As a child, I often was bored in school even though I loved to learn. I would quickly tune out adult monologues and rip through fill-in-the-blank worksheets without paying much attention. It was only in the rare instances when teachers let me and my classmates take the lead in learning that I fully engaged. Being responsible for our own explorations, particularly about topics that interested us, riveted our attention.
When it comes to learning, adults and children share at least two motivational factors in common: both engage more fully when they have some autonomy in the learning process and when they can see the relevance of a subject for their own lives. This is as true of spiritual learning as it is for other areas. If we create a space where children can explore spirituality via their own questions and concerns, they are more likely to pay attention.
One way to start is by asking children to generate as many questions about a topic as they can without stopping to answer any of them. Then sort the questions into related groups and encourage kids to investigate potential answers. If the topic is mindfulness, they might pursue questions related to what it is, how it’s done, why it matters, and obstacles to its practice. If the focus is traditional stories, they might explore questions related to when and how they were written, why people still read or tell them, and how they compare with stories from other traditions.
Offering children choices about how they pursue and then present new discoveries also supports deeper engagement. Some might search online for useful information about the history of yoga, while others conduct interviews with yoga practitioners, and still others try out yoga poses for themselves. They could then come together to share their insights through digital presentations, audio clips, and physical demonstrations.
Posing open-ended questions for individual and group investigation is another approach. Invite children to gather data in response to a question like How do humans affect the natural world? What is ‘justice for all’? or Why is there poverty in the world? Once they have done their research (independently or in groups), have one child (group) offer an answer to the question from their study and then encourage others to respond with affirming or contradictory ideas in their notes. There’s no need to push for a consensus answer; the debate itself is what draws children in.
Engaging in productive struggle together can also hook children’s interest and build their confidence as spiritual learners. Watch a tai chi video together and practice imitating the movements. Notice who seems to figure them out quicker and have those children give pointers to the rest of the group. Or introduce a practice of silence and invite children to share advice for staying focused and quiet as you repeat the exercise over time. This approach works especially well when you as a teacher are also a novice practitioner and thus open to guidance from your young companions.