“Childhood is a time of wonder and awe. The world is sensed through fresh eyes and ears. ... The capacity for being lost in the moment — absorption — is a capacity that is natural for children and necessary for experiencing a mystical moment. During such a moment, boundaries blur between me and “not me”.
— Tobin Hart, The Secret Spiritual World of Children
It is a precious gift and a sacred calling to be a spiritual companion to a child. As a companion to a child's life with God, one never becomes the expert in the arena but rather the opposite happens. The more I have immersed myself in the study of childhood spirituality and the more I have been blessed to get to experience first-hand glimpses into the souls of children, my appreciation has grown towards the beautiful and mysterious ways how children and God touch each other.
Being a praying friend to children has been one the greatest joys in my life. It has formed my image of God, myself and children unlike anything else. And while children’s lives of prayer largely remain mysterious and full of wonderment to me, my faith in seeing ways through which children connect with God have expanded greatly over the years.
In this article I will share a few principles that have helped me to accompany children in their lives with God. And finally I will share three fun, simple practices to try with children at home or in larger community.
My encouragement to you is to reflect on your own childhood experiences of God, self and others as you read. Welcome memories, felt-senses and images that come to mind. Here are a few tips when praying with little ones (or anyone, really!)
1. Go Outside
An overwhelming body of research shows that most children's earliest and most profound experiences of God or "the Transcendent" have been recorded to take place in nature. (Richard Louv et al). As we enable the child to experience nature and the natural world (even if it’s just through indoor plants, collected sticks and rocks, or family pets, on some days) we let children read the first book of God (creation). Children and adults naturally are drawn to encounter their Maker in and through nature. Being in nature nurtures our wonder for all of life and God in the world. Moreover, I wonder if there ever has been a more urgent time in history for outdoor play than now? Due to the health crisis even many educational institutions and worshipping communities are looking for outdoor options for gathering. Why don’t we as spiritual families too embrace the invitation to return to the woods, forests, parks and beaches as a natural habitat for prayer and worship with children?
Richard Louv writes in his book ‘Vitamin N’ the following, “Take a break. Look at the clouds. Listen to the wind. Let the birds do the heavy lifting.” What a lovely reminder of how God wants to meet us in and through his creation. When we, and the little ones, feel tired and heavy-hearted by the complexities of our lives and this broken world, the birds of the air remind us of Jesus' words, "Are you not of more value than they?" (Matthew 6:26).
2. Engage the Senses
Studies have also shown that being outdoors helps children to awaken their senses and improve their awareness of their environment. (Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods.) Children explore the world through their senses. This is how they naturally learn and make sense of their environment. It is no different when it comes to their friendship with God. When I pray with children, I try to encourage a full range of sensorial experiences and sensory engagement. When we ask curious questions such as, “What smells or sounds make you think of God?” or “I wonder if you wanted to show God how you feel inside by drawing a picture or using watercolors?” we honor and nurture children's natural ways of encountering God in and through their physical bodies.
3. Connect through Play
Play is children’s native language and the way through which they give and receive love. Child-parent attachment specialists encourage parents to build safety, trust and connection with their children through play. (Karyn B. Purvis, et al.) God made children, and surely, God too knows how to “speak the language of play”. As you observe children’s play, you learn what their natural, preferred ways of connecting are. Consider those to be and become their gateways to prayer. For example, children who enjoy making and creating things, most likely will naturally enjoy praying through arts and crafts. We honor children’s unique developmental gifts and needs when we are willing to “relearn” the language of play alongside them and join them in play as spiritual companions. This communicates the important message that they matter just the way they are right now to us and to God. Children don’t need to become “mini adults” in order to be and speak with God. In return our own spirituality is nurtured as we re-engage, led by children, in sacred play.
