Spiritual formation of young children in an Episcopal preschool
Spiritual formation of young children in an Episcopal preschool

Blowing bubbles

St. Mark’s Preschool in New Canaan, CT, was founded in the fall of 1993 as a typical nursery school housed in a church building. But as the years went by and as enrollment grew to full capacity, we realized the “spiritual” component of the school was missing, having taken a back seat to reading, writing, and arithmetic.

In 2007, the church vestry decided to take a “longer look” at the Episcopal preschool. Was it simply a school that was housed in the building of the church, or was it the church’s school?

As a result of the “longer look” and a year of deliberation, a committee, composed of eight parishioners and vestry members created a new mission statement for the school:

The mission of St. Mark’s Preschool is to enrich the lives of children and their families with a fun, developmentally-appropriate preschool experience that nurtures the whole child: mind, body and soul. We aspire to raise children with a sense of spirituality, self-confidence, compassion, and love of learning in a vibrant community grounded in the Episcopal values of faith, hope, love, and service. St. Mark’s Nursery School grows out of the church’s commitment to care for young people and their families and the belief that God calls us to love all of God’s children.

My goal, as director charged with implementing this mission statement, was to implement the mission statement and to develop the innate spirituality of young children. As Rebecca Nye, author of Children’s Spirituality: What it
is and Why it Matters, says, “Taking children’s spirituality seriously can significantly influence our view of children. It can help us both to embrace the reality that children are made in God’s image, that they are already spiritually switched on.”

However, being “switched on” does not mean that they are receptive to an academic curriculum that condenses the world into instructional packages. Rather, they are receptive to stories, images, color, ritual, and interactive experiences. We incorporate all of those elements in our weekly chapel service.

Developing spirituality with preschoolers

Teachers carefully prepare the children for the service during “circle time.” They are encouraged to think about
what joys and concerns they will want to share with God and each other. Children then walk quietly through the hallways and into the church sanctuary.

It is a huge space and can be somewhat intimidating. However, the child’s worship area has been arranged to put them at ease. The kneelers are placed in a familiar circle and the altar candle waits for a child to light it.

Leaving the busy, active, highly stimulating environment of the classroom, the children appreciate the calm of the sacred atmosphere. Their demeanor changes; little wiry bodies relax; and their eyes glance up in wonder at the beauty of the windows and the huge reredos above the high altar—an artistic masterpiece depicting the whole of salvation history from creation to resurrection.

During reflection time, I play a game similar to “Where’s Waldo” and ask them to find certain figures in the reredos. I think their favorite is the octopus, hidden on the right corner. I call their attention to the change of color in each liturgical season and try to help them understand what it means to wait for the incarnation or the mystery of Easter.

We usually open the service with a Body Prayer in which we lift our arms up over our heads and return them to a
palm-to-palm position. Words, actions, songs and traditional responses of the liturgy are repeated again and again so they become part of the child, the community, and the relational aspect of our time together.

And because children have a natural sense of wonder, they ask a lot of questions: “How are rainbows made?” “Why is a robin’s egg blue?”

Often the questions arise out of a deep uncertainty and insecurity. We always give children time to share their concerns and help them to see that their sharing is, in fact, praying and “holy listening.”

I also try to teach them to accept quiet as a part of their day. So many children are “plugged in” constantly, so I have added a meditation time to the end of our time together. I tell them it’s time to talk to God in their heads. We start off the year with about ten seconds of silence and by the end of the year most of them are able to sit for a minute or more.

Developing ministries of service and outreach

At the conclusion of chapel services, we say “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” And our National Association of Episcopal Schools guidelines state, “An Episcopal school has a concern for the well-being of society.” So in addition to fostering spirituality, we also include an outreach curriculum that focuses on empathy, understanding generosity, and developmentally appropriate activities.

One of the most successful parts of that curriculum is what is known as the Gospel Garden. It’s a garden on the
church property, created and maintained by church volunteers. Our school science teacher helps our preschoolers plant bean seedlings in the spring. Over the summer, forty bags of beans are harvested for the New Canaan food bank, which is conveniently located in one of the church’s buildings.

Our garden program is a perfect cyclical outreach effort. In the fall, each class goes down to the garden and gathers up the giant pumpkins that they planted in the spring. These are donated only after they are weighed and measured in comparison to the size of the children.

We have other outreach projects as well, most of which are directed to the homebound and elderly:

  • In February, the children create Valentines to place on casseroles that go to the homebound parishioners. They say “Sending you love and hugs from St. Mark’s Preschool.”
  • Our Fours class takes monthly trips to the New Canaan Inn, a home for the elderly located behind the church. They sing and do crafts with the residents. You would not believe the smiles that those children generate among those men and women, despite their being in wheelchairs! 
  • At the beginning of Lent we give each child a mite box. I write a note to the parents explaining that the mite boxes are to help the children remember other children in need. I offer such suggestions as: “add a coin each time you pray for someone else” or “add a coin each time your child helps someone else.” 

I believe that at St. Mark’s Preschool we are all on a spiritual journey together: children, teachers, and parents. My hope is that over time we will strengthen our foundations—grounded in the Episcopal values of faith, hope, love, and service—and learn what it truly means to be a child of God.

As Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

Sally Farrell is the Director of St. Mark’s Preschool in New Canaan, CT, and is currently working towards a Master of Arts degree at Virginia Theological Seminary.

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