There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle. — Deepak Chopra
Young families come to Unitarian Universalist congregations to enrich their spiritual lives, to gain resources for the unfolding of their family life, and to be a part of a liberal religious community. Chalice Children builds a foundation for their spiritual lives in Unitarian Universalism.
This program delves deep into our Unitarian Universalist faith. It strives not just to teach about our faith, but also to provide experiences around the strength of community, the wonder and awe that transcend everyday understanding, and life issues we all share. Early childhood (the years between ages 2 and 5) is filled with curiosity and wonder. In a group setting, with loving adult guides, young children can engage in spiritual seeking, develop their openness to sharing, and experience the benefit of a supportive community. Their time in Chalice Children can set a pattern for the rest of their lives and bring lasting benefits.
The curriculum is based on the belief that preschool children gain a sense of belonging to their religious community and the Unitarian Universalist faith when they have concrete experiences with its people and places. In Chalice Children, young children learn about their congregation's people and explore the physical building and surroundings that the congregation calls "home." This program uses both the word "church" and the word "congregation" to name the people or the place. It is recommended that you consider the preferences of the community you serve and make intentional choices regarding the use of "church" or "congregation." Keep in mind, also, that by using the same terms consistently, you will strengthen the program's impact on children.
This program consists of 37 one-hour sessions. Suggested times are provided for the activities in each session; these times are approximate. It is important to allow young children time to enjoy and absorb the experiences that interest them. Be flexible; base the flow of each session on the attention and interest level of the children. Each session stands alone: Stories, activities, and projects do not continue from one meeting time to the next. Continuity is provided by the ritual of the format, the teaching team, and the theme and symbol of the chalice in a community of people and in a sacred, special place.
The rituals are simple rhymes, finger plays, and games that start the morning with a "call to worship" and a way of getting to know one another. Through repetition, children learn about their religious community, practice listening and sharing with others, and develop a sense of belonging. Leaders should be intentional about using the term "Unitarian Universalist" as much as possible to help familiarize the children with our name. While the children may (frequently) hear "UU," you can explain that those are just the initials of our name; just as we wouldn't call the children by their initials (demonstrate this), we like to call our faith by its real name. The Unitarian Universalist chalice is introduced through activities and games (e.g., Chalice Flannel Board, A Special Jigsaw Puzzle, the Memory Match Game) that are used throughout the program. These materials and games are homemade and will become part of a Chalice Children legacy for your religious education program.
This program will:
- Nurture children’s sense of wonder and respect for the world around us
- Grow children’s sense of belonging to the congregation
- Celebrate the diversity of families, of individuals, and of ways of being in the world
- Build children’s identity with a Unitarian Universalist congregation
- Teach to the importance of sharing and expressing love
- Support parents and caregivers in their search for a meaningful family life
- Nurture hope for a just and fair world.
Chalice Children is based on the philosophy that a child’s spiritual development is related to the child’s own direct experiences. A playroom at home or school is the laboratory for living. Children’s toys are their schoolbooks. Their paints and modeling clay are their pens and pencils. Young children discuss problems by reliving them in dramatic play. They question and wonder most vividly when in contact with real phenomena through touch, sight, or sound. Children learn the worth of other people when they encounter other children, experience conflicts in play, and discover that others have feelings, too.
Sophia L. Fahs and Elizabeth Manwell wrote about religious development in Consider the Children—How They Grow:
. . . religion is the dynamic and personal philosophy of life by which one lives. It is found in the meanings one gives to daily living. It involves one’s attitudes and deeds in relation to other human beings, and also one’s understanding and attitudes toward the physical universe and other forms of life apart from the mere human realm. It involves one’s understanding of self, and an estimate of one’s own value. It involves one’s attitude toward sex, birth, and death. It involves the balance one maintains between fears and hostilities on the one hand, and the warmth of friendly relations on the other. It involves one’s attitudes toward what one cannot know as well as toward what one can know.
Chalice Children is designed to provide the 12 main types of experiences that Sophia Fahs connects with natural religious development in young children:
- Experiences with the great forces of nature, such as rain, wind, snow, the sun, and the moon
- Experiences with animate and inanimate things, sensing their differences and wondering at the mystery of life and at the power within a thing to grow, to feel, and perhaps to think
- The discovery that living things have a beginning—that they are born—and the discovery of one’s own birth
- The discovery of death
- Experiences with sickness, suggesting constructive attitudes that may be developed in times of crisis
- Play with one’s own shadow
- Experiences with dreaming—the realization that the world of reality sensed during wakefulness is different from the reality sensed in sleep, leading to a feeling for what is invisible in the personality
- Experiences in cooperation, first within the home circle and later in the larger community, from which feelings of security and love arise
- Negative experiences in social relationships, challenging one to observe and consider social cause and effect
- Experiences in making choices, weighing present good against future good
- Experiences in overcoming difficulties alone, bringing a sense of inner strength
- Experiencing personal achievement; creating something new and valuable or doing something original.
To provide these experiences and opportunities to preschoolers, Chalice Children clusters its goals for young children around the “three A’s” of affection, acceptance, and achievement:
- To nurture affection and affirmation for their individuality and their sense of belonging to a Unitarian Universalist community
- To foster acceptance, trust, and appreciation of themselves and others in their world as well as a sense of connection to nature and the universe
- To develop self-expression, cooperative skills, and creative achievements as they learn and grow.
Preschool growth and learning set the stage for a child’s future experience within the Unitarian Universalist community. The experiences and messages of Chalice Children are intended to affirm young children in their spiritual growth, creativity, and connection to their Unitarian Universalist congregation. Leaders are invited to adapt sessions by using their own creative imaginations and engaging the special talents of their congregation.
