Study Materials for Religious Education

Section 05: Interpreting Children's spirituality: Implications for primary school religious education
Some educators consider that children in Catholic primary schools are very interested in religious education and in religious practices, and they participate enthusiastically – and they think that the relative disinterest in religion and religious education displayed by many adolescents suggests that there has been a decline in children's religious spirituality as they progress through Catholic schooling. This section looks into this issue critically suggesting that the above judgment may be too simple and that the real situation is quite complex. This topic has significant implications for primary school religious education.

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Brief overview of content of this section

One of the conundrums that religious educators face and which needs to be unravelled is an understanding of evident changes in the interest in and engagement in religious education of primary school children when they become adolescents. Much of the writing about the spirituality of children in primary school religious education gives the impression that the children are interested, attentive, and enthusiastic about religion and religious education. They readily participate in prayer liturgy. But if you talk to those who teach in and all your 10 students you hear a very different story -- that there is often an overt disinterest in religion, disengagement from classroom religious education, and not much interest in prayer or liturgy. So what has happened?

Are the primary school children very religious and somehow this dies out as they become adolescents? What causes their religiosity and spirituality to apparently decline? Is it that they go from good teaching at primary level to poorer teaching in the secondary? Or is it that they were not taught well enough at primary and the interest in religion does not survive?

This section tries to look into this conundrum and try to make more sense of what has happened in the transition from childhood to adolescence and why it has happened. And the core question to be evaluated is: Does the spirituality of children who are in Catholic primary schools decline as they move into Catholic secondary schools?

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Children's spirituality (Introduction)
Children's spirituality as it is pertinent to primary school religious education
The contrast with children's spirituality: Youth spirituality and secondary religious education
Interpreting the development of children's spirituality
Does spirituality decline as children become adolescents?
Newborn baby spirituality??
What is the principal starting point for interpreting children's spirituality?
'At home' with God: Children growing up in religious homes
Growing up in the 'divine absence' and hearing about God for the first time: In a relatively non-religious home
Contrasts in spirituality between children growing up in homes with a religious spirituality and homes with a secular, non-religious spirituality
Interpreting the progression from children's to adolescent spirituality
Do relatively secular primary school children have a school uniform religiosity??
Some implications for primary school religious education where children hear about God for the first time

Children's Spirituality

The discussion of contemporary spiritualities in Sections 3 and 4 is pertinent to adolescents and adults. The question can then be asked: Does this apply equally to children's spirituality? At first sight, as far as recent educational writings about children's spirituality is concerned, the answer would appear to be No.

A lot of the research literature suggests that children are naturally very spiritual -- and if anything, this is a relatively 'pure' spirituality that is perhaps 'contaminated' as they get older. If this is the case, then it poses problems about the congruence of approaches to religious education at primary/pre-school and secondary school levels. Is the difference between children's and adolescent spirituality really significant? If so, what causes the difference and what are the educational implications?

Firstly, attention will be given to children spirituality; then questions about the potential difference between children's and adolescent spirituality – as far as primary school religious education is concerned – will be explored. It is beyond the scope here to examine children's spirituality in detail.

Children's spirituality as it is pertinent to primary school religious education

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,  (1-4)
. . . . trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!  (65-67)

Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
… the vision splendid. .
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day. (68-77)

William Wordsworth, 1804. Ode. Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

Wordsworth's Romantic notion of childhood spirituality presumed that they had a spirituality with God before birth. And this was then thought to be negatively influenced by human experience. Later, some attention will be given to this romantic notion of childhood spirituality which seems to have influenced some of the research and writings on this topic.

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Research writings on children's spirituality: Within the last decade, the extensive literature on children's spirituality in books and academic articles paints a positive picture of children's spiritual development both at early childhood and primary school age levels – to name only a few selected references: Adams et al. 2008; Hay & Nye, 2006; Hyde, 2008; Berryman, 2009; Nye, 2009; Grajczonek, 2011. Also notable are the articles in the International Journal of Children's Spirituality published in the United Kingdom.

Collectively, this literature discusses the following aspects:- spirituality in terms of connectedness to self, others, world and the transcendent; wonder and awe as childlike expressions of spirituality; development and exercise of the imagination; story telling; experiential ‘hands on' learning; constructivist learning theory with children as active agents in their own spiritual learning (children having their own ‘voice' in learning and not just being passive receivers of beliefs from adults); learning through play.

