Children may be more spiritually aware than we think. Karen Gold reports on a non-denominational scheme that encourages primary pupils to explore the link between religious belief and 'tickly feelings'
What is heaven like? "It's a mist of perfume, with gold walls and a rainbow stretched over God's throne like a spring morning, and the trees shimmering in the breeze. It's just a day in delight every day."
That's the vision of a 10-year-old Birmingham girl as told to psychologist Dr Rebecca Nye, a researcher into children's spirituality and a key figure in a national movement to change the way we think about children's understanding of the spiritual world.
During the past 30 years, two contradictory ways of thinking about children's spirituality have co-existed, says Dr Nye, whose work is part of a wider research programme into psychology and religion at Cambridge University's faculty of divinity. One, which dominates school assemblies and faith education - from Sunday school to mosque teaching - is that children are spiritual blank slates. "Children's talks and sermons don't really address children as spiritual people," says Dr Nye. "There's a focus on entertaining or educating children in the hope that we can fill them up with all the right things and make them stick with it until they are old enough to appreciate that it has a deeper meaning."
Opposing this picture is another, drawn from research conducted mostly in Finland and the United States during the 1980s and 1990s, which suggests that children are more spiritually aware than adults. In a Finnish study of more than 1,000 people, for example, around one-third of adults said they had "a sense of God's closeness". This compared with 60 per cent of 11-year-olds and 80 per cent of younger children, who said they regularly felt God's presence.
Sometimes, says Dr Nye, the two views of children overlap in traditional religious accounts of the child mystic. But it was not mystical children she was looking for when in 1999-2000 she interviewed 40 six to 10-year-olds of average or below average ability, in Nottingham and Birmingham, about their experiences of God.
She saw each child individually in three separate sessions. The tone was low-key. "I asked questions such as, 'What do you think is really important?' If I mentioned the word God it set the whole thing off in a weird direction. The children thought, 'We have lessons in that', and it became a discussion about what they knew. So I never used religious language unless they did first."
And they certainly did. One six-year-old boy from a church-going family spoke unprompted of the night he saw the Holy Spirit in his bedroom. "He had a concrete, external vision," says Dr Nye. "He went and woke his parents up and told them he had seen the Holy Spirit at the bottom of his bed. He said it was like a 'bishopy alien'. They said the Holy Spirit was a ball of fire, not a bishopy alien, and he should go back to bed."
Other six-year-olds talked of getting a tickly feeling when they were happy in the presence of God; of being drawn towards churches and hearing God say to them that He was on their side; of what it would be like to see angels.
"You would feel like there was someone behind you and you would feel really stillI and you would turn round and there would be nothing there and you would feel this flutter of wings and see this golden thing going up into the sky. They only come down to visit you if you are really steamed up or at the bottom of your strength."
The 10-year-olds' experiences were equally profound, but sometimes more troubled, says Dr Nye. One girl told her: "I like to think God's talking to me but I never know if it's Him or just my conscience. It happens when I'm unhappy and worried about something. It feels all comfortable and tingling.
When I went to church, it was the same feeling." (She had been inside a church just once, on a school visit to look at stained glass.) Children appeared to be prompted towards these experiences in various ways - some by particular emotions, some by philosophical and ethical questions, some by the natural world. All were positive about the experiences - but emphatically negative about their consequences. "They felt ashamed and embarrassed that they had these kinds of thoughts. They had no idea that their experience was valuable. They feared sharing it. Some had tried and been ridiculed. They were worried they would have no friends; some had parents who told them they were wrong.
"They got cross when I told them it was their last session. They said, 'I never talk about these things with anybody else'. When I suggested they found someone else they trusted to talk to about these things, they didn't believe there was anybody else who was interested. When I suggested a vicar, if they had one who came in to do assemblies, they thought I was mad."
Enabling children to feel safe expressing their spirituality is one reason Dr Nye has been instrumental in promoting a US programme called Godly Play.
Godly Play is the brainchild of an American Montessori teacher, Jerome Berryman, who encouraged children to explore and respond to Bible stories using wooden figures, art materials and religious symbols.
Over the past three years, British schools, churches and synagogues have run Godly Play sessions in assemblies, classrooms and Sunday schools. In London, the Centre for Jewish Education at Leo Baeck Rabbinical College is planning to set up a dedicated Godly playroom in a synagogue. A Godly playroom has already been established in Cambridge, sponsored by the Church of England's National Society for Religious Education (NSRE). It hosts regular one-day courses attended by teachers, heads, psychologists and children's workers.
"Godly Play sessions help children and adults step into a sacred place and wonder together," explains Lizzie McWhirter, Coventry diocese's religious education and spiritual development officer and part of the NSRE project.
Sessions follow a tightly constructed, non-denominational format. A room is transformed to be peaceful and open; children are welcomed in by a "doorkeeper" and sometimes they take off their shoes before sitting down in a circle.
An adult tells a story unemotionally - the Creation, the Good Shepherd, the Flood - using props. The children talk through the story, wondering what it would be like if elements were changed, what it makes them feel. Then they go off to use the resources in the room - clay, paint, books, the models, religious artefacts such as a chalice or candles - to respond however they choose. Sometimes they might have a "feast"; often the session takes place before they go home (see box).
Children open up during sessions, says Mrs McWhirter; they are likely to say what they feel or to talk about situations in their own lives. "You can transform the atmosphere. You can make a sacred space in the classroom or the hall. People who watch these sessions find them very fresh, very moving. There's a bit of a risk; you are going out on a limb. But that's what's exciting, because you don't know where the wondering is going to take you."
Godly Play websites: www.godlyplay.com; www.godlyplay.org.uk. Teaching Godly Play (Abingdon Press, pound;11.99) and Godly Play: an imaginative approach to religious education (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, pound;10.99), both by Jerome Berryman, are distributed in the UK by Marston Books, POBox 269, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4YN. Tel: 01235 465 500. For details of Godly Play courses, visit the UK website, or contact Dr Rebecca Nye at the Faculty of Divinity (Children's Spirituality and Godly Play project), University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB3 9BS