In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Socio-cultural Perspectives on Children's Spirituality

  • Introduction
  • Defining and Describing Spirituality
  • The Relationship between Religion and Children’s Spirituality
  • What Children’s Spiritual Development or Growth Entails
  • Approaches to Researching Children’s Spirituality
  • Specific Features of Children’s Spirituality
  • Children’s Rights, Agency, and Voice
  • The Importance of Culture and Traditions in How Children’s Identities are Formed
  • Social and Cultural Factors That Affect Children’s Spiritual Growth
  • Barriers to Children Manifesting Their Spirituality and to Their Spiritual Growth
  • Spaces and Environments to Nurture Children’s Spiritual Growth
  • Experiences, Activities, and Programs Designed to Nurture Children’s Spirituality

Childhood Studies Socio-cultural Perspectives on Children's Spirituality
Tony Eaude
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0256


Much of the research on children’s spirituality is more individualistic than sociocultural, drawing mostly on psychology and emphasizing children’s individual, inner worlds. Most research has been conducted by “Western” scholars, though work from other cultures and traditions and feminist and postmodernist theory has helped to ensure that research takes more account of sociocultural considerations. Approaches based on sociology and anthropology have brought different, valuable perspectives. While this bibliography tries to identify sociocultural research, the boundary is not always clear-cut. Despite numerous attempts to define spirituality, especially in relation to children, its meaning remains contested, fluid, and often paradoxical. These difficulties are exacerbated by the language used, often presupposing a particular view or slipping between different meanings. Since spirituality has its roots in “spirit,” some literature emphasizes what is “non-material,” though others challenge this. While spirituality has traditionally been seen as tethered exclusively to religion, this has changed recently, especially in terms of children. Greater social and cultural diversity, secularization, and the decline of religious affiliation in many industrialized countries has led to a growing interest in inclusive approaches and a view of spirituality as universal. However, there is usually a recognition that how spirituality is manifested varies depending both on the child and his or her background, culture, and environment. Children’s spirituality is frequently linked to morality, beliefs, and values—and to well-being, rights, agency, and “voice.” Within education, “spiritual” is often seen as referring to a dimension other than the academic and cognitive, but most research argues against binaries and for a more holistic approach. There is some consensus that children’s spirituality should be seen as a process, rather than something reified or fixed. Using a variety of metaphors—such as health, development, growth, and journey—helps to describe aspects of what this process entails. The looseness of definition means that writing related to children’s spirituality sometimes crosses disciplinary boundaries in intriguing ways. Much of the research cited does not fit neatly into one section. Several edited books referred to contain a range of chapters, only some of which refer to children’s spirituality. While the International Journal of Children’s Spirituality contains much more than can be cited here, researchers interested in children’s spirituality from a sociocultural perspective need to be cautious about some published work of questionable quality and look beyond the literature explicitly about spirituality, drawing on a range of different disciplines and journals.

Defining and Describing Spirituality

Defining spirituality and, therefore, how to make provision to nurture it has always been, and remains, an area of dispute. The understanding of what spirituality means tends to reflect the writer’s society, culture, or background. Since the aspects studied—and the results—often depend on the researcher’s understanding of spirituality, it is helpful when authors indicate how they understand it. There are too many definitions to include here, but Wright 2000 and edited collections such as King 2001 and de Souza, et al. 2006 all contain various examples, though the King volume is less focused on children. Priestley 1996 argues that spirituality should be described rather than defined, since to define it is limiting. Priestley 2000 cautions against the idea of spiritual “development,” since this suggests that the process follows an even, linear pathway, as with physical and cognitive development, advocating instead the metaphor of “growth.” This reflects similar criticisms of stage-related models such as Fowler’s on faith and Kohlberg’s on moral development. Some researchers are either wary or skeptical about the very idea of children’s spirituality, though these tend to be a critique of a particular conception or approach. Lambourn 1996 argues that spirituality does not describe anything that cannot be covered by other concepts. In contrast, many writers see the spiritual dimension of a child, or education or health, as integrating other aspects, especially those who are critical of adverse cultural influences or provision—for instance, seeing education as “soulless.” Educational policy in England and Wales emphasizes spiritual, moral, social, and cultural (SMSC) development, linking spiritual to other overlapping dimensions. Ofsted’s School Inspection Handbook, while relating only to England, includes a summary of how provision for pupil’s spiritual development should be understood by inspectors and practitioners. Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (RSA) 2014 provides a useful short summary of key issues related to SMSC. Other jurisdictions use different terminology or omit the word “spiritual.” Among the writings that explores children’s spirituality from a philosophical perspective are Carr 1996 and Webster 2004. Carr focuses mainly on conceptions and traditions of spirituality and relates this to children and young people rather than seeking to establish what is distinctive about children and their spirituality. Webster uses an existential framework to argue for a holistic and inclusive approach.