Nye (2009) summarised this thinking under the acronym SPIRIT – space, process, imagination, relationship, intimacy and trust. This discourse makes a valuable contribution to exploring and understanding the natural ‘human' dimension to children's spirituality in psychological terms. The interpretation of what might be called a basic human spirituality in children complements and informs thinking about religious development and the growth of a personal religious faith (E.g. Dillen, 2007; Roehlkepartain et al. 2006; Sullivan, 2011). The discourse readily gives an impression, that as far as fundamentals are concerned, children's spirituality is not problematic. They are as spiritual as they ought to be. It could be expected that the literature of Australian Catholic diocesan and school Religious Education documents, where they are concerned with children's spiritual development, have a stronger focus on personal faith, theological content and desired religious practice; but it is beyond our scope to analyse this literature here.

This discourse has informed pedagogies developed specifically for children's religious education. For example: Godly play- Berryman, 2009; Hyde, 2009. Catechesis of the Good shepherd (an earlier approach. Cavalletti, 1979; 2002; Cavalletti et al. 1995; Hyde, 2004); KITE (another earlier method. Stead, 1994)  Deep Learning- White et al. 2003. These and other pedagogies are supported by a range of curriculum materials, E.g. Berryman & Strong, 2007; Healy et al. 2004; O'Brien & White, 2004; Ryan & Grajczonek, 2007.

In the light of these developments, one could surmise that the state of play in children's religious education at primary school level is healthy. Anecdotal evidence from early childhood and primary school religious educators, would suggest that this optimism is prominent in practitioners, notwithstanding the acknowledged perennial need for further improvement. Children's religious educators appear to enjoy their work; generally, they find children easy and agreeable to work with; and they consider that children are usually responsive and enthusiastic in their engagement with religious education. There appear to be no research findings that are discordant with this picture of children's spirituality and religious education. While there have been a number of informative recent Australian research studies of the views of secondary teachers in Catholic schools (Finn, 2011; Kenyon, 2010; Wanden, 2011.) to date there has been no comparable systematic study of primary school religion teachers' understandings of the nature, purposes and practice of religious education.

The optional material here touches on three aspects of the psychology of children's learning that has some bearing on their spirituality – the place of imagination in learning, the place of play in learning.

Optional additional reading for those with an interest in children's spirituality.

Click here or the icon on the left for some notes on play-based learning and learning through the imagination

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The CONTRAST with children's spirituality: Youth spirituality and secondary religious education

In somewhat stark contrast, the picture of adolescent/young adult spirituality and their disinterest in religious education is very different. As discussed in the previous section, studies of youth spirituality over the last decade show that there is an increasing prominence of a relatively non-religious, secular spirituality. While there are still young people who are overtly religious, a significant proportion have a spirituality that is subjective, individualistic, relatively secular, eclectic, questioning and self-reliant. A general summary of contemporary youth spirituality was presented in the table at the end of Section 4. Even where they retain some sense of denominational religious identity, their religion may have little tangible influence on their spirituality. And as Hughes (2007) noted, religion tends to be regarded as an optional spiritual resource, and as an area of natural epistemological uncertainty such that individuals make up their own minds as to what it can mean and how it might or might not help them.

This sort of contemporary secular spirituality is not just a characteristic of youth. It fits the description of many adults – including a significant number who send their children to church primary schools. Perhaps too it describes aspects of spirituality of some staff in church schools.

For those who teach religion to adolescents in church schools, there is not the same glowing positive picture that tends to be painted by primary school religious educators. While some secondary students are responsive and engaged by religious education, most anecdotal evidence suggests that the opposite is more common. Teaching religion in the secondary school has been described as a health hazard (Kenyon, 2010; Rossiter, 2010B). These teenagers may not be openly antagonistic to religious education, but they are often patiently and enduringly disinterested, even when they judge that it can be helpful for them personally. Teachers' awareness of this situation was also identified in the research of Finn (2011) and Wanden (2011).

