Contextual Engagement

Engaging children in spiritual work is a contextual experience. Yet much of our understanding about children’s development and learning comes from WEIRD studies: research focused on Western (largely white), educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies. This bias creates false assumptions about how children who don’t fit WEIRD categories will engage with lessons and materials.

Even in a seemingly homogenous group, how children understand and practice their spirituality may differ based on other contextual factors. A child with Christian grandparents may relate to spiritual stories and rituals somewhat differently than a child whose grandparents are Jewish or Sikh. Thus, considering the socioeconomic and personal contexts of all group members makes a positive difference in the spiritual development of children.

A team of researchers led by Karen Washinawatok studied cultural effects on children’s thinking. Here’s what they learned about being attentive to cultural contexts, adapted to fit the work of spiritual nurture.

Contextual engagement is deliberate work. Washinawatok’s team began by thinking about the role culture and context might play in teaching a particular concept. As spiritual teachers, we can do the same. For example, when teaching children a meditation practice, consider what experiences each child might have with sitting still and meditation. Is sitting still a typical cultural practice for all or only some? How easy or difficult might certain children find stillness given differing gender expectations for quiet behavior or personal diagnoses of ADHD? Do some children attend martial arts or yoga classes that might include meditation exercises?

Solicit feedback from people who know children’s contexts.  When the research team designed their study, they created materials and then asked cultural representatives to offer feedback on them. Work with parents and local community leaders to refine your ideas. For example, imagine that you want to show children how they can put social justice beliefs into action. You design a lesson around helping people in Nigeria have clear water access. In talking with parents and community leaders, you realize that clean water is a problem for local families who live in certain neighborhoods. So you redesign the lesson to focus on your town and invite a child from one of those neighborhoods to tell their story as part of the learning process.

Create equal partnerships. It can be easy to assume that we are the experts and the people we consult are just sounding boards for our ideas. But Washinawatok’s study found that treating consultants as cultural and contextual experts with equal investment and input created a dynamic relationship beneficial for children’s learning. Consider how you can partner with parents and community leaders in ways that genuinely welcome their expertise.  For example, if you are working on a lesson about hope, ask local leaders for their stories of hope, what they hope for their community, and where they are currently finding hope. Use these insights in your lesson planning.

Check your own biases. We all bring assumptions from our own cultures and contexts to our teaching. The researchers expected to see certain play behaviors that didn’t occur because of cultural differences. To surface unconscious biases, ask yourself: What assumptions and cultural misunderstandings might inform my interactions with children, parents, and local leaders? Invite your cultural partners to share their experiences of being misunderstood. Use this information to check your own understanding and practices.



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