What's it all about, then?

4th December 1998 at 00:00
THE SPIRIT OF THE CHILD. By David Hay with Rebecca Nye. Fount. Pounds 12.99.

Katie, aged 6, has been given a Bible but has never been inside a church.Although she claims not to have known about God before she was given her Bible, she referred to God when talking to a researcher about a picture of a starry sky.

Tim, aged 10, has rejected any religious affiliation but agonises over ultimate questions - Which God is real? Will the universe go on for ever? Many adults will sympathise with his frustration about the open-endedness of the spiritual: "You can't find the answer and you think your brain is gonna get all scrambled, like," says Tim.

This is not a fieldwork report, although its nub is material from interviews with 38 children in two midlands primary schools. In fact the number of levels on which the book operates makes it unlikely that it will attract many outside the circle directly involved with the nurture of the spiritual. It includes a wide-ranging survey of the literature, to which this title is an important contribution, a digest of similar research, a polemic for the spiritual and a critique of the "lack of spiritual awareness, sometimes paraded as a virtue" and a four-point plan to help teachers fulfil their responsibilities.

The difficulties are recognised; there is simply no unambiguous starting point. However, the authors, who have considerable experience in this field, are sufficiently confident to suggest three categories of spiritual sensitivity - awareness, mystery and value - and to attempt to map out each category in a degree of detail - the "geography of the spirit".

There are many insights which will have resonance with those who spend each day with young children - the "here and now" excitement when a child is transfixed by a new perception, the experience of awe and wonder at the flame when a match is struck and the "real" mystery that children create in imaginative play. Other types of awareness such as a feeling of "oneness" with nature and an intense sense of belonging and of meaning may belong more to the adult realm, but all teachers know that spiritual development cannot be measured against a framework of key stage expectations.

The core of children's spirituality is said to be "a compound property ...called relational consciousness" which is an attempt to find coherence in a field of experience which is complex, varied and highly personal.

Although this term may appropriately describe the children's experiences in terms of relationships with God, people, the world and self, the thinking underlying clumsy sub-headings such as "children expressing their relational consciousness" will need clearer and more convincing interpretation for teachers who feel uneasy with the term "spirituality" but recognise and celebrate it in the classroom. I hope the authors will use conferences and similar opportunities to show how their analysis can help teachers understand better what is happening.

Mark Williamson is general adviser for humanities and RE in the London Borough of Hounslow

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