Interpreting the development of children's spirituality

Does spirituality decline as children become adolescents?: After reading the literature referred to above, one might begin to wonder: “Are we teaching different species in primary and secondary religious education?” While acknowledging that different content/pedagogies related to the distinctive spiritualities of children and adolescents are needed, it is equally important to avoid creating an unrealistic divide between the two. What is needed is perspective that shows how the two spiritualities are part of a single continuum of personal/spiritual development, always influenced by the contemporary socio-cultural environment. And religious education practice needs review in the light of such a combined perspective.

The first issue to be addressed is what might be called the Wordsworth Romantic myth of childhood spirituality which has influenced thinking about children since the emergence of romanticism in the 18th century. Wordsworth's Ode on Intimations of immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood suggested that children seem to have an innate spirituality related to nature and the transcendent, which is gradually eroded as they grow older, particularly in the relatively harsh social environment of the newly industrialised and urbanised Britain of Wordsworth's time. This same theme coloured the research of Edward Robinson in the Oxford Religious Experience Research Centre in the 1970s. This was evident in his book The original vision (1977) and it is still evident in some parts of the contemporary discourse on children's spirituality and religious education. For example:

Children tend to be more open to spirituality than adults because they draw upon their nonverbal powers of communication, whereas adults rely more upon their abilities to use words and language, which often cannot express the spiritual. (Hyde 2009  p. 39)

Further example of a Journal article that illustrates the adoption of the Romantic notion of children's innate spirituality

Spirituality of the new born baby (??)

Surr, J. (2012). Peering into the clouds of glory : Explorations of a newborn child's spirituality. International Journal of Children's Spirituality , 17(1), 77-87.
My professional view is that this material is quite unrealistic and builds up illusionary views of a baby's spirituality. If you are interested in reading the whole article and judging for yourself, contact the lecturer and it wil be sent on to you.

Abstract of the Article:

This article seeks to understand spirituality in newborn children through an exploration of Wordsworth's clouds of glory. First the article explores adult reactions reflecting a newborn child's spirituality. Objective manifestations of spirituality in newborn children, such as love, presence and connection, wonder and meaning, and faith, are explored next. Third, in the light of the perspectives developed in the first two sections an attempt is made to describe a wider understanding of spirituality in very young children as they may experience it. Some suggestions are made in context for potentially productive avenues for contemplation, research and practice about spirituality at birth and in the early years.

William Wordsworth, English poet. (1770-1850). Wrote about a pre-existent, 'innate' spirituality in children. Influenced a Romantic view of children's spirituality

Newborn baby spirituality??

Some would consider that this is a rather naive application of the word spirituality. Would it not be more appropriate only to use the word spirituality for children when they have reached an age when they understand what a non--material spirit is, the idea of a spiritual dimension to life and the idea of the transcendent. There is no question that the birth of a child is often a significant spiritual experience for the parents. What is at issue here is the level of spirituality in the baby.

One of the problems with some of the thinking about children's spirituality is that it vaguely implies that children's spirituality is somehow more pure than that of adults, as if it were ontologically superior. It suggests that the development of rationality and language contaminates children's spirituality, whereas it is proposed that the ideal for spirituality should be an adult spirituality, towards which children's spirituality should develop – while acknowledging that the latter has an integrity and an authenticity that should not be obscured by interpreting children only in terms of miniature, immature adults. The claim that adults have a diminished capacity for non-verbal and spiritual expression is disputed. Rationality, moral judgment, wisdom and sense of responsibility – as well as non-verbal expression – are proposed as desirable and essential elements of any healthy adult spirituality.

In practice, it is natural and to be expected that many, especially parents and teachers, will lament the passing of childhood while they are not actually subscribing to the romantic myth of children's spirituality. Children in their simplicity, their vulnerability and naivety, their uninhibited and straightforward expression of feelings are naturally attractive, likeable and loveable. And usually people find adolescents and adults more problematic to deal with; most people expect that it is easier to teach children than adolescents. When adults/parents say about their young children “I wish they would not have to grow up”, this is a tender expression of their love for the distinctive childlikeness of their children at that age; but they do not literally believe that not growing up is desirable. This natural nostalgia about children and childhood should not inhibit children's growth towards adulthood by proposing an ideal for spirituality that gives an impression of wanting to prolong childhood.

