Heaven Lies About Us in our Infancy

Wordsworth’s words remind us of the potential wonder of childhood and that children are innately spiritual beings. How do we, as practitioners, using the EYFS, support young children’s spiritual development?

The riots of 2011 led many commentators to question the social, moral and spiritual state of Britain’s youth. Albert Radcliffe commented in the Guardian article ‘We are all in serious spiritual trouble’ that “when we have no experience of healthy spiritualities we are likely to opt instead for those that are morally dysfunctional”. The lack of opportunities for young people, the prevalence of individualism and the narrow focus in education are perhaps to blame. Yet children remain spiritual beings. A six-year-old I worked with became fascinated with questions about existence and with her parents’ help they wrote to leading political and religious figures, gathering a range of answers. Additionally, despite the decline in church attendance, adults admitting to ‘spiritual experience’, albeit increasingly private experience, has increased significantly over the years.

The Right to a Spiritual Life

A child’s right to a spiritual life is explicitly outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and implicitly in Every Child Matters. The EYFS 2008 outlines in its non-statutory guidance that practitioners should support children’s “spiritual, emotional, social and cultural development”. Though the revised EYFS no longer mentions spirituality explicitly it does however include areas of learning aimed at encouraging children’s positive sense of themselves and others; that children should explore, observe, and find out about people, places and the environment; to talk about their feelings and behaviours; to form positive relationships. 

What is spirituality?

Perhaps a specific definition is unhelpful as the notion itself is individual and differs across cultural and religious. I have recently returned from the Paralymics Games which I found to be exciting, uplifting and nourishing but what feeds one persons spirit might not another.  Holistic ideas linked with spirituality, as distinct from (though often shared with) religion, might include: moral experience, ethical behaviour, meaning-seeking, heightened awareness, intuition, feelings of transcendence, self-knowledge, mindfulness and creativity. To develop spirituality children must have access to simplicity, solitude, silence, group participation, attention-focussing, reflection, wonder, expression, self esteem and caring.

Though Piaget ignored children’s spiritual development, Froebel, Pestalozzi, Montessori and Steiner all emphasised holistic development in the ‘awakening’ of a child’s spiritual capabilities. Winnicott spoke of ‘transitional space’ – that realm between illusion and reality where spiritual and creative experience lies. Hay speaks of our ‘relational consciousness’ – the awareness of ourselves in relation to others, to ourselves, to the world and to God or sense of transcendence. Margaret Donaldson described children as being in ‘point mode’ – focussing on the present, the ‘here and now’. Maslow’s idea of self-actualisation in his hierarchy of needs and Gardner’s ‘Existential’ Intelligence also link with spirituality. The elements of resilience, reflectiveness, reciprocity and resourcefulness in Claxton’s ‘Building Learning Power’ link with these ideas as do Rights Respecting programmes.

Hay describes ‘tuning’ as an element of spirituality, that awareness that arises from aesthetic experience – listening to music or being ‘at one’ with nature, while ‘flow’ describes intense concentration where children transcend themselves and their surroundings. Children might have a sense of awe, mystery or fear or ask questions about the universe, the mechanics of a tap or how a candle works. Spirituality is therefore not necessarily at odds with science. Children are especially receptive to metaphor, imagery and stories and what Hay describes as ‘value-sensing’ – the sense of delight and despair, fairness, identity and ‘ultimate goodness’. 

Spirituality can manifest itself for the child as much in the everyday as in the big moments, negatively as well as positively – causing confusion and frustration as well as joy.

How can we support spiritual growth?

“Spirituality is like a bird; if you hold it too tightly it chokes; if you hold it too loosely, it flies away. Fundamental to spirituality is the absence of force”. (Rabbi Hugo Gryn). 

We cannot ‘transmit’ spirituality but we can provide an environment in which it can thrive. We can provide aesthetically pleasing environments with access to the outdoors and become aware of our own spirituality, and that of colleagues, in whatever form that takes. We can get to know our families, give children cameras to find out what is special to them, observe their well-being and engagement (Laevers) and note their critical moments. We can encourage critical thinking and respect children’s ‘big’ questions, keeping their minds open without feeling we need to answer them specifically. We can model our own ponderings and be interested and interesting adults.

We must be ‘present’, actively listening and truly respecting children’s play. We must give time and space for children to ruminate, valuing the process not the product of their play. In attempts at conflict resolution we can allow children to have a ‘voice’, to explore their feelings and their awareness of others. Individually and in groups we can share and reflect on play as well as meaningful experiences such as the birth of a sibling. We can explore different ways of seeing, literally and metaphorically. At snacks we can follow Pietroni’s suggestion of drawing attention to the present – to fully explore the act of eating – savouring and sensing each bite. 

We can provide sensory experiences, with Forest School providing excellent opportunities for mystery, wonder and mastery play. Children must have opportunities to consider who they are and where they fit in and symbolism, ritual and metaphor are useful tools. We have recently started a ‘Conversation Station’ with interesting objects as a daily opportunity for conversation (a word which can be translated as ‘wandering together’).

The Mental Health Foundation cite the ability to be alone as a skill of the mentally healthy and we should provide spaces and times for solitude. We can join the Slow Movement and slow down. We can engage in peer massage, group doodles, enjoying the wind and elements, mirror-observation and auto-portraiture, drawing attention to nature’s patterns through the art of Andy Goldsworthy, show-and-tell, light and shadow, decorating wild spaces, visualisations, gardening, animal-care, mud-play, construction and so on. 

We can use books and images as provocations or sensitively to help children to explore key issues such as death, wishes, dreams, remembering that children often project their ideas onto objects. We can share poetry, music, art, find out the story behind children’s given names, visit churches and places of beauty, look up, look down, watch clouds, play soulful instruments (such as harps or Tibetan singing bowls) or find moving music and songs. Books such as Frederick, Little Whale’s Song and The Other Way to Listen help explore identity and purpose. We can find meaningful ways to celebrate key dates in other cultures. A moving celebration of Divaali involved 3-4 year olds immersed in silence, staring at tea light holders they had made.  


Practitioners must find ways to support children’s spiritual development in a rapidly changing secular society. Many of the ideas I have outlined fit within the EYFS and enhance children’s holistic development as well as nourishing their spiritual development.

Useful Resources

Baylor, B. & Parnall, P. (1997) The Other Way to Listen. Aladdin Library

Lionni, L. (1987) Frederick. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Evans, F (2003) Little Whale’s Song. Piccadilly Press


  1. Hay, D and Nye, R (2006) The Spirit of the Child. Jessica Kingsley Publishers
  2. Eaude, T (2010) Children’s Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development. Learning Matters Ltd

Radcliffe, A (22 August 2011) The Guardian. We are all in serious spiritual trouble

  1. Watson, J (Volume 11, Issue 2 2006) International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, Children’s Spirituality and Children’s Rights, Every Child Matters and children’s spiritual rights

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