…if religion is ultimately about what we love, then “faith” is not so much about what we think is true (or hope is true, despite lack of evidence), but about being faithful to what we love.— Peter Morales, President, Unitarian Universalist Association (2009 - )
Rev. Morales asks us to think about religion as the practice of being faithful to what you love. In order to do this, you must decide what you love and do your best to live that love faithfully every day. Signs of Our Faith guides children to do their best to live faithful lives every day. It presents fourteen traits or values that most Unitarian Universalist love, including the quest for knowledge, reverence for life, supporting one another on our faith journeys, and public witness. Children examine how their lives do and can exhibit these traits and values, and come to understand that their faith is a living faith whose histories and teachings are fortifications for living faithfully in a complex world.
Signs of Our Faith engages children to explore ritual practices of our faith that remind us of these traits and values. Some of the rituals are enacted in the congregation. Some we conduct alone, or in our interactions with family, friends, and peers; others are offered to the wider world. This program helps children understand the abstract concept of a ritual by naming rituals as signs of our faith. Rituals are defined broadly, so that naming and dedicating a baby is a ritual, but so too is befriending a new child at school. Through the concept of "ritual," children discover evidence of their faith in everyday actions and are encouraged to ritualize or form into habit such traits as caring, welcoming, and making fair group decisions.
Signs of Our Faith asks young people to see themselves as leaders of their faith. They build experience performing and, at times, creating rituals to share in their families as well as the congregation, and are thereby positioned as co-creators of the faith. Leadership in Action, alternate activities included in every session, invite children to lead the flower ceremony, host an appreciation event for congregational leaders, and write meditations and prayers for congregational use. By sharing their leadership with a wider group, children deepen their connection to our faith and see themselves as needed leaders in the congregation, other UU communities, and the world beyond.
Your leadership of this program is truly a sign of great faith. It is a sign of lived faith. Your leadership will be an example to the participants that will outlive any particular activity. May this program help you nurture the next generation of UU leaders.
This program will:
- Identify common traits or characteristics of faithful Unitarian Universalists, including revering life, being welcoming, finding beauty in our uniqueness, and sharing leadership
- Encourage and guide children to live their UU faith in their everyday lives
- Explore the nature of rituals—particularly religious rituals—and the role they play in our lives
- Build leadership skills.
A team of two or more adults should lead the program. Having two leaders present at all times helps assure child safety. While one leader implements an activity, the other can focus on classroom management. Communication between team members is crucial to create a common culture in the sessions. Your leadership should include at least one congregational member who is familiar with the rituals of the congregation.
Signs of Our Faith is for children in second and third grade or ages seven through nine. You may find it useful to think about the developmental norms for this age group. Not all children arrive at each developmental stage at the same time, but knowing what to expect overall from seven-, eight-, and nine-year-olds can be quite helpful, especially to first-time leaders.
In Nurturing Children and Youth: A Developmental Guidebook (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005), Tracey L. Hurd discusses developmental characteristics of school-age children. She notes that by age seven, children's learning disabilities and behavioral or psychological issues may have appeared and been identified. Individual learning styles and strengths may also be apparent. Children who need glasses often get their first pair around this age.
In a section on moral development, Hurd notes that the typical child in this age group is "passionately interested" in moral issues:
She seeks what is fair and right... By developing games with rules, playing sports, or creating or belonging to clubs, the school-age child practices figuring out what is fair... This play is practice for more generalized moral decision making.
In general, children in second or third grade are:
- Able to use gross and fine motor skills, which are almost fully developed
- Influenced by media images and messages; beginning to compare themselves to norms perceived as desirable
- Engaging in logical thinking based on "concrete operational" thinking
- Practicing cognitive skills of acquiring, storing, and retrieving information
- Developing their individual learning style, which may be auditory visual, sensory, and/or kinesthetic
- Showing their domain-specific intelligence, which may be verbal/linguistic, musical/rhythmic, logical/mathematical, visual/spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and/or naturalist
- Finding self-esteem in their knowledge and their student identity
- Engaging peers; learning through mutual friendships
- Able to comprehend the perspectives of others
- Likely to engage in gender-segregated play
- Interested in their own racial, ethnic, and gender identity, and seeking affirmation of these identities from peers
- Learning and negotiating early understandings of social scripts about sexuality
- Aware of and able to apply the Golden Rule (treating others as they wish to be treated)
- Energized by developing rules for play or work that ensure fairness
- Interested in personal moral issues and able to wrestle with moral dilemmas in relationships
- Aware of societal moral issues
- Interested in helping to solve community and world problems
- Showing interest in concrete aspects of faith and religion
- "Doing" religion or spirituality by participating in rituals, practices, and traditions.