However, the reverse – accelerating adult development in children – is a more significant problem. One example: The individualistic theme of constructing your own meaning and identity has increasingly been applied by adults and teachers to children (E.g., in the religious education theory of Erricker & Erricker, 2000). And by implication they are being asked to take on what is a more adult task. Rather, it is more natural for them to accept relatively unquestioningly the meanings in life proposed by parents and community agencies E.g. their religion, until they are old enough and wise enough to judge and decide for themselves.

So it is proposed that there is not a natural decline in spirituality as children grow into adolescents. But what will need further attention is the apparent decline in responsiveness to religious education coupled with their decreasing readiness to attend to the religious meanings transmitted by the Church.

What is the principal starting point for interpreting children's spirituality?

The recent research literature tends to focus on children's innate spiritual capacities as the main starting point for describing and explaining childhood spirituality. Expressions of awe and wonder and the exercise of imagination are like proto-spiritual activities (E.g. in Nye, 2009). No doubt such a developmental approach is valid, and as noted above, it highlights the psychological dimension to spirituality. However, this literature seems to give little attention to the starting point that probably has most influence on children's spirituality – the primal socialisation of the pre-school child into the spiritual from parents/guardians, whether this be religious or non-religious in orientation. In other words, the operative spirituality of parents/guardians/family should be a principal reference for interpreting children's spirituality. Not to do this runs counter to both intuition and research indicating that in the earliest years, the influence of parents/guardians is both primal and dominant.

Before they get to school, young children in religious families often have a strong sense of God and of the practice of religion; while children from non-religious homes have a well-established child's version of a secular, individualistic, self-reliant spirituality. Acknowledging that many children begin school with a comfortable secular spirituality is significant in resolving the apparent conflict between children's and adolescent spirituality; it suggests that one of the most common, final, adult products – a secular individualistic spirituality – is already present in many children. It is not the product of secularisation during their adolescence.

At this point, attention will be given to the different spiritual dynamics that affect children in religious and non-religious homes.

At home' with God:  Children growing up in religious homes

Take for example, a home where the family were practicing Catholics. Very young children would readily absorb some feelings and ideas about God from family behaviour. There would be prayers each night where the child was helped to pray to God for family, pets, etc. by speaking directly to God who the family believed was listening to their prayers. The child's notion of God would develop as they acquired a capacity for abstraction to understand how God was a spirit, that is non-corporeal, who authored and sustained the universe and who knew them personally and cared for them individually. In addition, they also prayed to Jesus who was God as well as being human. In addition, crucifixes, religious pictures, and perhaps religious sculptures and small family shrines might serve as symbolic reminders and reinforcement of the family beliefs in God. Weekly visits to church would help imprint on children's consciousness the centrality of religion and religious practices – with its architecture, symbols, rituals sounds, praying and singing, all in a context of a social event in a community of like-minded believers. For young children, it is difficult to underestimate the potential religious influence of the experiential and of the physical symbols.

For a child in this situation, it is likely that when they first go to school they bring with them a familiarity with God and religion. And this fundamental orientation will affect the way they both perceive and respond to the school's religious education. It is important to note that what is written in current Catholic primary school religious education curricula presumes that this situation is the norm applying to all children.

But what of young children who grow up in a different home context where perhaps they have hardly heard the word God before they go to a Catholic school? Special attention will be given to this group firstly, because it now probably represents the majority of pupils entering Catholic primary schools and secondly, because it is considered that attention to the spiritual/religious needs of this group is central to the contemporary mission of Catholic schools – attention that does not necessarily compromise the needs of the religious children.

The religious socialisation that parents give to their children from the earliest years can have a powerful formative influence. Children are like sponges -- and they absorb the views the thinking and practices and the attitudes of their parents.

Considered the interesting example below of the child of a US evangelist. He has picked up the outward signs of his family spirituality probably before he can speak very well himself. later, in module five, you could remember this example as it also illustrates the Fowler stage to in the process of human believing – the mythic – literal stage.

Example of potent parental religious socialisation of their child

The 'Pint sized preacher' Example of the influence of early spiritual/religious socialisation. From the video documentary 'Pint sized preachers' (click). Or click the photograph. This is a short 18 minute cut from the start of the original documentary which went for an hour. No doubt this child had a religious 'training' that started quite early.

