Introduction to Wonderful Welcome
The fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose.
— Hada Bejar, 17th-century British poet and playwright
We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.
— John Winthrop, 17th-century governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony
Welcome. Welcome in love. Welcome in friendship. Welcome in faith. The Wonderful Welcome curriculum engages and challenges leaders and children alike to explore how and why we are willing to welcome others into our lives. We welcome not only strangers, but family, our peers, our neighbors and even entities that are not people such as our animal friends and nature itself.
How do we welcome? We welcome by sharing intangible gifts, those positive qualities which we all have inside us such as kindness, love, invitation, covenant and empathy. In this program, children learn to articulate and express a variety of intangible gifts, empowering them to share these gifts with others.
The intangible gifts explored in Wonderful Welcome are all components of welcoming itself, a core Unitarian Universalist value. This program helps children understand and practice other values central to Unitarian Universalism such as friendship, hospitality, and fairness. It offers children safe, positive and intentional ways to relate to one another, the people in their families, and the world around them as they investigate how they use gifts they can't see or touch to welcome others into their lives. Children will think about the intangible gifts they bring into the world, and the intangible gifts they receive. When and how do they get love from others? When and how do they show empathy? Who has given them the gift of friendship? How do they show that they want to be someone's friend? What does "helping" look like?
Each session begins with a Wonder Box that contains a symbol of the session's theme. The Wonder Box engages the children's curiosity and encourages a spirit of inquiry and reflection. In the first session, the box is empty to introduce the concept of " intangible." Throughout the program, a Wonder Box poster serves as a continual reminder of the gifts explored in each session.
Wonderful Welcome will:
- Expand children's understanding of their relationships with others, including people they know, people they will meet and all life that shares our planet
- Create opportunities for children to identify and practice a wide variety of welcoming behaviors; activate children's capacity to welcome many manifestations of the interconnected web of life, including people, animals and the natural environment
- Teach children the concept of "intangible gifts," qualities that can be shared but cannot be seen or held
- Teach the importance of welcoming as an act of Unitarian Universalist faith and as an expression of our Unitarian Universalist Principles
- Develop and enrich children's sense of belonging to their religious education peer community, their congregational community and the larger Unitarian Universalist faith community
- Introduce practices of stewardship
- Help children create a shared atmosphere that encourages a sense of reverence, awe, gratitude and wonder.
A leader's role is to facilitate religious growth and exploration in the children while sharing their journey as seekers.
A team of two or more adults should lead Wonderful Welcome, with two leaders present at all times to assure child safety. If co-leaders cannot be present at every session, enlist parent volunteers to join with the leader to ensure that two adults are present. Ideally, co-leaders will be individuals who consider the congregation their own faith home. Several sessions call for the group to participate in the life of the congregation, for example, through worship or outreach programs. At least one leader should be a congregational member familiar with the committees, policies, culture and rituals of the congregation.
The Wonderful Welcome program is designed for children in Kindergarten and first grade. 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. writes that five- and six-year-old children are generally able to:
- Coordinate gross motor skills through sports and games
- Draw, write, and use tools with beginning skill
- Think about more than one thing at a time; show the start of logical thinking
- Enjoy pretend play, but also begin to distinguish fantasy from reality
- Show interest in facts, numbers, letters, and words
- Learn rules, authority, and routines; may try to apply rules across different settings, such as using school rules at home
- Enjoy being correct, may apply rules too broadly or literally
- Use self as a reference point
- Learn through social interaction as well as through their individual actions
- Make rigid and/or binary statements about gender and racial identifications
- Are receptive to antiracist intervention and multicultural experiences
- Form first reciprocal friendships
- Develop increased altruism
- Are evolving from fascination with stories of wonder to a keen interest in learning and performing the concrete expressions of religion
- Start developing a sense of belonging to a faith community through the imitation of practices of adults by whom they feel accepted
Hurd offers a variety of strategies that speak to these developmental considerations and may help leaders shape sessions effectively for this age group. Some of these include:
- Provide outlets for physical activity, room for movement during quiet activities, new physical challenges in games.
- Include small-motor challenges, such as drawing, writing, painting, or using tools such as scissors.
- Create and sustain routines to give children a sense of control and opportunities to be "correct."
- Notice and talk about children's similarities and differences.
- Present complexities that help push children's thinking beyond simple dualisms; gently challenge children's natural moral rigidities.
- Provide opportunities for group work and group problem-solving.
- Respect children's desire to categorize.
- Support children in their beginning friendships to help them build an emotional base for future relationships.
- Welcome the whole child and respect the child as an individual, a member of the religious education group, and a member of the faith community.
- Provide encouragement and love.
Including 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 includes all participants. Some activities suggest specific adaptations under the heading "Including All Participants." For example, for an activity in which participants are invited to make a life-size self-portrait you will find an adaptation for the whole group to fully include a child who uses a wheel chair. 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.
Make sure all spaces, indoor and outdoor, are 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.
Before, during, or after telling a story in this program, you may offer children the accompanying coloring sheet and some crayons. Quietly coloring can keep minds and bodies focused while reinforcing the story’s subject matter.
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). 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 congregational leadership.
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 Wonderful Welcome, 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 or email. Taking It Home summarizes the session's content and provides questions and suggestions to stimulate family conversations and activities at home. Taking It Home gives parents enough information to ask an engaging question such as: "What was in the Wonder Box today?" or, "What was it like to weave wool?" In this way, parents and children may learn together.