As we slowly move back to regular in-person contact, part of a new normal will likely include virtual presence for many activities. Virtual interactions have many upsides, including flexibility, convenience, and accessibility. However, they are too often one-way interactions, with a teacher or leader providing information to a group. Such approaches do not provide space for spiritually rich virtual encounters.
Developmental psychologist Wendy Ostroff has researched several ways to help make virtual learning more interactive. We’ve adapted her suggestions to focus on how you can create spiritually rich interactions that build connections, strengthen relationships, encourage wonder, and support autonomy.
Build Connections. One aspect of spiritual development is building a strong sense of interconnectedness with others and the world. To help children explore their feelings of isolation during the pandemic and discover connections with others, invite them to write a story together using Google Docs. Begin with an opening sentence, such as Once upon a time, there were two friends who had to wear masks and socially distance. Encourage each child to add their ideas to the story, building on whatever others have written. They can insert material anywhere. Or you might partner with a group in another state or country (check out Related Resources for an e-pen pal match site) and use an audiovisual tool like VoiceThread to share pandemic experiences.
Strengthen Relationships. To flourish spiritually, children also need strong relationships with adults and peers. Set up times to virtually connect with children one-on-one. Ask how they are doing: what is causing anxiety or pain and what is bringing joy and hope. Or invite children to create a digital picture comparing their 2020 and 2021 lives to share with the group. That way, they can reflect with their peers about navigating the pandemic and offer words of affirmation and support.
Encourage Wonder. Children often experience wonder through play and exploration. While you may be experiencing Zoom fatigue, they remain fascinated by the medium. Unfortunately, a child’s attempts to play with virtual tools are often perceived as disruptive. To foster a sense of wonder, build in time to explore virtually. Offer freeplay times on Zoom or Google Meet, where children can click through menus and icons. Invite children to experiment with different filters to reflect how they are feeling or find and upload background images of locations where they experience peace or joy. Ask them to find and post links in the chat box for websites that relate to your planned topic.
Support Autonomy. A robust spiritual identity requires a sense that one is able to act responsibly within society. To help children develop this sense of autonomy, allow them to be co-creators with you in your virtual interactions. Provide options for individual choice and opportunities for them to guide your time together. You might invite children to create videos about a practice that nurtures peace, using an open-ended prompt to allow for a variety of creative responses, and then make their videos the focus of a lesson on peacemaking. Or you could build a bitmoji gathering room together, encouraging each child to add something to the room so that all feel welcome when they gather there.