Growing up in the ‘divine absence' and hearing about God for the first time: In a relatively non-religious home

For children growing up in homes where a relatively secular, non-religious spirituality prevails, some may not hear the word God until they go to school. Or perhaps they only hear it from their parents in the form of an expression of surprise “O my God!” when something unusual happens. In her research on children's prayer, Mountain (2004, pp. 114, 141) showed that this expression sometimes confused children who wondered whether O my God was intended to be a prayer.

In contrast with the situation in a religious home, here there is a distinctive divine absence – that is, no words or behaviour that imply acknowledgment of the existence of God or of any place for God in the family's human affairs. Similarly, with religion. They may learn something about God and religion from television; but this would depend on what their TV viewing diet was. The impression that these children would absorb when they first become aware of religion is that it is a cultural phenomenon that has little if any relevance for their lives; their family gets on well without it. And it is likely that for many, they will hear about the word God for the first time when they go to their Catholic primary school. In this sense it is outside information, not primal family information, and likely to be processed like other outside information – for example, like new knowledge about their ethnic cultural identity that was not referred to in the home. And this has significant implications for content and pedagogy.

The table below summarises some of the principal differences in the spiritual environment of young children in homes that are distinctively religious and those that are not. The latter are not strictly non-religious; the parents are theists; they themselves, or one of them, may have had a church schooling and they retain some religious identification with their denomination; but they have no contact with a parish community and there is no mention or sign of God or Christianity in their way of life – their home spiritual horizon does not include God or religion. But they believe that a church schooling is desirable for their children and they are prepared to sacrifice to pay for that education. The prospect of their children's church school religious education is usually not a problem; they think it could be morally and culturally beneficial for their children or at least that it can do little harm – and it is part of the package when one chooses a church school.

Table 1. Contrasts in spirituality between children growing up in homes with a religious spirituality and homes with a secular non-religious spirituality


Distinctively religious homes

Relatively non-religious, secular homes

Place of God and religion in the home

At home with God – children growing up in a religious family with regular practice of religion at home and at church.

The divine absence – children growing up in a family with a relatively non-religious spirituality where God and religion are referred to infrequently or never.

How children experience Catholic primary school religious education

RE experienced as affirmation, support, extension and enhancement of well-established personal / family belief and religious practice; it reinforces primal religious beliefs; it gives new information about their religion; may clash with parental religious views.

RE experience involves hearing about God for the first time; experienced as new cultural knowledge that has vague and tenuous relationships with the ‘home view' of God and religion.

The nature or quality of the religious knowledge acquired from religious education

In many cases, is naturally congruent with ‘inside' family religious knowledge; acquired from teachers who represent their ‘extended religious family'; likely to be naturally affirmed at home. Where the parental religious views are fundamentalist / pentecostal / very conservative, there could be a strong clash between the religious perspective taken at school and that of the home.

Not congruent with the way in which religion fails to figure in the family social life; acquired from outsiders to the family but who nevertheless represent the cultural religious group to which the child's family nominally subscribes; tends not to be consciously rejected at home but just ‘quietly ignored'.

How the religious knowledge might relate to personal belief

May be readily and directly related to a pre-existing personal faith. May challenge the faith of those who have fundamentalist beliefs.

May or may not remain at the level of knowledge of religious heritage; may prompt personal belief; or individuals may appear to affirm belief just because they show interest and do not overtly reject what they have learned, or because they think that affirmation of belief is required of them at school.

In the non-religious family situation, children, even if they cannot articulate this at the time, will learn that if there is any spiritual dimension, then it is intimately connected with life. It would have to do with values and the moral quality of their relationships. Spirituality would not be overt but implicit in the way people acted and spoke – and hence naturally problematic to identify and interpret. They would also learn that whatever others might say about God and religious spirituality, no matter how important, their home experience would tell them that it is not something really life changing, and that it warranted little attention; it was very much in the background.

Nevertheless, the religious knowledge acquired in their school religious education would become a cultural spiritual resource, their religious heritage, that may or may not become more important in their lives later. At least they were being educated spiritually and religiously in their cultural religious tradition – something to which they had a birthright. And this is valuable in itself, and one of the key objectives in the mission of the church school. For example, the Catholic primary school should significantly extend the spiritual and religious horizons of children beyond what they would normally experience at home. Extending children's cultural horizons is one of the basic educational purposes of schools.

