For a religious believer, the temple, church or mosque is a special place, central to the way he or she lives. Visits to places of worship are important in developing children's understanding of other faiths and cultures and are strongly featured in religious education syllabuses.
To understand a Roman Catholic believer, for example, you need to enter a Catholic church, see its theatricality and symbolism, smell the incense and feel the unique atmosphere. All too often, though, visits fail to work in the way they are intended. Children become restless, they don't understand what they are being told, and they can't understand what is meant by words such as "atmosphere". Worst of all, they occasionally cause offence to their hosts, damaging their school's reputation and making it difficult for teachers to organise visits in the future. How, then, can such visits be made successful?
The more preparation you can do with pictures, video, CD-Roms or the internet, the better. As you discuss these resources with your pupils, you set the building in the context of the faith, looking at the symbolism of the building's layout and at the artefacts and furnishings you will see on the visit.
It is worth spending time on the concept of symbols. Children from some faith groups will have already absorbed the notion of symbolism. Others, perhaps brought up in non-religious surroundings, need time to understand what it all means.
Preparation also involves consideration of the people at the place of worship. Not all of them will be adept at receiving school parties, so it is worth spending time with the person who will be showing you round. Talk about your pupils and what they know already. Offer to help with explanations or by pointing things out. And be tactful in asking the person to adjust their delivery if you think it is too quiet, or too fast, or too impersonal.
If you can, get the person along to your class beforehand to join in some of the preparation and make the class's acquaintance. If he or she can bring some artefacts to give a taste of the building's contents, so much the better.
You can also do some "spiritual" preparation. Build some quiet, reflective times into the working day: a class that is accustomed to stillness will be more able to benefit from sitting silently and absorbing the atmosphere of the building.
Explain anything the children may have to do on their visit - taking their shoes off, for example, or accepting gifts of food. The food - invariably offered in a Sikh gurdwara - is a common cause of embarrassment if children thoughtlessly reject it or make impolite comments. It's therefore worth working on this area before the visit. Consider setting up a role-play of the business of being offered food and politely accepting it, and at least giving it a taste.
On the visit, by all means use worksheets, but keep the tasks clear and simple or you will end up with children rushing around chasing details and missing the bigger picture. The more time you spend taking in the feel of the building - moving quietly, looking at things for a long time, absorbing detail - the better the experience.
The missing ingredient on most school visits is the congregation. This may be just as well, because it will be hard to explain the worship while it is taking place and the children can become restless. A solution is to use one of the resources detailed below.
FURTHER HELPThe CD-Rom Christians, the Life of a Local Church (pound;95, including site licence and worksheets) from React Multimedia (0114 268 0365) does what it says on the label and shows people worshipping. Aspects of Religion and Exploring World Religions (pound;49 each) from Granada Learning (www.granada-learning.com) cover major faiths. Birchfield Interactive (029 2059 7000; www.birchfield.co.uk) offers an Interactive Places of Worship range of three CD-Roms for 11 to 16-year-olds covering Christianity, Islam and Judaism. They are pound;79.95 each, including a site licence. On the internet, two excellent sites with useful links are RE-XS from St Martin's College, Lancaster (http:re-xs.ucsm.ac. uk) and The RE Site (www.theresite.org.uk). Many places of worship have their own websites with virtual tours, so search the internet for your local ones.