Contact Us

Nurturing children’s religious imagination: the challenge of primary religious education today

30 November, 1999

Nurturing Children’s Religious Imagination is aimed at primary school teachers, parents and others as they set about responding to the challenges of religious education in the twenty-first century It is edited by Raymond Topley and Gareth Byrne.

261 pp, Veritas, 2004. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie .


Preface – Maura Hyland
Opening Word – Change, Challenge, Concern: Issues in Primary Religious Education in Twenty-First Century Ireland – Raymond Topley

The Context of Religious Education
Creating Space for Children’s Existential Concerns – Carmel Ní Shuilleabháin
Connecting Home, Parish and School – Cora O’Farrell

Contemporary Themes in Primary Religious Education
Developing a ‘Culture of Care’ in a Disadvantaged Area: The Contribution of an Educational Community – Padraig Mac Gearailt
Towards Inclusivity in Religious Education – Martina Ní Cheallaigh
Welcoming the ‘New Irish’: Celebrating Diversity in the Irish Catholic Primary School – Micheal Kilcrann
The Wisdom of Friedrich Froebel and St Benedict: A Support for Teachers of Distressed Children Today – Carmel Scanlon

Approaches to Primary Religious Education Today
Alive-O: The Irish Church’s Response to the Religious Education of Children – Brendan O’Reilly
Awakening Children to New Ways of Seeing the World: Re-telling the Parables of Jesus – Gerry O’Connell
Aboard Hogwarts Express: Harry Potter in the Religion Class? – Joe Collins
Strategy for Effective Use of Story in Teaching  – Michael Hayes
The Imaginative, Caring and Hope-Filled Teacher – Rose Lynch

Home, Parish and School in Partnership
Confirmation: Sacrament of Initiation, Commitment or Departure? – Neasa Ní Argadain
Celebrating Communion with the Lord and with Each Other: Parish-Based Sacramental Preparation – Orla Marie Walsh
‘Go Out and Invite Everyone to the Feast’: Liturgical Inclusion for People with Special Needs – Peg Caverley
What Can the Spirituality of the Celts Contribute to Spirituality Today? – Maura Boyle-McNally

Closing Word
Children’s Religious Education: Challenge and Gift – Gareth Byrne


This collection of essays begins by focusing on children’s existential concerns and on the response of home, school and parish. Consideration is then given to contemporary issues affecting religious education such as intercultural education and outreach to children from a variety of disadvantaged situations and circumstances. The third section includes essays on catechetics and the use of story, including popular cultural narratives such as Harry Potter. The final section addresses the sacraments of communion and confirmation and includes an essay on the inclusion of people with special neeeds. The editors, Raymond Topley and Gareth Byrne, open and close the collection with their own significant contributions to the discussions.

Chapter 1 The Context of Religious Education:
Creating Space for Children’s Existential Concerns
Carmel Ní Shuilleabháin

A four and a half year old boy called David asked me a surprising question in my fourth month as a teacher; the children had had a ten-minute ‘chat time’ and were free to talk to one another, draw or just listen in on the chat. David came over to where I was sorting flash cards for our next session and out of the blue he said: ‘Teacher, isn’t your soul yourself?’ I remember it well. I was so taken aback at the profundity of the question and at the manner in which he expressed himself that it took me a little while to think what to say. I found myself loving the question and agreeing with him: ‘Yes! I suppose your soul is yourself.’ I wondered what had given rise to the question and where he would take it from there. David, on hearing my response took me by the hand and drew me towards his group. ‘Well you better tell them because they are saying that it is not true.’ The group were discussing God, your soul, heaven and hell and wanting or not wanting to go to heaven or hell. At that moment we were not in ‘religion time’ and we had not been discussing these issues at all. This was a great experience for me so early on in my teaching life, because it prepared me to be open to children’s thinking and to expect to be happily surprised by what they might see and think and feel and say.