Young children from both religious and non-religious homes will readily accommodate to the religious world view and religious spirituality of their church school. Because they naturally tend to be eager to discover the new, they will almost always show interest in religious education just as they would in any other learning area. They will learn how to pray and participate in religious rituals and worship/mass. They will demonstrate religiosity, and this may be interpreted by their teachers as signs of personal religious faith. Equally, they can comfortably move back into the spirituality regime of their own homes whether or not this mirrors the spirituality of the school. They can accommodate to different spiritualities in different contexts, just as they can accommodate to different behavioural regimes to that of their home (E.g. those that apply when at their grandparents or when at child care).

The children of parents with a secular spirituality are in a sense child versions of the relatively non-religious, individualistic, eclectic, self-reliant spirituality described earlier (whether or not they could ever articulate this description). If this is the way they start their primary school religious education, and if this is the way they are when they leave Catholic schools a dozen years later, then there has in effect been no ‘transition to a secular spirituality' nor a ‘decline in religious spirituality' – basically that is the way they have been from start to finish, while in the interim they may have appeared to participate in, and respond to, the Catholic school's religious education.

Interpreting the Progression from children's to adolescent spirituality

As regards their participation in religious practice and religious education in the primary school, practically all the children appear to be somewhat religious, even if the spirituality of many in their home situation would not be categorised the same way. Hence the transition from primary school children's religious spirituality to the sort of non-religious spirituality and disinterest in religious education of many adolescents and young adults as described earlier is readily interpreted as a decline in spirituality. And there are different views of what are the causes:- children succumbing to prevailing secularised culture; the Catholic Church not being relevant enough to the lives of young people to retain their interest and commitment; ineffective religious education in the secondary school (Rossiter, 2010B, p. 14-15).

No doubt there is a decline in overt religiosity; and this is particularly evident in the numbers from religious homes who follow the same secularised path as those from non-religious homes. But this is not the complete story about what has happened to their spirituality. The following considerations suggest that a number of complex processes are involved.

For children from non-religious families, their basic spirituality was probably never strongly religious, even though they participated responsively in religion in the primary school. Hence the transition to adolescence has been accompanied by a falling away of the primary school religiosity that functioned like a temporary cultural overlay that was consistent with the religious orientation and identity of the school. Even to the end of their church schooling in Year 12, it is likely that pupils will retain some measure of respect for and identification with the desired religious spirituality of the school. At the end of Catholic schooling, for example, many students emerge with the same secular spirituality they absorbed as young children. Was their Catholic religious education therefore ineffective and useless?  Certainly not, because they have been educated spiritually and religiously both in their cultural religious tradition and hopefully also in terms of their basic human spirituality such that they can better respond to the spiritual and moral dimensions of life they encounter. Nevertheless, those who measure the ultimate value of Catholic schooling in terms of the numbers of past pupils who go to Mass regularly will not accept this as anything else but failure.

Everything that young children do at primary school can appear new and interesting. They are readily engaged and responsive, and this applies in religious education as much as in any other learning area. Hence it is easy to interpret their natural energy and enthusiasm in religious education as a positive religious response. They are also cooperative and ready to participate in prayer and liturgy. However, as they grow older they develop interest filters; they become more confident in discerning and choosing what interests them  specifically and what does not. And the interest in religion and religious education quickly lose out. They can readily learn how to discern what is cool from what is not; their interests can easily be swayed by groups of friends and even more so by what popular culture proposes as the sources of feel good. Note: This issue begs for critical scrutiny by students in secondary religious education.

The overt religious spirituality of primary school children would be classified in terms of Fowler's theory of faith development as vicarious and imitative (Fowler, 1981). This is not to say that it is superficial or not authentic. They readily assimilated the religious meanings and practices in the Church primary school whether or not these were congruent with their home spirituality. For those from non-religious homes, religion / religious education at school was like a second language to that spoken at home. And as they became older the need for maintaining this second language became less compelling. And by the time they leave school they have no need for it at all – in the same circumstances they were in before they went to a church school. The argument for a relevant religious education would claim that learning this second language has not just been about Christian traditions but about discerning a spiritual/moral path through life whether formally religious or not. And whether or not they use a lot of it, having this second language is valuable for them. And it is a birth right.

Do relatively secular primary school children have a school uniform religiosity??

