by Dana Kennamer, PhD
Every summer I spend about two weeks in the mountains of Colorado. I enjoy time with family, reconnect with God’s created world in ways that are not available in Abilene, Texas, and take a bit of a break from the 100+ degree temperatures in my home state. I hike, swim in hot springs, sit quietly by rushing streams, and stand in awe at the tops of mountains. I never tire of these experiences. But some of my favorite memories are when I can explore these spaces of wonder and beauty with a child. This exploration is different than when I am alone, taking on new meanings as I explore for, with and through the child. This changes things – the purpose and the process.
First, when I am with a child I am there for them. Research affirms what we have intuitively known, but often ignore. Time spent is nature has emotional, psychological and cognitive benefits (American Psychological Association,2020). Stress is reduced and the ability to experience joy is increased. These are spiritual benefits as well. As people of faith we know that God is revealed in those spaces of beauty and mystery (Romans 1:20).
As the adult on the journey, I am there to provide language to help the child understand and express what they are discovering – words to describe texture, color, and light. And words like blossom, seedling, decay, fungus, vast, rippling and lush. I am there for them, bringing my past experiences of exploration with me. And I am there for them because I know that these wild places can be risky, so I take care to keep them safe.
While my role as the adult is critical, it is important that I remember to truly be with the child – not to over direct or over protect – but to be fully present as we explore and discover together. It is a mutual experience, going back and forth as we point out things that we notice, take time to stop and rest, or laugh and run together. It is time to be present with each other and with the God who imagined and created all we see before us.
When I truly join with the child, it changes everything because I also explore through them. They slow me down and point out things I would otherwise ignore or miss entirely. Their curiosity reminds me that there are always new things to discover and also old things to re-discover. Through the child I remember that getting to the end of the trail is not the most important goal.
In these moments I remember the call of Jesus to receive like children in order to enter the kingdom (Luke 18:17). Sofia Cavaletti beautifully describes this call of Jesus in her book, The Religious Potential of the Child (2019).
Jesus was calling us to a life-long journey of growth and transformation -- of continually turning and changing and becoming always more like them, but I believe he was first calling us to look at them. In order to become like them, we must first come to know them. We must first find out who they are and, especially, what their relationship with God is like.
It is this call that compels us to explore for, with and through children. That is the mission of our community of practitioners and scholars.
As people who follow Jesus, we claim a story that promises belonging and hope. We join the triune God in nurturing the spiritual well-being of the child and so we explore for them. We take seriously the call to teach our children the truths we have learned and by which we live. “Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up.” (Deuteronomy 6:7) What language do they need? How can we best teach them the stories that shape us? How do we guide them in participation in liturgy, worship and prayer? What can we provide families to help them in this process?
We also recognize that these “little ones” are vulnerable. While we know that we cannot protect children from every hard thing that they will encounter, our exploration guides us to stand for them. We explore ways to advocate for and to provide children with the things they need to support them when difficult things happen. And we explore how we might support those whose lives are often more difficult that we can imagine. We are for them.
As adults we are farther along on the journey, but John Westserhoff (2012) reminds us that we are “co-pilgrims'' exploring this life of faith with them. This is a process of holy and mutual hospitality that requires us to be intentionally present with the children in our lives. And while there are commonalities among age levels, each child brings their own unique way of being in the world, shaped by individual personality, interests, culture and issues of the times in which they live. This is a relational commitment that requires time to get to know them to understand what their spiritual journey is like.
One of the great blessings of exploring with children is that they lead us to consider questions we have long forgotten to ask. They help us reconnect with joy and wonder. They see parts of the story that we miss. We find that God does indeed speak through the child and God calls us to explore the life of faith not just for and with them, but through them.
The Children’s Spirituality Summit is a time to gather with practitioners and scholars as we explore together. You are invited to be part of this community that has been called and gifted to walk with children on the spiritual journey. This is holy and important work and we hope you will join us in May. We have much to learn from each other. Blessings!
Dana Kennamer, Ph.D. serves as the Associate Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Abilene Christian University where she teaches courses in early childhood education and children's ministry