Children’s Talk
Teachers and educationalists are fascinated by children’s talk. In 1977 a team of British researchers led by Clive and Jane Erricker working on ‘The Children and Worldviews Project’ set out to develop a methodology that would enable them to listen to children talk about what was important to them and how they constructed meaning in their lives. The first phase of their research is set out in The Education of the Whole Child (1). Analysis of the issues raised by the children in Phase 1 of the research pointed to the fundamental motif of narrative and storying across all boundaries of gender, race, age, social background and faith. To date the team has explored issues of children’s social, cultural, spiritual and moral development; race and gender; emotional literacy (2);  the role of religious education and religious nurture; how children deal with death and separation; and how adults relate to children. The project is currently studying how children can become more effective learners; how children develop, spiritually, morally, socially and culturally, in respect of religious education; how educationalists and other adults might engage with children’s holistic development; and finally, how adults respond to and communicate with younger people.

When Jane Erricker began this research she was very surprised by the depth of the children’s thinking and by the sophistication of their arguments. Erricker believes that the reason her expectations of the children’s ability to think and argue was so limited was a consequence of the influence of Piaget on her approach to children (3).

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss psychologist who over a period of six decades conducted a programme of research that has profoundly affected our understanding of child development. Piaget was noted for his attention to cognitive structures, the increasing capacity of learners for knowledge, beginning with the sensory-motor level and progressing to abstract thinking. In Piaget’s understanding the growth of knowledge is a progressive construction of logically embedded structures superseding one another by a process of inclusion of lower, less powerful logical elements into higher and more powerful ones right up to adulthood. Therefore, according to Piaget, children’s logic and modes of thinking are initially entirely different from those of adults.

Piaget’s research has had a remarkable impact on the expectations teachers have of children of any given age. The problem with Piaget’s stages of cognitive development is that they focus on a certain kind of cognitive or rational knowing. Consequently his stages of development refer to cognitive development. Subsequent to Piaget’s research it has become clear that there are other kinds of knowing with their own intrinsic stages of development. Lawrence Kohlberg (4), for example, evolved a theory of moral development based on Piaget’s model. Kohlberg, however, included moral knowing alongside Piaget’s cognitive knowing. James Fowler’s theory of faith development is also based on Piaget’s structural model (5).  Fowler, however, expanded the concept of knowing to embrace the imagination and the emotional dimension of knowing. Thus the concept of knowledge being considered has evolved to include the dimensions of the ‘whole person’ and not simply cognitive knowledge.

Erricker found that children as young as six were capable of existential knowing and were able to base their opinions on their own life experience. They were not limited in their ability to reason and think by lack of life experience. She makes the point that children today have a great deal of life experience. What Jane Erricker discovered as key to children exceeding our expectations of their level of rational and abstract thinking was that they be given the chance. She writes: ‘I don’t think they were exceptional I just think I gave them the time and the opportunity’ (6).

Time is becoming a real source of pressure in teaching. There seems to be so much more to do and only the same amount of time available. So how do busy teachers give children the time they need to talk about the things that bother them and to do so in the presence of God? Experience shows it is worth taking the time to talk with children and to let them discuss issues that are important to them. There is no lack of opportunity for allowing them to express their opinions on important moral dilemmas. For example, issues that arise out of behaviour in the yard, or concerns expressed at prayer time, can be addressed later in the day.

As teachers we should never be surprised at the depth and maturity some children will show during such discussions. Erricker discovered this to be true but sounds a note of warning as to children’s willingness to speak freely:

Of course children soon become aware of what sort of discourse the teacher wishes to take place in the classroom and will not reveal such experiences [a seven year old had discussed the loss of her grandfather and how it affected her] and opinions if the ethos created is not suitable (7).

Acknowledging Children’s Existential Needs
American religious educator, Jerome Berryman, writes about the existential needs of children and how these should be acknowledged and addressed by religious educators (8). Writing independently of Erricker, but affirming the findings of The Education of the Whole Child, he describes the non-cognitive knowing that children have and relates this to his own experience as a young boy. Tucked up in bed with his grandmother, he asked her: ‘Grandmother! Why do I have to die?’ He does not remember her answer; he only remembers his question and her presence in the darkness. ‘She put me in touch with a larger presence that seems to grow to this day’ (9). He became aware of a presence greater than himself and greater than his own questions.

