depends to a large extent on a spiritual social ethos, picked up by one student who summed up her argument:

I do agree that the issues raised are rather crucial. I was pondering on the question about culture and first thought maybe looking at a country like India one can say that the spirituality is embedded in their culture. I would say that it naturally feels a more spiritual place which I can’t say about the UK.
On the other hand, I also thought that we as humans are always striving, or constantly looking for something, looking for eternal happiness or maybe we are looking for something much, much deeper!

In order to explore something of the phenomenon of religion we also made two visits to places of worship (we had intended a third visit to somewhere non-faith based but snow necessitated a change in timetable). Of course we’ve come into the domain of RE/RS here in order to hep students meet the aim of looking at religious identity. In the first – a Roman Catholic Church on a modern monastic pattern – the students were left to ask questions and they did so largely around the function of furniture “What is this for?” Questions of children’s participation were raised, mostly around “Can they see?” and “What do they do all the time.” This latter question came up in our second visit – the local synagogue – where we were guided through the artefacts, layout and practice by an eloquent and plain-speaking guide, who said “I’m not sure Judaism has much to do with spirituality: it’s about practice, about keeping God’s commands –“ something the students picked up on next week in the University-based class.

Perhaps we failed to grasp fully in the taught session the significance of Eaude’s three-part question:

  • what is distinctive about spiritual development?
  • what is the nature of children’s spiritual experience?
  • to what extent can and do young children engage in spiritual experience?

It should be noted that many of the final assignments looked specifically at these issues.

A codicil:

What is my own construct as (in some ways) a ‘Christian educator’?
I am still uneasy about the wresting of spirituality away from traditional faith communities, if only because it seems to me that too many of the definitions we are left with are about ‘meaning’ and ‘life stories’ which seem to me to be less appropriate for young children – as in “…that which enables, or enhances personal integration within a framework of relationships by fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose…” (Eaude, 2006)

– and I worry there is sometimes (by no means always) a lack of honesty here: does use of words like character, meaning &c stand as shorthand for bigger words and concepts like transcendence and God or are they an attempt to make spirituality applicable to as wide a range of people as possible?

I am, perhaps, happier with the notion of transcendence as being capable of being all-inclusive – multi-faith, agnostic, perhaps even humanist – where, for example, Ping Ho Wong draws on Hay’s work to talk about ‘mystery sensing’ ‘value sensing’ beyond the material, and states that spirituality comes in different degrees and shades, like the colours in a colour circle, and for some purposes at least, no radical break should be assumed to exist between spiritual and unspiritual states

If they aren’t – if spirituality is as Champagne (2003) suggests Being Alive categorised in three modes sensitive, (perception) relational (interpersonal) and existential (choices, games, symbolism) – then I’d suggest that at the heart of children’s spirituality is play. If as Bruce suggests, play “is an integrating mechanism that brings together everything a child knows feels and understands” then it is , in some ways a spiritual experience. There isn’t time in this paper to explore this notion, but in discussion with the ECS students it was one that had some resonance: play as “dizzy” (Kalliala, Caillois) , and a reflective and integrating practice (Bruce) play in which a child is “a head taller than himself” (Vygotsky).

Play as spiritual practice for young children: perhaps the title for another, more reasoned, paper.

Champagne, E (2003) Being a Child, a Spiritual Child International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, Vol. 8, No. 1

Eaude, T (2003) Shining Lights in Unexpected Corners: new angles on young children’s spiritual development International Journal of Children’s Spirituality Vol. 8, No. 2, August 2003

Eaude, T (2005) Strangely familiar? – teachers making sense of young children’s spiritual development Early Years, Vol. 25, No. 3, November 2005, pp. 237–248)

Eaude, T (2006) Children’s Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development, Exeter: Learning Matters

Waajman (“Spirituality: a multifaceted phenomenon,” Studies in Spirituality 117, 2007)

Wong, P H (2006) A conceptual investigation into the possibility of spiritual education drawing on a Confucian tradition International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, Vol. 11, No. 1, April 2006, pp. 73–85:

3 thoughts on “Elusive, contested, dynamic, complex: some thoughts on teaching Spirituality at HE

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