The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic who would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools. — Confucius
Toolbox of Faith invites fourth- and fifth- grade participants to reflect on the qualities of our Unitarian Universalist faith, such as integrity, courage, and love, as tools they can use in living their lives and building their own faith. Each of the 16 sessions uses a tool as a metaphor for an important quality of our faith such as reflection (symbolized by a mirror), flexibility (duct tape), and justice (a flashlight).
Reflecting on the qualities (tools) of our faith, children and leaders gain insight into what makes our faith important in their lives, and how they can grow in our faith.
Leaders are an important component of the Toolbox of Faith program. Leaders are not recruited to "indoctrinate" children, but rather to share the journey as seekers with the children. Leaders are not in the role of experts handing down information but are co-explorers and "beloved adults." Children value adults who are interested in their opinions and lives. They will reward those who work with them with trust, sharing, and affection.
This program is written for fourth- and fifth-grade children. With some adaptation, it can be used with younger or older participants.
In her book, Nurturing Children and Youth: A Developmental Guidebook (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005), Tracey L. Hurd lists characteristics of the older school-age child. A summary follows. Comments relating these characteristics specifically to the Toolbox of Faith curriculum appear in parentheses.
At the age of nine, ten, or eleven, a child:
- Uses gross and fine motor skills, which are almost fully developed
- Has fully developed vision (by age seven to age nine) and a highly developed central nervous system (by age ten to age twelve)
- Needs adequate exercise, food, and rest (during religious education programming as well as in school, at home, in sports, and at play)
- Enters puberty toward the end of school-age years (particularly girls)
- Is influenced by media images and may be at early risk for eating disorders (So, Toolbox of Faith can be an important antidote to pervasive, intrusive media images.)
- Engages in logical thinking based on concrete operational thinking
- Practices cognitive skills of acquiring, storing, and retrieving information (Toolbox of Faith sessions offer factual information, stories, and specific details appropriate for their cognitive development.)
- Develops specific learning styles such as an auditory, visual, sensory, and/or kinesthetic style of learning (Each session provides activities to address a variety of learning styles.)
- Exhibits domain-specific intelligences such as verbal/linguistic, musical/rhythmic, logical/mathematical, visual/spatial, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, or naturalist
- Uses student identity and personal, informed knowledge as sources of self-esteem (Toolbox of Faith gives children opportunities to name what they already know, in Council Circle discussions.)
- Engages peers and learns through mutual friendship (Toolbox of Faith builds community.)
- Comprehends the perspective of others (The Council Circle format encourages children's discussion and reflection.)
- Engages in gender-segregated play
- Works on developing racial, ethnic, and gender identities and seeks peers' affirmation of these identities
- Learns and negotiates early understandings of social scripts about sexuality
- Shows interest in moral issues of fairness, justice, and care (addressed extensively in this program)
- Is energized by developing rules to assure fairness, in work or play (The games in Toolbox of Faith can give children opportunities to make the rules.)
- Uses the Golden Rule (treating others as one would like to be treated)
- Wrestles with moral dilemmas in relationships (highlighted in many of the sessions)
- Demonstrates awareness of a culture of violence and is receptive to strategies for personal and global nonviolence and peace
- Exhibits increasing awareness of societal moral issues and interest in helping to solve community problems (Children's awareness and interest can be engaged by the Faith in Action suggestions in this program.)
- Shows interest in concrete aspects of faith and religion (This program helps participants understand and give voice to what Unitarian Universalism means.)
- "Does" religion or spirituality by participating in traditions (Each session opens and closes with traditions of our faith.)
- Ponders increasingly complex moral and spiritual questions (such as those posed in the Council Circles)
- Explores religious or spiritual ideas as a way of deepening faith (a major purpose of the program)
- Enters Fowler's mythical-literal stage of faith development (Toolbox of Faith provides engaging stories which are the basis of a mythical-literal framework of understanding.)
Hurd's book also suggests some ways religious educators, leaders, and parents can offer support to the developing, older school-age child. Comments specific to Toolbox of Faith again appear in parentheses. Healthy strategies for support include:
- Provide for the overall care of physical needs, including nutrition, exercise, and sleep (The games in each session provide an outlet for the energy that is typical of this age.)
- Counteract school and societal pressures by affirming the child's developing body
- Support self-esteem
- Continue to provide time for play and hands-on activities (Sessions allow for games and expressive options, such as water play and skits.)
- Allow the child to be active and limit extended times of sitting and listening. (Let these sessions be different from school learning, with active games and Council Circle.)
- Encourage the natural impulse to learn and present challenges that promote thinking skills. (Some of the Council Circle questions are conundrums which challenge adults, too!)
- Support different learning styles such as auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and/or sensory (A variety of learning styles are addressed in the variety of options in each session.)
- Help learners develop their own organizational strategies
- Encourage problem solving and discussion. (This program helps participants develop inner resources.)
- Allow time to ponder large, complex questions
- Help with follow-through on projects and ideas
- Support interest in peers and intervene appropriately against exclusion
- Allow opportunities to practice social problem solving and assume others' perspectives
- Allow time with like-identity peers and support or facilitate mixed-peer times; recognize the unique needs of multiracial or transracially adopted children
- Affirm student identities as important
- Provide honest conversation about sexuality and cultural scripts about sexuality
- Support the natural impulse for rule making and negotiation of fairness with peers
- Recognize that children need to work out relational complexities as a part of moral development
- Provide alternatives to the culture of violence (Studying the qualities of our faith can do just that.)
- Provide many ways to contribute to the community (The program provides many opportunities for children to demonstrate their responsibility and leadership skills.)
- Provide opportunities to "do religion" and be part of a faith community
- Welcome large spiritual questions and encourage questioning of religion
- Model lifelong spiritual development
- Provide encouragement and love
- Support the whole child as an individual and as a family member (Use the Taking It Home resources and Faith in Action activities to build home-congregation connections.)
Integrating All Participants
In her book, Welcoming Children with Special Needs: a Guidebook for Faith Communities, Sally Patton explains how we practice and deepen our own faith when we work to integrate all participants in a religious education program:
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 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 does not merely inspire, it provides a strategy for congregations to engage in to institutionalize and internalize the spirit and justice of an inclusive faith community that deepens the faith of all participants. Consider reading this book and sharing it with a broad spectrum of congregational leadership.
The loving family unit, of whatever configuration, is the primary source of spiritual nurture in a child's life. For parents and/or caregivers to engage with the program in the family setting, it is vital for them to know the theme of each session and something of its content. Each session includes a Taking It Home section for the religious educator or leader to customize and share with families as a handout or e-mail. Taking It Home sections summarize each session's goals and describe stories, activities, and other aspects of the session to provide background for family conversations and activities at home.
Here's the usual conversation, oft repeated in religious education programs everywhere:
Parent: What did you do today?
Parent: Did you have fun?
Parent: (pause) Oh, ummm . . . fine.
With Taking It Home, a parent will have enough details to ask an engaging question such as, "What did you think about the Cellist of Sarajevo story today?" Or, "How do you play Cloaks and Daggers?" Or, "Do you remember the story of Aunt Kim who protested at the Pentagon?" In this way, parents and children may learn from each other.