Berryman discusses the struggle experienced by children when they are caught in a conflict situation described by Carole Klein as ‘the double bind’ (10). This double bind occurs because of the wrong assumption made by many adults that children do not experience existential questions. This assumption leaves children with an impossible choice to make. They either deny their experience and accept the stance of adults or remain true to their experience at the risk of adult disapproval. Either way the children struggle. Berryman discusses how this double bind relates to the child’s experience of the existential issues of death, aloneness, meaninglessness and the threat of freedom. Berryman finds two problems limiting the discussion on the existential concerns of children. These are the ‘myth of the always happy child’ and secondly a lack of evidence from literature and other sources describing how children experience existential issues.

Berryman describes his own experience with sick and dying children whom he has watched as they prepared each other and their parents for their imminent death. He observed children dealing with the existential reality of their own death and with helping others to do the same. His research affirmed that children do struggle with the meaning of life and death and other such existential issues. He has also shown how children struggling with existential issues defy the boundaries of the developmental stages set out by educational theorists. Children do struggle with life and death, separation and belonging, but they need adults to allow them the time, space and parameters to engage in the struggle in safety and with guidance.

Teaching as Presence
Berryman advocates ‘teaching as presence’, living the questions as opposed to wasting enormous energy denying one’s existential limits. He writes of two steps required for ‘teaching as presence’: respect for the child’s needs and knowing or understanding the questions behind their concerns (11).  Adults need to respect the religious experiences of children. He warns that the price of pretending that existential issues do not exist is to limit the possibilities of religious growth. Berryman suggests that we grow spiritually by engaging with the existential issues that belong to our human condition irrespective of age. Accordingly, religious and spiritual growth is dependent upon the acknowledgement of children’s existential needs. Presence to these needs is vital for the spiritual and religious well being of the child.

To honour children is to accept each one as unique, complex and spiritual beyond our imagination. Children tempered by the limitations of not having the’ space’ to be who they are and to express their existential issues may appear not to have such profound concerns as issues of life and death, loneliness and isolation. They quickly sense where and when they will be allowed to be who they are and where and when they will be allowed to express their real concerns. Given an opportunity to express themselves, however, children will far exceed our expectations.

Let The Children Speak
Robert Coles is an example of an adult who let children show him just how much they reflect on and worry about existential issues. He had studied to be a child psychiatrist, but while serving as an air force physician in Mississippi in the late 1950s he found himself in the middle of a period of serious social unrest made famous by the Ruby Bridges’ story. Ruby was a seven-year-old black child who against all the odds managed to single-handedly force the desegregation of black and white school children in New Orleans. She defied all theories of education regarding developmental stages and was the catalyst for Coles becoming a ‘field worker’ with children from all over the world. He subsequently spent a good deal of time listening to and observing children. Eventually they confided in him. He learnt from them that children far exceed the limits set by developmental theorists, if adults give them an opportunity to speak. Coles’ book The Spiritual Life of Children gives children a voice and in so doing encourages them to nurture and develop their spirituality (12).

Creating a Sacred Space
The questions that begin to emerge are these: How can an ethos be created in a classroom context that allows children to share their stories? How are teachers to engage the deep existential questions of life and death, freedom, and meaning with children? The following example of how simply being present to children’s needs can create for them the space necessary to work through their problems may be helpful.

Seamus, a child in my own class, was very close to his grandmother who lived in the northwest. She had been ill for some time and each morning Seamus prayed that God would make his granny better. I became concerned at his worry and spoke to his mother who was surprised that her mother’s illness was affecting Seamus to such an extent. As the weeks passed and Seamus continued to pray for his granny; I realised that we had to somehow create a ‘space’ for Seamus where granny’s healing could include God bringing her home to heaven and that this was a final healing.