The most important qualities for leaders of this program are curiosity, joy, a sense of wonder, and a willingness to reflect on our faith at a level appropriate for young children.
The ideal teaching team of two adult co-leaders for each session (or as prescribed by your congregation's safety policy) will have some diversity, which might be in gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic class, theological beliefs, and/or learning styles.
Chalice Children is designed for children in preschool, ages 3 to 5. You may find it useful to think about the range of developmental norms for this age group. In Nurturing Children and Youth: A Developmental Guidebook (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005), Tracey L. Hurd, Ph.D., discusses developmental characteristics of the preschool child, including the following. The preschool child:
- Learns through sensory and hands-on experiences
- Learns by doing
- Uses self as their own primary reference point
- Focuses on the present
- Attends more to auditory than to visual information
- Learns object permanence
- Categorizes and classifies, often as dichotomies (like me/you and good/bad)
- Enters fantasy seamlessly
- Equates appearance with reality
- Learns language as a process of learning culture
- Makes some social connections that are not completely mediated by caregivers
- Learns about the concept of friendship
- Identifies self in relationship with others
- Lacks a concept of gender or race constancy
- Learns about what is and is not "right" or "good"
- Has begun to develop ethics of care and justice
- Learns about being part of a religious community through experience
- Is receptive to spirituality as experienced through everyday life
- Enters Fowler's intuitive-projective stage of faith development (see more about Fowler in the Tapestry of Faith program for youth, A Place of Wholeness).
Hurd offers a variety of strategies that speak to these developmental considerations and may help you shape your sessions effectively for this age group. For example:
- Provide outlets for physical activity and tactile and sensory exploration.
- Provide routines that help the child predict and feel appropriately in control of the environment.
- Allow plentiful time for play.
- Recognize that the young child learns through doing.
- Include as few activities that involve sitting and listening as possible
- Offer opportunities to create and problem-solve.
- Allow the sharing of ideas, reasoning, and stories.
- Enjoy the fluid movement between reality and fantasy.
- Build on developing skills and a sense of identity by providing new ideas.
- Recognize that each child comes with a unique background influenced by family patterns, language, and cultures, and welcome all children.
- Model expression of ideas and feelings with words.
- Encourage social problem solving.
- Support children's emerging ideas about gender by providing broad representations of gender that complicate stereotypes.
- Support children's positive racial identity development and awareness by questioning and augmenting children's natural observations about race and ensuring positive experiences with people of many races (even if secondhand, such as in books).
- Gently confront racism through questioning and leading children toward a more inclusive, realistic, Unitarian Universalist perspective.
- Provide guidance for moral development by overtly and specifically identifying children's positive moral behaviors.
- Encourage religious identity development through participation in simple, appropriate religious routines and rituals.
- Welcome the child's natural spirituality as expressed by everyday wonder and asking of "big questions."
- Welcome the whole child; respect each child as an individual and as a member of the family.
Integrating All Participants
A group can include children with a range of physical and cognitive abilities and learning styles, food allergies, and other sensitivities or limitations. Adapt activities or use alternate activities to ensure that every session is inclusive of all participants. In Chalice Children, some activities suggest specific adaptations under the heading "Including All Participants." Feel free to devise your own adaptations to meet any special needs you perceive. As the leader, you will know best how to provide a fully inclusive learning experience for the group.
As you plan a session, be aware of activities that might pose difficulties for children who are differently able. All spaces, indoor and outdoor, should be accessible to everyone in the group. Check the width of doorways and aisles, the height of tables, and the terrain of outdoor landscapes. Find out about participants' medical conditions and allergies, particularly to food, and make appropriate adaptations. Let your understanding of the different learning styles in the group guide your selection of activities for each session.
A helpful resource book for inclusion in a religious education setting is Welcoming Children with Special Needs: A Guidebook for Faith Communities by Sally Patton (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2004; out of print, available online). Patton explains how working to integrate all participants helps us practice our own faith:
Ministering to children with differences helps us be more creative in our ministry to all children and reaffirm our beliefs. Lessons of compassion, caring, and acceptance benefit us all, young and old alike. . . . We deepen our faith when we embrace and fight for the vision of an inclusive community.
. . . we have much to learn from these people about compassion and forgiveness, persistence and courage, and most importantly, the wholeness of their spirit and the gifts they offer if we allow them to flourish. Listening to children's stories encourages us to see each child's uniqueness rather than their limitations. . . . Parenting, loving, befriending, and ministering to children with special needs changes people. How we handle the change will either mire us in the prevalent belief system about disability and limitations, or it will set us free and alter our ideas about who we are and why we are here.
Patton's book provides inspiration and strategies for congregations to institutionalize an inclusive faith community and internalize a spirit of justice. Consider reading this book and sharing it with the congregational leadership. Additional resources can be found on the EqUUal Access website.
The loving family unit is the primary source of spiritual nurture and religious education in a child's life. To engage parents and caregivers with their children's experience in Chalice Children, it is vital to share with them the themes of the program. Each session includes a Taking It Home section for leaders to download, customize, and share with families as a handout, e-mail, or both. Taking It Home summarizes the session's content and provides questions and suggestions to stimulate family conversations and activities at home. In this way, parents and children may learn together. Most of the Faith in Action activities have been designed to include families with their children; the involvement of the whole family enriches the learning experience for all.
Nurturing Children and Youth A Developmental Guidebook
By Tracey L. Hurd