One Christmas I bought a lovely little wooden creche scene. I spent
an hour or more arranging it just so with boughs of fir and red
nandina berries around it. I was delighted with the artistic effect!
Days later I walked by and noticed that a couple of the figures
were knocked over and the animals in the scene rearranged. Did
you play with these? I demanded of my six-year-old stepson.
Yes, he admitted.
Exasperated, I replied, Well, dont! Its a decoration,
and I spent lots of time arranging it just how I wanted it.
How I have wished I could call back that moment! I would encourage
him to play with the figures; in fact, I would sit down with
him. As we played, perhaps I would explain the inner meaning of
the star and why Christ was incarnated. Or perhaps wed just
have a good time making up dialogue for the characters and imagining
what might have happened.
So far, in this series on spirituality and children I have written
on several ways to nurture the inner lives of children: through
healing prayers, concentration games, nature, and stories. But what
better way to introduce spiritual topics than through the most natural
of all activities for kids--play? Even a very young child can learn
to view spirituality as a normal part of everyday life through play.
No matter what religion you belong to, you can act out the great
stories, such as the story of the Good Samaritan, Krishna and Kaliya,
or the Maccabees, or one of Buddhas Jataka tales. You and
your child can act out different roles or create stick puppets for
the different characters. Hamming it up and using different voices
is fun, and when you gently make the point that the story illustrates
in this context, it will be happily remembered.
The Divine in Form
A great way to bring the Divine closer is to give your child a
doll of a god, goddess, or saint to play with. When I first heard
that the Indian saint Ananda Mayee Ma recommended to a mother that
she give her daughter a Krishna doll, I wondered if it werent
a bit sacrilegious. I had heard that one way to regard God was as
the Divine Playmate, but wasnt this going a bit far?
When I visited Assisi, Italy, I had the opportunity to go into
the private apartments of Saint Joseph of Cupertino in the Basilica
of Saint Francis, a seventeenth-century saint. Imagine my surprise
on seeing featured in one room a bassinet with a doll in it. The
Franciscan brother explained that Saint Joseph especially worshipped
Jesus in his infant form!
One of my friends made a Shiva doll for her daughter. It was a
beautiful doll, but I wondered how she played with it. You couldnt
exactly give Shiva a bottle or dress him in pretty baby clothes.
Then one day in the garden I noticed she was talking to Shiva, showing
him the different flowers. When we went in for tea, she placed the
doll in the shade of a rock where he had a view of the garden and
told me shed leave him there while we ate because it was his
favorite place in the garden.
I realized the doll was a wonderful, tangible way to bring the
friendship of the Divine into her consciousness, and what a wonderful
understanding to have at a young age!
Much of childrens play is acting out adult scenarios: You
be the dad and Ill be the daughter; You be the
storekeeper and Ill be the customer. The way children
prepare for their adult lives and activities is acting out what
they see their adult role models doing.
Letting your children participate in worship occasions, and/or
creating little worship services at home and letting them take adult
roles will help them develop devotion and integrate your values.
Let your child light a special candle or create an altar and decorate
it with flowers or leaves, creating that magical atmosphere a spiritual
ceremony can have.
If you dont have a tradition such as Judaism, which has candlelighting
and prayer ceremonies for the home, you can design your own simple
worship services. For Thanksgiving, for example, you can sing a
song of praise, have a prayer, and read a psalm.
Add touches such as a prayer shawl for everyone or purifying each
person with burning sage, in the Native American tradition. I once
designed a family worship service where we did this with incense
in silence as each person entered the room for the service. It changed
the restless, excited energy of the children to a mood of quiet
Of course, your child learns the most about reverence and appreciation
for the Divine in life from watching you. If you pray, meditate,
and take time to go within, your child will see those activities
as a normal part of life and learn that Spirit, behind the material
world we inhabit, is the true reality.
Susan Dermond is the Director of the Living Wisdom School (K-5),
and a minister of Ananda Sangha. For more information about the
Living Wisdom School, call (503) 626-3403.