An opportunity arose when we were making Mother’s Day cards at art. Killian, whose mother had died, was feeling a bit sad and I chatted with him asking if he wanted to make a card for his sister who was so good to him and who had cared for him so well since the death of their mother. It was Daffodil Day that day and he had bought seven bunches of daffodils. He replied that he was bringing all the daffodils to his mother’s grave. I intuitively felt that Killian was telling me something here about the Mother’s Day card and so I took a risk and asked him if he would like to make a card for his mum too and bring it to her grave. His eyes lit up. Smiling he started to make his Mother’s Day card. As a class we then talked about how people who have gone before us still know and love us. I spoke about my father, as that was ‘safe’ for the boys. I was not risking their emotions around someone they had let go to God. Seamus was listening to all of this, yet I knew that it did not yet apply to granny. Granny was going to get better.

As the weeks and days passed we talked about Easter and Christ’s death, his resurrection, and the breakfast he cooked on the beach for his friends in Galilee. Seamus prayed for his granny to get better. One day I asked the boys to think about a dilemma God might have. Imagine, I said, if I was dying, and I knew that when I died I would meet God. That would be the most wonderful joy for me. I would not be in a hurry to die, and all my friends would be praying that I would get better and that God would help make me get better. What if ‘better’ for God, meant that God would allow me to be in heaven?

We talked about how no baby really wants to be born because it has such a comfortable place in its mother’s womb. Yet look how much fun we have once we are born! I asked the boys to think about this and said that we would talk about it later in religion class. I hoped I had engaged the religious imagination of the children. Only time would tell. There was no further discussion about the matter until some three hours later. The comments from the boys were very interesting. The comments ranged from: ‘Well if you were in pain I would let you die’, to ‘If you really wanted to I would let you die.’ Responses such as the latter were a reflection on comments earlier in the day that no one really wants to die. We had a dilemma. I commented that sometimes dying is healing for the person who is dying even though it is very sad for the people who are left behind and who miss that person.

Time passed and one morning Seamus’s prayer for his granny changed. He prayed that his granny would be happy in heaven. The following morning he went to see her for the weekend. He returned to school on Monday morning and prayed that his granny would be happy in heaven because she was not getting any better. That night his granny died. The boys then took over and prayed for Seamus’s granny and they prayed for Seamus that he would not be too sad. We had never actually discussed Seamus and his granny. We just made space for God and Seamus to find a safe place where Seamus’s prayer could change and where Seamus could accept that sometimes people do not get better, they go to heaven to God. We allowed room for that to happen, for the Transcendent to become immanent in the pain of a small nine-year-old boy and to grace him with a security about the grandmother he loved.

This story illustrates how children slowly adapt and make meaning from the existential issues in their lives providing we help them to face these issues and make meaning from them in the sacred space that we create around their pain. We need to meet children in the reality of their lives and culture and bring with us the light of God’s love and care for them.

My experience of nine- to ten-year-old children leads me to the conclusion that many developmental theorists and educators writing about this age group seriously underestimate children’s breadth of life experience and the depth and sincerity of the existential questions that they reflect upon and struggle with. The likes of Coles, Erricker and Berryman seem to be exceptions to this. With open minds they have taken the time to give children a voice and the opportunity to express their individuality and authentic concerns.

1. See C. Erricker, J. Erricker et al, The Education of the Whole Child (London: Cassel!, 1997).
2. See http://www.cwvp.com/site/pubs/elbklt.html
3. See C. Erricker, J. Erricker et al, The Education of the Whole Child, p. 63. 4. See L. Kohlberg, Essays on Moral Development, Vol. 1 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).
5. See J. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981).
6. C. Erricker, J. Erricker et al, The Education of the Whole Child, p. 64.
7. C. Erricker, J. Erricker et al, The Education of the Whole Child, p. 13.
8. See J.W: Berryman, ‘Teaching as Presence and the Existential Curriculum’ in Religious Education 85/4 (1990), pp. 509-534.
9. J.W: Berryman, ‘Teaching as Presence’, p. 509.
10. See C. Klein, The Myth of The Always Happy Child (New York: Harper and Row, 1975).
11. See J.W: Berryman, ‘Teaching as Presence’, pp. 514-518.
12. See R. Coles, The Spiritual Life of Children (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,(1990).

Tags: , ,