One way of addressing the conundrum is to begin by pointing out that the variable that is being measured is the religiosity or interest in religion and religious education that children demonstrate while at school . They may well be interested, enthusiastic and inquisitive in religious education – just as they are in many of the other learning areas in the primary school curriculum. But realistically, is this an adequate measure of their religiosity or spirituality, or even of their religious faith ?

The evidence suggests that most of the children in Catholics primary schools come from reasonably secularised families. That means while there is talk and practice of religion at school, this may well be as noted above, like religion being a second language for the children. And it is not the language about religion that might be used in the home.

So it could be that many of the relatively secularised children appear to be religious and interested in religious education in primary school. But this may not be the full true picture of their real religiosity and of the real spirituality. It may be what you could call a school uniform religiosity – that is, the level of religiousness that they demonstrate when they are at school and when in school uniform. None of this may be evident once they go home and take the school uniform off, and move into their various non-school environments.

So when they become adolescents, they may naturally be less inclined to be enthusiastic about what is happening in the school in the area of religious education. They may give up on showing interest and enthusiasm and revert to the disinterest in religion and religious education that might be typical of their home. In other words, it is not been so much a decline in the spirituality of children but a decline in the school uniform religiosity which was there in the primary school, but which for many students did not have deep roots in their personal spirituality. And so when it comes to adolescence, where many other things become more prominent in their lives like sexuality, friendships, social media membership of clicks and groups etc. that the filters that come up tend to keep any potential interest in religion at arms length.

As children mature through adolescence, for many of them, their school-learned cultural religious meanings seem to fade into the background as they become more autonomous in their thinking and more self-reliant in their behaviour. They may then identify more readily with negative views of religion in the culture. But it is not that they are consciously putting their religion aside or even becoming anti-religious. Rather, religious meanings are just eclipsed by more immediate cultural meanings about lifestyle, feel-good, looks, friendship and entertainment. As Smith & Denton (2005) noted:

In the ecology of . . adolescents' lives, religion clearly operates in a social-structurally weaker position, competing for time, energy, and attention and often losing against other, more dominant demands and commitments, particularly school, sports, television, and other electronic media. . . Religion simply occupies a largely losing structural position when it comes to most adolescents' obligations, schedules, routines and habits. When it comes to institutions possessing opportunities to form the lives of youth, religion is not among the more advantaged players. (p. 161)

The negative change in children's thinking and feeling about religion as they move into adolescence is not necessarily a conscious anti-religious movement. And at the very time when life seems to be opening up explosively for them, their religion appears to have little to say that is relevant to their concerns.

Another view suggests that children may build up an attractive experience and image of what religion is like for a child, and if this is not updated as they grow older, they may gradually detach from their childlike view. Religion might then remain like a pleasant childhood relic – while not relevant to the world of the adolescent and the adult.

Some implications for Primary school religious education where children hear about god for the first time

As noted in the earlier discussion of children's spirituality, children from religious and non-religious homes will perceive and respond to the experience of religious education differently. This is one particular case of what is a more general educational principal – children's own idiosyncratic response to teaching. For children from relatively non-religious backgrounds, their first knowledge of God starts within the school educational culture. Whether or not, and how such knowledge might develop into a personal belief, would be difficult to determine – even for the child him/herself. The path from cultural knowledge to belief and commitment is complex and obscure. And Christian theology says that the animating role of the Holy Spirit is involved. Also possibly influential would be children's growing awareness of different racial, cultural and religious groups – especially through the medium of television.

Knowing that many of the children before them have no knowledge about the idea of God, the religion teacher should avoid an approach that presumes in advance that all the class are established believers and well identified as Christians (E.g. Catholics). In this sense, in the theme often taken in church primary school religious education of sharing our faith story, the word our does not strictly include these children. They have a tenuous religious identification and the approach that better addresses their situation would be to help establish for the children that they are part of a very old cultural religious tradition, and their school religious education will inform them about this heritage. This could help them to progress towards the stage of feeling that “yes, this is our religious story”. The better the sense of community in the school, a strong suit in most Catholic primary schools, the greater will be the plausibility and credibility of the teaching of the tradition. The theme ‘this is the story of your religious heritage' would be more appropriate than the presumptive sharing our faith story. This is not just a matter of semantics, but precisely about how much to presume, and how objectively information is presented, and how this is reflected in content and pedagogy.