4. Embrace Mystery
Finally, as I wrote earlier, there is a lot of mystery around the ways God and children come to connect and share their hearts with each other. While we can be eager to get peeks into children’s lives with God, we won’t ever fully come to know or understand them. My encouragement to adults who accompany children in prayer is to be faithful in our own secret lives with God. Let us remember our childhood faith, and cultivate curiosity, faith and wonder in order to make space for the praying children among us in all of the sacredness that they deserve. Rebecca Nye, a theologian and researcher in childhood spiritual writes pointedly,
“We need to take a generous, trusting attitude to what may constitute prayerful activity for children. It may look as if a child is just doodling or idly rolling balls of play dough or gazing blankly out of the window... but in these moments God and the child may be in deep communion.” – Rebecca Nye, Children's Spirituality
3 Playful Nature Prayer Practices
Here are three simple listening prayer practices to engage in with children. I encourage you to first try them on your own, and only after that invite children to join you. Allow your own inner child to guide you and awaken you to find God as you prayerfully play together.
Practice #1: "I Spy... God" Game & Journal
Play “I Spy with My Little Eye…” like you would spy for a color, something shiny etc. but instead of those spy for God! Remember, God is good, true (just) and beautiful. What do you see that is one or more of those things? What do you hear that makes you think of God? We might find God in a smile of a stranger, a beautiful sunset or a favorite bird song. Use all senses (taste, smell, hear, see, touch) and spend some time “spying for God”.
This is a good game to play over a longer period of time, and it awakens us and the child to the wonder of God revealing Himself to us through so many things every day when we simply start looking for Him.
I also encourage you to create mini journals or “I Spy God” books where you can draw or write your findings. This habit of sharing and talking about all the ways how you have “spied God” during the day could become a lovely bedtime rhythm or an exciting part of the weekly children's worship circle time.
Tip: A lovely companion for this practice is Glenys Nellist's picture book 'Little Mole Finds Hope'.
Practice #2: Nature Treasures
Go outside for a walk or play in your backyard. Any amount of outdoor space will do, and if you have to stay indoors you can look for pieces of nature even inside the house (fruit, pets, flowers, plants…)
Wonder about and pay attention to your surroundings. Remember that God is with you. After a while, notice what you see that you think is beautiful or interesting. Get closer to your nature finding and look at it closely. If you can, touch, smell, and perhaps (if it’s safe) even taste it. Become quiet and notice what you feel inside your body as you look at it. How does it make you feel? How does God feel when He looks at it? Together with God, wonder what it might say to you if it could talk. What may God say to you through it?
Maybe you want to bring your nature treasure home with you and place it in a special place for you. Or you can draw it at home if you cannot bring it with you.
The youngest members of the family will enjoy making special toilet roll binoculars for their treasure hunt and use a magnifying glass as they listen, look and wonder closely.
Practice #3: Breath Prayer Stones
Settle down and close your eyes. Take a deep breath in and out. Imagine God blowing His breath of life and love into your nostrils. Take another big deep breath. Then imagine God asking you, “what do you want me to do for you? Silently, in your heart tell God in a word or a few words what you need or hope for. Then use this little prayer and repeat it to the rhythm of your own breath. For example, “God, help my brother and I to be nice to each other ” or “God, heal my grandma”. (Examples of Breath Prayers can be found here.)
After a while find a smooth rock and paint or draw your breath prayer on the rock. You can again place this prayer stone somewhere special in your room or home, so that it can remind you to pray your prayer again later.
Many blessings to you as you playfully & faithfully accompany children on your shared pilgrimage. May you in return have the grace to welcome the gift of finding yourself accompanied by children on this joyful journey.
A Better Normal: These Are the Pandemic Life Changes Parents Want to Keep By Amy Joyce, Ellen McCarthy and Washington Post Staff. Originally published April 20, 2021
'The Last Child in the Woods''and 'Vitamin N' by Richard Louv
Spiritual Conversations with Children: Listening to God Together by Lacy Finn Borgo
The Religious Potential of the Child: Experiencing Scripture and Liturgy With Young Children by Sofia Cavalletti
Children's Spirituality: What it is and Why it Matters by Rebecca Nye
The Secret Spiritual World of Children by Tobin Hart
Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross
The Connected Child by Karyn B. Purvis, et al.
Kutsu Companions' Pinterest Board "Whole-Person Prayer"