In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Young Children and Spirituality

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Childhood Curricula and Young Children’s Spirituality
  • Spiritually Nurturing Pedagogies
  • Assessing Children’s Spirituality
  • Children’s Expression of Spirituality and Child-Voice
  • Family Socialization of Young Children’s Spirituality
  • Free Play and Spirituality
  • Adult-Directed Activities to Foster Young Children’s Spirituality
  • Considering Diversity in the Extant Research on Young Children’s Spirituality

Education Young Children and Spirituality
Anita Mortlock
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0281


The term ‘spirituality’ is notoriously challenging to define, partly because it is reliant on translating inner feelings and experiences into words or other modes of expression, which will be interpreted in a multitude of ways depending on the audience’s own inner spiritual and cultural landscape. In describing spiritual concepts, we are reduced to using terminology such as ‘self-transcendent,’ ‘sacred,’ ‘awe-inspiring,’ or ‘connecting’ as we attempt to communicate ethereal experiences and beliefs. The difficulties with expressing spirituality are further compounded when applying the notion to young children. Typically, when we refer to ‘young children’ we mean children aged from birth to eight years. What then, is spirituality for this age group? The extant studies about young children’s spirituality are interested in how young children operate holistically. This makes an extremely important contribution as the spiritual dimension can be lacking in many studies about holism in which spirituality might be conflated with culture or well-being. Scholars of children’s spirituality contemporaneously understand this age group to primarily experience the world (and therefore potentially spiritual experiences) though their bodies. As such, readers are reliant on those scholars’ observations and interpretations of when and how children experience reverence and wonderment, and even the divine, based on young children’s nonverbal expression as much as what they say. Descriptive accounts are frequently the primary source of data and are often the only mechanism a reader can use to assess the credibility of a researcher’s claims. This makes for a field of research that is not without its challenges. A further challenge is untangling spirituality from religion or religious practice and understanding them each as constructs that are often interwoven but that can exist without the other. The intent in the present review brings together literature that has attempted to address the sticky terrain of children’s spirituality with three primary foci, which are (1) spirituality as distinct from religion, (2) young children as those aged eight years old or younger, and (3) enough descriptive detail for the reader to probe the authors’ assertions about children’s spirituality. While there are considerably more sources addressing spirituality in publication than what is represented here, there is a paucity which foregrounds these three factors. A final note is that two significant themes have not been addressed here: (1) ecospirituality and children’s relationships to nature, and (2) young children’s spiritual development. While many of the articles in the present review refer to these two themes, they have not been special foci as they are thoroughly addressed in a separate Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies article “Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence” by W. George Scarlett.

General Overviews

General overviews of young children’s spirituality frequently situate the topic within wider contexts and therefore can be described as sociocultural or social constructivist in nature. The articles Adams, et al. 2016; Mata-McMahon 2015; and Champagne 2003 provide rare overviews that are exclusive to young children. Several books or book chapters are presented: de Souza, et al. 2016; Hart 2003; Hart 2005; King and Boyatzis 2015; and Scarlett 2006. Finally, for a further overview, the journal, International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, is included. While the latter sources are not exclusive to young children, they offer the reader information that is useful for making sense of young children’s spiritually in the context of specific places, spaces, and times. The authors resist common definitions for spirituality in order to preserve diversity and avoid a checklist approach; thus contextual knowledge is crucial to our nuanced understandings. Notwithstanding, a common language is essential if we are to discuss children’s spirituality with any depth of understanding; therefore, the encyclopedia Dowling and Scarlett 2006 is a useful inclusion.

  • Adams, Kate, Rebecca Bull, and Mary-Louise Maynes. 2016. Early childhood spirituality in education: Towards an understanding of the distinctive features of young children’s spirituality. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 24.5: 760–774.

    DOI: 10.1080/1350293X.2014.996425

    Here studies on spirituality in middle childhood are compared to those pertaining to early childhood. Relationality, connectedness, and creativity are common themes but how they are expressed differs according to age. The extant studies are critiqued as primarily upbeat while ignoring the more challenging aspects of spirituality such as making sense of nightmares.

  • Champagne, Elaine. 2003. Being a child: A spiritual child. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality 8.1: 43–53.

