Durable Spiritual Learning

Recently, I watched several young children explore finger labyrinths for the first time. Most would race to see how fast they could get to the center and then back out again. When their teacher suggested tracing the path more slowly, they resisted. They had decided the labyrinths were like Candyland, where getting to the end of the path quickly meant they would win.

When it comes to learning, lots of children (and adults) prefer simple and immediate results. The quicker they can solve a problem or find a solution, the better. Yet multiple studies show that knowledge lasts longer if we put in more time and effort exploring what it means. So if we want children to develop durable spiritual insights, we need to provide them with activities that encourage digging deeper and not just getting the right answers.

One such activity is to invite children to summarize what they’ve learned.After a lesson about the life of a spiritual exemplar or a sacred story, ask kids to name three important ‘takeaways’ they heard. After explaining the steps of a spiritual practice, encourage children to walk you through the steps in their own words. When we encourage kids to summarize instead of telling them what they should remember, they process information better and retain it longer.

Another approach is to ask children to map out a lesson. They can create a flowchart that depicts how a particular spiritual practice unfolds. Or they can construct a timeline of significant moments in sacred history. You might even invite them to sketch out the connections among various lessons, noting intersections between a person’s beliefs and how certain spiritual practices flow from or augment that knowledge. The key to this activity’s power is in children making the connections for themselves rather than copying a ready-made display provided by an adult.

As a third approach, encourage children to draw a picture of an idea or concept. For a lesson on ethical responsibility, you might teach principles of good decision-making and then suggest that kids illustrate those principles in action. To further explore mindfulness, you might practice centering together and then invite children to draw comparative self-portraits of times when they feel centered and scattered. These activities help kids envision the practical and embodied aspects of things they are thinking about.

With older children, you might also wonder about the questions they would ask others to test their knowledge. Begin by inviting them to formulate simple questions, ones that can be answered by a yes/no or short statement. (For example: Can you practice silence in a noisy room? or What is a mantra?) Then invite them to think of more complex questions, ones that ask how or why. (For example: Why did Ruth Bader Ginsburg fight against sexism? How does mindfulness affect your body and your emotions?) If you’re brave, volunteer to be the first to answer one of their questions and then suggest they quiz each other.



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