So, children," asks Liz Babbedge, "what do you think we might mean when we call God the Light of the World or the Bread of Life?" It is Friday afternoon at Great Barton First School, Suffolk, and Year 2 are bubbling along in their lesson on the symbolic use of language in Christianity. The children play it safe at first - "Light makes you feel safe, doesn't it, miss?" - before one brave spirit pipes up, "Is God like Hovis, then?" Amid the laughter, Ms Babbedge takes the remark seriously. As she says, "If you don't give them the chance to explore, they can't find out the boundaries."
With a dynamic RE advisory teacher, Helen Thacker, and a primary RE teaching pack based on invented cartoon characters, Suffolk has a tradition of innovative RE teaching. Liz Babbedge has returned to class from a term's research on spiritual development in RE as part ofa Millennium Commission-funded project organised by the Farmington Institute in Oxford.
It was fascinating, she says, especially interviewing teachers for practical ideas and views, but she found that the subject grew more elusive with pursuit, so that her conclusions seemed more like starting points.
There are some huge questions here. "Is religious education about making pupils 'religious'?" asks Ms Babbedge. If children are taught about religion, they can simply switch off. This is why most agreed syllabuses now suggest that children should be encouraged not only to learn from as well as about religion. In this way, RE provides opportunities for children to develop socially, culturally and spiritually. But what does it mean to talk of the spiritual development of young children?
Spirituality, Liz Babbedge says, is hard to define and difficult, if not impossible to assess. However, even if it cannot be rigidly charted, spiritual development can be allowed for, through giving children the chance to reflect, consider, dream and challenge.
"Spiritual development is like a ring doughnut," she says - the "hole" is integral to the "whole". Pupils need that "vital space" at the centre to be left unfilled by the prescriptions of others; they need time set apart from the constraints of busy, mundane life; they need a place where, as Liz Babbedge puts it, we can encounter "what makes us us".
Such profundities daunt many teachers, even if they know that the Office for Standards in Education recommends for school assemblies just such openings of time and space.
Ms Babbedge's interviewees all shared "a sense of children's spirits, their individuality, their creativity not just as pupils but as whole people," but they also shared fears of being thought to indoctrinate a particular faith orof pupils ridiculing each other's tenderly held opinions. In fact, she says, a bigger danger lies in being too "objective" and stifling the connection to children's own feelings and experience. You can be too prescriptive, lay down the canons of received religious expression, spell out every nuance in a fable or story and deny pupils the "Aha!" experience of unpicking meanings for themselves.
That's why one Suffolk teacher uses The Lion King before introducing Biblical stories and why Liz Babbedge finds the best moments come when she is sharing her own ignorance. "I wonder," she says, "what is the edge of the universe . . . " The classroom comes alive, and you can find, says Liz Babbedge, that "they start private debates about the existence of God while my back is turned".
Such natural interest can only grow when respect and openness go both ways, cautions Liz Babbedge. She does not agree that the teacher must always appear "neutral" - "If a child asks me what I feel or believe, I should respond. But children must know that they are free to differ from me in their views."
The techniques used to elicit fruitful exchanges can feel risky at first: open-ended questions such as "I wonder where Heaven is?" can be breathtaking.
If you use circle time, where the whole class sits in a circle and individuals reveal their feelings, each member of the group needs to feel safe enough to make the experience creative. In fact, working in small groups or pairs can be an easier way to develop skills of rapport and empathy: for instance, getting one child to act as "scribe" or "reporter", another as "witness" or "ideas person".
Drama activities like role-playing or hot-seating allow children to explore alternate points of view, while remaining protected by the part they are playing. A quiet time in which to reflect, or draw or write in a journal can be a refreshing way in which to round off a lesson in which some deep waters have been surfed.
"They come out with some incredible things if you have time to listen," says Liz Babbedge. A previous lesson on symbolism in the Hindu tradition had considered why Ganesh had several arms and what each one meant. one seven-year-old mused, "It's a bit like a diamond. God has lots of faces and you see different things in every face".
As Liz Babbedge says, "The more interested and open I have attempted to be when teaching RE, the more I have learned professionally, personally and, dare I say it, spiritually, too. But in some ways I know less, too."
Farmington Institute: 01865 271965