One of my eldest child’s favorite memories is a series of 5th grade class sessions where they explored scientific theories for ancient religious events. She was particularly interested in possible explanations for things portrayed as ‘miracles’. For her, it wasn’t a question of science vs. faith. It was curiosity about how science and faith could work together to provide deeper meaning of something that fascinated her.
We don’t often think of science frameworks as useful for spiritual education. Yet inquiry-based approaches appeal to children who are learning to investigate ideas and conduct experiments in other subjects. Plus, the 5E model (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate) can help children connect spiritual ideas with their experiences and transfer that learning to new contexts as well.
Engage. Begin your spiritual inquiry with one or more short activities to encourage curiosity about the subject. These might take the form of a question (Can you guess how many kinds of meditation there are?), a video (of children meditating), or a short demonstration (with you as leader showing how you meditate). You might even invite children to query their caregivers about meditation practices they have tried.
Explore. In this hands-on phase, children try out a spiritual practice for themselves. They might explore meditation in different forms (silent, walking, with and without a repetitive phrase, using a focal object) and note their experiences. Encourage them to create a chart comparing different types according to various criteria: ability to focus, comfort level, time spent, breathing rate, sense of transcendence.
Explain. Once they’ve completed their exploratory trials, it’s time for children to share their findings and explain what they’ve discovered. Perhaps they noticed that walking slowly supported meditation better than a faster pace. You might ask: Why do you think walking slowly worked better? Or maybe they had a harder time regulating their breathing while using a five-syllable mantra than an eight-syllable phrase. You might ask: Why do you think having an even number of syllables was more effective?
Elaborate. The elaborate phase provides children with an opportunity to apply what they have learned to new experiences. They might take what they have learned about slow and steady breathing and use it for a minute whenever they feel stressed to see whether it calms them. Or they might teach their favorite meditation form to other family members, checking to see if they remember all the steps.
Evaluate. With spirituality, evaluation is a lifelong process. Yet children can demonstrate their growing knowledge of spiritual practices and their positive effects during periodic check-ins. And they can explain to adults the different aptitudes that certain practices are designed to support and the value of various skills for their spiritual lives. Knowing how a practice functions and why it’s important increases the likelihood that they will continue to engage it.
A final note: resist the temptation to Explain before you’ve made space for children to Explore. While it might seem more efficient to tell children all the secrets to effective meditation, figuring it out for themselves makes for deeper learning and longer retention.