There is a need to establish for children through the experience of religious education that the church primary school is a community of religious meanings, a community with a religious history that is there to provide them with educational access to their traditions – whether or not they are or will become members of a parish. To be properly educated in today's Australian society, they need to learn the cultural meanings from their religious identification (E.g. Catholicism) just as they need to learn from other identifications (E.g. national, ethnic, civil, democratic and local social identities etc.). They need to see that their religious education is enhancing and resourcing their spirituality for life.

Being careful to strive for objectivity in the presentation of religious traditions is important for maintaining a vital feeling of inclusivity for the children coming from diverse spiritual backgrounds. They are invited to join and benefit from a religious education that does not discriminate with respect to their initial spirituality. For example, in a Catholic primary school, this inclusivity is equally important for the children who are not Catholic; this has become a significant pedagogical issue for the increasingly high proportion of children who are not Catholic in Australian Catholic schools. For example: a recent comment was made about the 50% proportion of children who are not Catholic in Tasmanian Catholic schools in 2011. (Healy, 2011). Where teachers have consciously attended to this presence, they have reported that it often generates an unintended positivity. When children from other denominations / faith traditions, including non-Christian religions, were included in the classroom study and allowed to refer to their own traditions, teachings and practices, this has stimulated Catholic children to take a greater interest in knowing and becoming more literate about their own faith.

The Catholic Church has its responsibilities for educating its members so that the religious tradition can be handed on from generation to generation. However, excessive emphasis on the idea of socialising them into regular mass attendance is likely to be counterproductive.


One of the main issues that emerges from this discussion of changes, or apparent changes, in children's spirituality as they become adolescents, is the need to work out what this means for educating them spiritually, religiously and morally when they are not very much interested in religion at all. In other words, what does the religious community of educators in the Catholic school have to offer in the way of a spiritual/religious education for children who are not religious and who are not likely to be regular churchgoers.

One of the key purposes for Catholic primary school religious education is to educate children in the Catholic faith tradition. It sets out to help them develop a good knowledge and understanding of the church, of Jesus and his teachings and of the scripture and prayer etc. – related to their age and level of maturity. The purpose is to have them well educated religiously. How overt their religiosity is at school – or how their school uniform religiosity fares over the years in their passage to secondary school is not something over which primary or secondary teachers have great control. It is a personal development issue conditioned by a number of family and cultural factors.

Nevertheless, primary school religious educators need to acknowledge that their work in educating young people well religiously and spiritually will be valuable for the cultural education of these children, whether or not they become regular churchgoers. They need a basic familiarity with their religious tradition. This may also help enhance their basic human spirituality no matter what their level of religiosity.

More prominent reference is needed to the primal spiritual socialisation of pre-school children in their homes as a key to interpreting how primary school religious education impacts on both their basic human spirituality and their religiosity. The relatively non-religious, secular spirituality that now characterises most of the parents with children in church schools should be the measure for interpreting, and then educating, the spirituality of both children and adolescents.

On the negative side, church school educators and clergy can be fearful of accepting this view, because they feel it might weaken the rationale for the whole enterprise – for example: if the children are not very religious before they come to Catholic schools and are not very religious when they leave, then what is the point of having Catholic schools?  However, on the positive side, acknowledging the reality of the secular spirituality of most people associated with church schooling is a potent catalyst for reinterpreting the religious mission of these schools; they can make an invaluable contribution to enhancing and resourcing the basic human spirituality of both students and their parents whether or not they are engaged with a local parish.

In addition, this is a valuable expression of the way church schools might contribute to Australian education generally; it provides young Australians with an education that seeks to give special attention to the spiritual/moral dimension – a mission that makes a useful contribution to the spiritual and moral dimensions of Australian education and to the country's common good. This mission is appropriate for church schools which are in effect not exclusively private, church institutions, but semi-state schools, supported by government funds. For example, Australian Catholic schools reflect a partnership between the Catholic Church, Government and parents. They therefore have a civic responsibility and accountability to the wider community to educate young citizens. This constitution makes it appropriate that Catholic schools be open-to-all and not just for Catholics. The proposed approach to religious education is congruent with an open-to-all mission. It is basically an open, inquiring study of the spiritual and moral dimension to life, with an understandable emphasis on Catholicism appropriate for a school sponsored by the Catholic Church.

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