Creating Resource-Rich Spiritual Environments

An Interview with Dr. Brendan Hyde

A child’s environment has a huge effect on their lives and, consequently, on their spirituality. The things and people around kids become resources for everyday experiences, which shape how children see the world and themselves. Researchers call these resources ‘affordances’ because they ‘afford’ kids certain opportunities for action and reflection. Dr. Brendan Hyde, who is an education professor at Deakin University in Australia, studies early childhood programs and the ways in which they provide spiritual affordances for children. He emphasizes the difference that intentionality makes in providing ample resources for spiritual exploration and discovery.


Karen-Marie (00:03):
Welcome. I’m Karen-Marie Yust, and my colleague, Erin Reibel, and I are talking with Dr. Brendan Hyde from the School of Education at Deakin University in Australia.

Erin (00:14):
Brendan, you’ve been researching the idea of affordances, which are things in children’s environments that might serve as spiritual resources. Why are affordances so important?

Brendan (00:27):
So an affordance is something that you find in the environment that presents a particular action possibility for the person in that environment or presents a certain way of acting for that person. So for instance, something like a table might be something that you sit at or something that you eat at, and that’s its function or its functional significance. But for a young child, a table might be perceived in a very different way. So they might perceive it as something that is climb on-able or hide under-able, or perhaps even shelter behind-able. So the table then affords a range of action possibilities for that child, depending upon how the child perceives it. So it’s about perception rather than the function.

Now, almost anything in the environment could potentially be an affordance that presents the child with particular action possibilities that may nurture spirituality or that might enable the child to express their spirituality. And I think this is why affordances are important, because they help or assist the child to nurture and to give expression to their spirituality. So affordances then become the materials or the things that help to put children in touch with themselves, with others, with the world or environment, and possibly with the transcendent that, in the Christian tradition, we name as God.

Often as educators, we are not given an immediate window into children’s spirituality. It’s got to be mediated in some way. And this is where affordances can help from an adult perspective because they enable us to see what the child is actually doing in the space in which they are, or they enable us to see how the child is manipulating particular materials and objects.

I think the other thing that’s important to remember is that sometimes affordances can remain latent in the environment until something is discovered and acted upon by the child. And I can give you a very brief example from the Godly Play room, which is the context from which I come. The storyteller was presenting or telling the story of the holy family, and she held the carved figure of the Christ child up and said, “This is Jesus reaching out to give you a hug.” And the child who was sitting immediately next to her reached out and took the Christ child from the storyteller’s hand and hugged it against the face, and then gave it to the next child, and they all did the same thing. Now, that wasn’t planned, not part of the Godly Play script, if you like, but the storyteller enabled that to happen because he was in the moment, if you like.

So that the carved figure of the Christ child suddenly became an affordance, and the figure was huggable. So it was holdable, it was graspable, but now it was huggable. And this, I think, enabled that child and that group of children to express their spirituality in a particular way that they may not have been able to do had they just read the story from scripture, for instance. So that’s a long answer to your first question, Erin. But I think they are important, and they do provide a means by which children can nurture and express their spirituality.

Karen-Marie (03:45):
Well, and I think it’s really helpful that you provided some concrete examples around a table and then the concrete example of the child figure that was used to hug. Can you tell us some other ways that you’ve seen affordances used for spiritual nurture in classrooms?

Brendan (04:01):
Sure. So if I come back to the Godly Play room initially, and then I’ll broaden out to other early childhood contexts. So I think one of the really good things about the Godly Play room is that it is set up, and they don’t use the word affordances, but it’s set up in such a way that all of the materials in the room potentially are affordances. So that the room is set up so that it would contain materials for storytelling of the parables, the sacred stories, and the liturgical actions.

But all of those materials afford particular action possibilities. For example, unpacking of those materials from the tray or from the gold box. Grasping them, moving them, placing them, maneuvering them. The room also contains spaces that afford sitting or lying down or opportunities to work alone or to work with others or for gathering as a group of children and so on.

So if we go then more broadly to early childhood learning centers, often they will include things in both their indoor and their outdoor environments that afford particular action possibilities. So for instance, in the outdoor environment, there are opportunities for children to swing, to climb, to dig, to scoop in the sand, and so on. The indoor environments might include opportunities for painting, for drawing, for singing and dancing, for lying down and so on. So any of those objects that afford the grasping, the moving and the sliding, generally, in early childhood settings, are the very objects that can nurture spirituality and may provide opportunities for children to express their spirituality.

Erin (05:46):
What advice would you give teachers and leaders who want to be more attentive to how their environment facilitates spirituality?

Brendan (05:53):
Well, Erin, I think that the teacher is really the key variable in all of this. Because it’s the intentionality with which the teacher prepares the space or with which the early learning educator or leader prepares that space specifically for the purpose of nurturing spirituality. So that intentionality is really important. And this is where the early childhood teacher, as an affordance – because people can be affordances too – they become critical in this way. If the early childhood teacher values spirituality, then she or he can enact what I sometimes call a pedagogy of the spiritual. And this is something that shifts the opportunities that children have for play from being focused on physical or cognitive skills, to being about connections with self, with others, with the world, and with God. So if the educator can see opportunities for spiritual expression and nurturing and has prepared the space accordingly, then the affordance has been acted upon. So I really think that early childhood teachers are critical in this, and it’s the intentionality with which they prepare those spaces.

Karen-Marie (07:08):
Thank you, Brendan. I really appreciate how you’ve told us about both the ways that objects can be affordances, but also how we, as teachers and group leaders, can be affordances for children. I appreciate you sharing your wisdom with us.

Brendan (07:24):
And we often don’t think about ourselves, people, as affordances. If you asked an early childhood educator or a Godly Play storyteller, would they be an affordance, they would say, “Oh, no, no, no. I’m simply telling the story,” or “I’m simply setting up the environment.” And yes, they absolutely are, but in doing that, they are acting as an affordance themselves because they present as something in the environment that enables children or learners to act or behave in particular ways.

Karen-Marie (07:53):
So we can all aspire to be affordances. That’s a good thing. Thanks again.

Erin (07:59):
Thank you, Brendan.

Brendan (08:00):
Thank you so much for your time.



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