Putting their faith in dolls
When former RE teacher Christine Howard tried to help colleagues bring their subject alive in the classroom more than 20 years ago, she found herself spending time begging and borrowing artefacts from nearby religious centres.
The use of artefacts in RE was a new concept - there were no books and scarcely any methodology. Christine realised how much easier it would make teachers' lives if they could find all the props they needed in one teacher-friendly place. And so a thriving business, Articles of Faith, was born.
The company, run by Christine and her husband, Leslie, provides an ever-expanding range of religious artefacts, dolls and teaching aids to help RE teachers engage their pupils in what can otherwise be seen as a bit of a "soft option" lesson.
Having the religious objects in the classroom, handling them and seeing how they are used in religious rituals, plays a vital role in helping the understanding of other religions, says Rachel Duckworth, a former primary teacher, who works with Christine and Leslie.
"The artefacts help children see how they are used and encourage them to ask questions they might not otherwise think of," she says.
One demonstration Christine gives teachers is of how to use the Muslim artefacts pack.
"She places a prayer mat on the floor, the compass next to it to show qiblah (the direction of Mecca), takes off her shoes and shows how a Muslim prays. Then she asks children to think of questions about what she has just done," says Rachel. "It opens up discussions in a concrete but non-threatening way. These days, gaining this sort of understanding about other faiths is important."
Articles of Faith began in the Howards' spare room with the couple selling objects they sourced locally, but then, as it expanded, contacts were made through local religious leaders with suppliers around the world. Now it is the biggest supplier of religious artefacts in the UK.
Products come directly from countries as diverse as India for Hindu articles and the Sikhism pack, and El Salvador for brightly painted Christian crosses. From Israel come Challah cloths and Seder plates - and crucifixes in olive wood from Bethlehem. Buddhist articles come from Nepal, China and Thailand.
Rama and Sita dolls, which, accompanied by a book, can be used to tell the Divali story, have been joined by a Buddha doll this year.
A workshop in the Philippines, run by nuns for a leper colony, makes up soft cloth "storytelling dolls", aimed at foundation stage children.
Although the artefacts don't come with lesson plans, the company stocks teaching guides that show how to create lessons around the objects. "The feedback from teachers has been good," says Rachel. The handling and use of religious objects is a sensitive area for the unwary, but the company has not encountered hostility from religious leaders, possibly because of its founder's sensitivity to the issues involved.
"Christine's time as an RE teacher has made her aware of how religious artefacts should be handled," says Rachel. "We always store Korans on the top shelf in the warehouse, for example, respecting the Muslim belief that it should be kept above other things"