“I do it! I do it BY MYSELF!” 

It’s a cry we often hear from young children, desperate to be independent and master skills. It’s something my husband and I chose to intentionally nurture when our children were young, especially as they are only 18 months apart in age. I remember daughter number one coming into the room wearing loads of my socks, so chuffed with herself for having managed to get them on “all by myself”. 

When it comes to nurturing faith with under- 5s, it’s helpful to think about how to make faith practical and hands-on. The word often used for this is ‘kinaesthetic’, which means tactile learning, where instead of them watching and listening, we invite them to take part. 

For me this is fundamental to all faith sharing, whatever age. I don’t want you to just watch me or listen to what I say. I want to share with you the experience of faith. This is why whenever I am asked to speak, be it a workshop with ten people, 20 families or hundreds in an auditorium, I’m always looking for ways to make it a hands-on experience for the ‘audience’. I know that when we do things, we are far more likely to remember them and to repeat them! 

This model is one you can spot all through the Bible, from the very physical sacrifice system in Leviticus, to the laying on of hands in the New Testament. All the regular acts of worship in the tabernacle and temple were physical events loaded with spiritual meaning. And, of course, there’s Passover, a huge, hands-on festival. 

When God tells his people to share their faith with their children in Deuteronomy 6:6-9, he speaks about binding his word on foreheads and on the door posts of homes, something which orthodox Jews still do. 

And then there’s sacraments of baptism and communion, both of which use simple elements – water, bread, wine – to bring us into a deeper spiritual connection with God. We come close to God not by listening to someone talk about them or watching them do something with them, but by taking part, by touching and being touched by them. 

We are whole beings! Our religious history has sometimes suggested our soul and body are separate, but biblical accounts very much assume that we are whole beings, with different parts of our being, but all interconnected. 

Much of the education and pedagogical literature points to using touch as a key part of learning, especially with under-5s. As Maria Montessori said: “What the hand does, the mind remembers.” In a Montessori classroom, all the things they wish a child to learn are given for them to do practically. 

I love the idea that this is how a child can learn and grow in faith. The Godly Play approach takes many aspects of Montessori education and applies them to spiritual learning. However, officially Godly Play is aimed at children aged over 3, and certainly the spoken wondering is a lot easier to navigate when children are older than 5. However, children can wonder without words (as can adults) and, as with all things, they learn through play. 

I used the Godly Play Bible stories with both my own children and those in a secular nursery setting. 

I was delighted to find how well they responded to them. I made sure all the pieces used to tell the story were safe for under-5s, and let them take and hold them as I told the story, not something done in a traditional Godly Play setting. I found by holding the pieces the children stayed engaged with the story, and were happy to give them back and re-form the collection as I concluded the story. 

The part they were most adept at was the creative, open-ended response time which forms the largest time segment of a Godly Play session. Under-5s are complete naturals at using any materials to play as a way of processing their learning, thinking and response to any story. They do this in a way which most adults cannot, mixing materials and carefully creating things with their hands in response to what their mind and spirit is pondering. They cannot explain it to you, but when you watch, it is delightful! 

One year, I went into my children’s nursery to share the Christmas story. I used the Godly Play holy family story, which tells the story using a beautiful, hand-carved nativity set, where you hear about each character and their part in the story in turn. At the end, the children, aged 3 and 4, were invited one at a time to choose what they would like to play with (this is known as ‘work’ in Godly Play, as with Montessori, who considered children’s play to be their work). One child, who I’ll call Alex, had found it really difficult to sit still and listen to the story (which isn’t very unusual or abnormal at this age), but afterwards he went straight for the wooden construction materials to build. He was quite a ‘cool child’, and had a little following, whom he engaged in using building tools, saws, hammers and so on, to assist with his construction. As he began, he came over to the nativity scene and carefully picked up baby Jesus in the manger and placed him in the middle of his construction zone. They then proceeded to build a really tall tower, so tall they had to stand on a chair to put the top bricks on. I watched, curious, waiting for the crash as they toppled their tower in that glorious moment which always follows tower-building. But it never came. Instead, Alex worked with his ‘team’ to carefully deconstruct the tower brick by brick, until the baby was revealed in the bottom, then carefully replaced among his family. As I watched, it made me think: “He’s building the Christ child a cathedral!” This fidgety child really seemed to have absorbed the specialness of this baby, and wanted to respond by creating a building for him. How delighted God must have been as he looked on from heaven! 

So, what can we do to help under-5s grow in their spiritual life and connection with God? 

  1. Use objects and actions in story and liturgy (formal or otherwise), objects to hold, actions to join in with. Think of ways to use your five senses. Diddy Disciples (a resource for those working with under-5s by Sharon Moughtin-Mumby, SPCK) has some wonderful songs with actions for various prayers, including the grace.
  2. Provide open-ended resources for them to play with as a response without being worried about what they do and how / if it links with the story. This could include things such as small-world play, dressing up for role play, treasure boxes and construction toys, such as Duplo. 
  3. Step back, watch, listen and allow yourself to be invited in if they choose to involve you. Don’t take loads of pictures – remember to respect the privacy of the people responding to God at work in them, just as you would if they were adults.