If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life. — Rachel Carson, 20th century environmental activist and author
Wonder. What is it? Where do we find it? How do we keep it? Children are born with an ability to feel wonder, and our world is full of amazing plants, animals, spaces, processes, textures, and patterns that can awaken it. But to nurture and preserve a sense of wonder, children need time to explore, observe, engage, and rest in that world. In this, children can often benefit from an adult model and guide.
This program delves deep into our Unitarian Universalist seventh Principle. It instills respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, and appreciation of its beauty, excitement, and mystery. It is founded on the premise that direct experience in nature is essential to children's physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development. Time spent experiencing and exploring nature during the kindergarten and first grade years can set a pattern for the rest of children's lives, bringing lasting openness to the wonder nature can spark.
The program begins and ends with a call to go outside, and ideally, leaders will take the children outside each time the group meets. Each session offers a nature walk. Other activities can take place outside as well, such as role-play activities and crafts. For example, you might read or tell a story outside in a comfortable green space.
Stories introduce the themes of the first 15 sessions. The stories illuminate some aspect of the web of all existence: noticing the web, who and what are part of the web, enjoying the web, caring for the web. Many kinds of connections between children and nature are made explicit, while some are left for the children to discover. The program culminates in a Wonder Walk in Session 16.
The program purposely avoids the doom and gloom of environmental degradation, focusing instead on the joy and wonder of nature. However, some challenges and potential solutions are presented in various sessions, particularly in Faith in Action activities.
This program will:
- Nurture a sense of wonder and respect for the interdependent web of all existence
- Engage children in direct experiences with the web, especially outdoors
- Promote a deep understanding of the concept of interdependence
- Teach basic environmental concepts and processes
- Provide meaningful ways in which children can positively impact and promote the health of the interdependent web.
The most important qualities for leaders of this program are curiosity, joy, a sense of wonder and an ethic of stewardship for the environment. Leaders should seek to embody Rachel Carson's words:
If a child is to keep alive [his] inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with [him] the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in
The ideal teaching team of two adult co-leaders for each session will have some diversity, which might be in gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic class, theological beliefs and/or learning styles.
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.
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 World of Wonder, 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 your World of Wonder sessions, be aware of activities that might pose difficulties for children who are differently abled. 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), available as a PDF file on the UUA website. Patton shows 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 World of Wonder, 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. In this way, parents and children may learn together.
Most of the Faith in Action activities are designed to include families as well. The involvement of the whole family enriches the learning experience for all.