    DOI: 10.1080/13644360304639

    Champagne proposes three modes of being for children’s expression of theological spirituality. The sensitive mode of being relates to young children’s sensory reception and expression as a dimension of how they experience the world. The relational mode of being describes how children feel connected or interrelated with peers or adults. The third mode is existential, which pertains to children’s experience of the present, time, and space.

  • De Souza, Marian, Jane Bone, and Jacqueline Watson, eds. 2016. Spirituality across disciplines: Research and practice. New York: Springer.

    A collection of perspectives from various disciplines that discusses spirituality. While it includes multiple chapters beyond the scope of young children, it is a worthy addition because it brings together contrasting themes and understandings, making for a rich and meticulous overview.

  • Dowling, Elizabeth, and W. George Scarlett, eds. 2003. Encyclopedia of spiritual development in childhood and adolescence. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    The Encyclopedia is a useful reference for anybody interested in spiritual development and religious experience. Brief explanations of core concepts, traditions, spiritual texts, artefacts, and important figures are given and discussed. The contributors address implications of spiritual development, such as the development of morality or forgiveness. While it takes a lifespan view, there is much relevant to young children.

  • Hart, Tobin. 2003. The secret spiritual world of children: The breakthrough discovery that profoundly alters our conventional view of children’s mystical experiences. Makawao, HI: New World Library.

    The indomitable Hart brings together several years of interviews to make sense of children’s spirituality. There is guidance for adults on how to respond to challenging aspects of childhood spirituality, such as visions, and general guidance for nurturing children’s spirituality. The author makes the point that children might have a richer spiritual life than many adults, therefore are laudable teachers in their own right.

  • Hart, Tobin. 2005. Spiritual experiences and capacities of children and youth. In The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. Edited by Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Pamela E. King, Linda Wagener, and Peter L. Benson, 163–177. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Although not specific to young children, Hart outlines four domains for childhood spirituality: wonder, wondering, wisdom, relationality (between you and me). In the conclusion, he draws links between interconnectivity and children’s moral spirituality, and argues that children and adolescents have innate spiritual capacities that require special attention.

  • International Journal of Children’s Spirituality1996–.

    The journal is a response to various nations in the United Kingdom explicitly mandating educational settings to meet outcomes relating to children’s spirituality. It contains a strong focus on working with multicultural differences in perceiving children’s spiritual experiences and is dedicated to situating children’s spirituality within a wider discourse pertaining to well-being. While the remit of the journal includes older children, there are useful articles that pertain to young children.

  • King, Pamela, and Chris Boyatzis. 2015. Religious and spiritual development. In Handbook of child psychology and developmental science. Vol. 3, Socioemotional processes. Edited by Michael E. Lamb and Richard M. Lerner, 975–1021. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    Addressing childhood and adolescence, this chapter includes excellent descriptions of various theoretical positions on spirituality. Discussion is provided on which aspects of spirituality might be harmful to young people as well as those which are connecting. A reciprocal approach between children and adults is recommended.

  • Mata, Jennifer. 2015. Spiritual experiences in early childhood education: Four kindergarteners, one classroom. New York: Routledge.

    The author gives a comprehensive overview of the extant research into young children’s spirituality before arriving at a well-honed yet nonconfining definition. The book includes the voices of four children and muses on the implications for teachers. Care is taken to describe the research strategies in depth.

  • Mata-McMahon, Jennifer. 2015. Reviewing the research in children’s spirituality (2000–2015): Proposing a pluricultural approach. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality 21.2: 140–152.

    DOI: 10.1080/1364436X.2016.1186611

    The author notes that few studies use children or adolescents as their main participants; instead adults’ perceptions of children’s spirituality are reported. Further studies are needed about cultural-spiritual diversity. The studies specific to children aged three to eight years old showed that they were attentive to spiritual matters, engaged in spiritual meaning making, and that these behaviors contributed to their resilience.

  • Scarlett, W. George. 2006. Toward a developmental analysis of religious and spiritual development. In Handbook of spiritual development in childhood and adolescence. Edited by Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Pamela E. King, Linda Wagener, and Peter L. Benson, 21–33. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    In the first section, this chapter provides a comprehensive collection of definitions for spirituality-related terms. Next, an array of topics is covered—for example, differences in faith and belief are discussed, and the spiritual child movement is described and analyzed. The use of theoretical paradigms is deft.

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