Hurd offers a variety of strategies that speak to these developmental considerations and may help you shape your sessions effectively. You can:
- Provide for children's overall physical needs, including nutrition, exercise, and rest
- Allow children to be active; avoid extended times of sitting and listening
- Provide time for play and hands-on activities
- Present challenges that promote children's use of their thinking skills
- Support different learning styles
- Encourage problem-solving and discussion; allow children opportunities to experience others' perspectives through role play
- Support children's natural impulse toward rule making and peer-to-peer negotiation of what is fair
- Allow time with like-identity peers; support or facilitate mixed-peer time, as well
- Intervene appropriately against exclusion or bullying, yet affirm children's need to work out relational complexities as a part of their moral development
- Recognize the unique needs that attend the identity development of children who may be multiracial, multiethnic, or transgender and/or belong to a minority in another way
- Offer children many ways to contribute to the community
- Give opportunities to "do" religion and be part of a faith community
- Welcome large spiritual questions; encourage questioning of religion
- Support self-esteem; affirm the child's developing body and identity
- Support the whole child as an individual and as a member of the group
- Provide encouragement and love.
Integrating All Participants
By adapting activities or using alternate activities, you can make every session inclusive of children with a range of physical and cognitive abilities, learning styles, food allergies, and other needs or limitations. As you plan sessions, be aware of activities that might pose difficulties for children who are differently abled. All spaces, indoor and outdoor, need to be accessible to participants and leaders. Check the width of doorways and aisles, the height of tables, and the terrain of outdoor landscapes.
Each session mixes active and quiet, expressive and listening, whole group and individual activities. As you recognize different learning styles among participants, let this information guide your plan of each session. Substitute alternate activities for core activities if you feel they better suit the group.
Including All Participants notes specific concerns and/or suggests adaptations to make an activity fully inclusive. You are encouraged to devise your own adaptations as needed. As the leader, you know best how to provide a fully inclusive learning experience for the group. If you have questions about the accessibility or adaptability of a particular activity, please ask your religious educator for advice. A helpful resource available online from the UUA is Sally Patton's Welcoming Children with Special Needs.
Families are the primary influences on the faith development of their children. As a program leader, you take on a special role: supporting parents to shape their children's Unitarian Universalist faith and moral development. By involving parents in this program, you can deepen the experience for children and their families.
Each session offers Taking It Home resources including conversation topics and other ways for families to extend the session. These may include a family game or ritual, or links to informative and/or interactive websites. Exploring session topics at home can help children and parents practice the skills, personalize the concepts, and make connections among congregational life, home and family life, and life's daily challenges. Be sure to adapt each session's Taking It Home to reflect the activities you have chosen. If you have an email address for every family, you might provide Taking It Home as a group email, either before or immediately after the session. You can also print and photocopy Taking It Home to distribute at the session's Closing.
Invite families into your sessions. Adult or teen volunteers can be extremely helpful with arts-and-crafts activities. Parents who bring musicianship, storytelling, or artistic skills will foster participants' sense of connection between their family and their religious education. Faith in Action activities offer ideal opportunities to engage parents and other congregants. Find out who can enrich your long-term Faith in Action activities with their personal interests, professional networks, or simply their time.
The leader-parent relationship is very important and must be both welcoming and reassuring. When parents bring their children to Unitarian Universalist religious education, they need to feel confidence not only in the safety and enjoyment you will provide, but also in your faith leadership. Strong partnerships foster parents' commitment to becoming strong faith leaders in their own families. As a leader, you can support and inspire parents to bring intentionality and excitement to their role in their children's Unitarian Universalist faith development.