Monday, November 1, 2010

Spirituality in Young Children: The Role of Language Development

Recently, three-year-old Natalie, the daughter of a friend, suddenly came bounding into the kitchen in the middle of the day where her mother was preparing something and jubilantly exclaimed, “Mommy, Jesus loves me!”  My friend was very pleased to hear her daughter saying this and lovingly confirmed her daughter’s insight.  At the same time, she was a bit puzzled as to what had prompted Natalie's statement.  It had seemingly come "out of the blue", but was it?

Children come into this world as spiritual beings, but also as non-verbal beings.  Understanding this is essential to cultivating spirituality in young children. In the Gospel of Luke, we find the curious story of the yet unborn John the Baptist responding physically to Mary's voice.  Research, of course,  shows that babies in the womb are aware of their environment and begin to learn by responding to external stimuli such as music and familiar voices. In the book Baby Minds, child development experts Acredolo and Goodwyn also share research proving that children are inborn with certain abilities such as rudimentary mathematical and problem-solving skills. However, while already possessing some amazing cognitive skills, babies lack an essential developmental skill that they must learn in order to make it in this world: language. 

This process of learning to apply words to our thoughts opens what Jerome Berryman in the German translation of his introduction to Godly Play (Godly Play: Einführung in der Theorie und Praxis)  as “the great gateway of language”.   The ability to name things, be it people, emotions, situations or problems, opens the gateway to becoming whole, mature adults. As parents, teachers, and pastors, we have to see children on the continuum of non-verbal to verbal and help them develop language skills to describe their spiritual experiences.   That means that we recognize and take seriously the non-verbal ways that children already express spiritual thoughts and help them put words to those experiences.

What is the non-verbal communication that children use? They communicate through their bodies, emotions, pictures and play, among other things. They are sensorimotor beings. Dr. Sonja M. Stewart, in her book Young Children and Worship, says, “Children do love and worship God, but they need to be introduced to  . . .  worship in a sensorimotor way. They need to know how to find the quiet place within, which enable them to get ready to worship ‘all by themselves’ . . . “.  When we pay close attention to what children are communicating non-verbally, we can better assist as they explore God on their spiritual journey. We can help them find the language to express what they are experiencing with Him and how to express that to Him in worship. 

Back to little Natalie.  I am sure that the simple sentence she excitedly proclaimed to her mother did not come out of nowhere, but was rather the result of several experiences in the past few days and pictures in her thoughts.  As a three-year-old she expressed in a perfectly age-appropriate way what she had been thinking about.  While it may sound simple to adult ears, it shows that Natalie is learning to enter into the mystery of friendship with the Creator of the Universe “all by herself” without prompting from anyone else.  And as her pastor, I couldn’t ask for anything better. 


  1. Sheila, I am just now starting to catch up again, and this was a wonderful post. I love the idea of play enabling children to attach language with thoughts and feelings. I once was told to speak English to the children so that I would give them a richness of vocabulary to attach to their feelings, a richness I wouldn't have available to me in a second language. I have so many words for "froeh" in English! I'm delighted, ecstatic, thrilled, happy, joyful, contented...