  • Carr, D. “Rival Conceptions of Spiritual Education.” Journal of Philosophy of Education 30.2 (1996): 159–177.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9752.1996.tb00389.x

    An article that sets out to provide greater analytical clarity as to what is specific to the spiritual aspects of education, as opposed to religious or moral aspects, by examining different conceptions of what is involved, based on a philosophical approach. Carr reaches the much-contested conclusion that spirituality is linked so closely to religious traditions that to understand it in secular terms is inappropriate.

  • de Souza. M., K. Engebretson, G. Durka, R. Jackson, and A. McGrady, eds. International Handbook of the Religious, Moral and Spiritual Dimensions in Education. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2006.

    A collection of 96 chapters in two parts. Part 1 has three sections: Philosophical/Theoretical, Religious Education and Debates about Plurality and Culture, and Conversations about Religious Education; and Part 2 has two sections: Educational Policy and Pedagogical Implications. Many of the chapters focus mainly on religious education, but several are based on, and contribute to, a broader understanding of spirituality in education, especially those in Part 2.

  • King, U., ed. Spirituality and Society in the New Millennium. Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2001.

    An edited collection that recognizes how the traditional understanding of spirituality (as connected to Christian values and beliefs) is changing, with sections called Tradition and Change, Health and Education, and Culture and Politics. While useful in sociocultural terms, only a few chapters focus on children.

  • Lambourn, D. “‘Spiritual’ Minus ‘Personal-Social’ =?: A Critical Note on an Empty Category.” In Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child. Edited by R. Best, 150–158. London: Cassell, 1996.

    A chapter which argues that “spiritual” is an unhelpful concept in education given that its meaning is so contested and uncertain, and that what it involves can be subsumed within other categories, such as personal and social.

  • Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education). School Inspection Handbook. London: Ofsted, 2022.

    The School Inspection Handbook, which refers only to schools in England, includes a brief summary of what Ofsted believes provision for the spiritual development of pupils should entail, as part of the broader concept of spiritual, moral, social, and cultural (SMSC) education—and therefore what inspectors should be evaluating. This summary has changed to some extent with periodic revisions of the Handbook.

  • Priestley, J. Spirituality in the Curriculum. Frinton-on-Sea, UK: Hockerill Educational Foundation, 1996.

    A seminal lecture exploring the historic use of “spirituality,” especially in education, arguing that “spiritual” should be seen more broadly than “religious” and as dynamic, involving being and becoming, otherworldly, communal, and holistic. Priestley advocates using fluid metaphors, and suggests that the curriculum should be based more on how children learn and how to encourage a view of knowledge as constantly changing.

  • Priestley, J. “Moral and Spiritual Growth.” In Childhood Studies—A Reader in Perspectives of Childhood. Edited by J. Mills and R. Mills, 113–128. London: Routledge, 2000.

    A chapter that critiques the idea of spiritual “development,” since the process is less linear than in physical or cognitive development and tends to assume that progression to a new stage entails leaving behind an earlier one. Priestley suggests “growth” as a more appropriate metaphor and considers and refers to traditions of empirical research in moral and spiritual development that support this argument.

  • Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (RSA). Schools with Soul: A New Approach to Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education. London: RSA, 2014

    A report with a concise and helpful summary of what SMSC involves in an English context, and some practical implications. It highlighted several years ago that SMSC was in danger of moving to the margins of all but very confident schools. It discusses vision and goals, the learning environment and the curriculum, and identifies a range of subjects and areas of school life where schools can “bring SMSC to life.”

  • Webster, R. Scott. “An Existential Framework for Spirituality.” International Journal of Children’s Spirituality 9.1 (2004): 7–19.

    DOI: 10.1080/1364436042000200799

    A theoretical article drawing on existentialist philosophy and presenting a framework for spirituality embracing religious and nonreligious views. This implies a holistic and inclusive approach where provision is available to, and appropriate for, all students, and suggests that spirituality should be seen as intrinsic to how education is conceived. Individuals are seen as relational, culturally embedded meaning-makers, with some element of autonomy and freedom to choose.

  • Wright, A. Spirituality and Education. London: Routledge Falmer, 2000.

    An academic but accessible book that summarizes key thinking on spirituality in relation to education, with sections on The Landscape of Spirituality, Contemporary Spiritual Education, and Towards a Critical Spiritual Education. The author covers a wide field, recognizing problems of definition and dilemmas, to identify pedagogical implications and argue for an approach that encourages critical approaches to controversial issues.

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