Fostering Spirituality in Children

Dr. John Davies, Head of School
In the latest Miami Country Day Pulse Blog, our Head of School, Dr. John Davies shares insight into spirituality, one of the six potentials of educating the whole child. He elaborates on the many components of spirituality including service to others, meditation and mindfulness, exploring and spending time in nature, and the scientific health benefits of spirituality. 
At Miami Country Day we work tirelessly to be mission driven and focus on our commitment to the education of the whole child. Our mission statement explains further about what we mean by the whole child, expounding on the six potentials: intellectual, physical, aesthetic, social, emotional and spiritual. Of the six potentials, the one that we often overlook is the spiritual one. Perhaps one of the reasons that spirituality goes unacknowledged is because many of us are reluctant to talk about the topic because it is a highly personal matter. Interestingly, it is a topic that many children are more than willing to talk about because they have lots of questions as long as there are adults in their lives willing to listen. In addition, spirituality is often equated with religion.  And while they are often related to one another they are not the same. There are a growing number of people in this country who identify themselves as “spiritual” but not religious. In a society that is increasingly heterogeneous, there are many parents and caregivers who feel reluctant to share their own beliefs with their children. They believe that they can make up their own minds about whether to practice a particular religion or have belief in a divine being or higher spiritual power.

The irony is that despite what one may hold as their personal religious beliefs, there is compelling scientific evidence that what we view as traditional spiritual practices promote wholeness and wellbeing. Consider that some of the most prestigious universities and medical centers in the country sponsor institutes that conduct scientific research on spirituality. The Stanford University Medical Institute hosts the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research. Check out the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Teachers College at Columbia University or the Greater Good Society Center at UC Berkeley. The world renowned Texas Medical Center has promoted research at its Institute for Spirituality and Health for over 60 years. All of these organizations are engaged in ongoing scientific research that demonstrate unequivocally that when we recognize the spiritual dimension of the human personality and try to get in touch with that aspect of ourselves, we are better human beings. The research also suggests that when we fail to give our children the opportunities to acknowledge and develop their own spirituality that we are doing them a major disservice. Consider some of the findings from Dr. Lisa Miller’s book, The Spiritual Child: The New Science of Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving. Miller, a psychologist and educator, is the Director of the Clinical Psychology Program at Columbia University, Teachers College.  Summarizing some of the research on spirituality she writes:

“From the perspective of mental health and wellness, spirituality is associated with significantly lower rates of depression, substance use and abuse, and risk taking.  This includes sexual risk taking in young adults and exposure to STDs, along with thrill seeking, driving fast, and physical endangerment, especially in boys.  No other preventive factor known to science and medicine has such a broad-reaching and powerful influence on the daily decisions that make or break health and wellness.” (Miller p. 38) 

Miller also notes that the emerging field of positive psychology has identified a relationship between spirituality and a greater sense of belonging, optimism and sense of connection to “something larger” that gives purpose and meaning to life. Typically, Country Day students collectively perform well over 20,000 hours of community service a year. One of my enduring and most special memories of my time at Country Day will always be the 75th Anniversary All School Community Service Day when over 800 people ranging in ages from four to 70 gathered one Saturday morning and fanned out across the community performing service to countless groups and organizations. Community service is part of the social fabric of our school. As I explain to people, in the Lower School we encourage service, in the Middle School we expect it and in the Upper School we require it. I believe country Day’s focus on service is an expression of the spiritual dimension of our mission to educate the whole child. Service has the power to take us outside of ourselves. It teaches us powerful lessons regarding gratitude. It helps young people develop a sense of efficacy and that they can make a difference in the world. Helping others is one of the best ways to develop compassion, one of Country Day’s core values. Service and spirituality may create an interesting dynamic whereby engaging in thoughtful acts of service can heighten spiritual development and developing one’s spiritual life contributes to acts of service. 
 
I still recall my first decision as the incoming head of school. I was still the Middle School Director when one of my colleagues approached me about creating an outdoor education program for middle school students. That was 18 years ago and today Country Day still has a thriving outdoor education program. At the time I supported this effort because of the research on how these kinds of programs impacted the development of young adolescents. What I didn’t know at the time was that there was also a body of literature which addressed the strong connection between students’ experiences with nature and their spiritual lives. By most measures, the evidence suggests that today young people spend less and less time in contact with nature. Journalist and author, Richard Louv, (coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the growing disconnect between young people and nature.  While I would hardly describe myself as an “outdoors person” some of the most memorable and profound experiences in my life were encounters with nature. I remain convinced that the divine has taken up residence in Rocky Mountain National Park and makes frequent trips to Niagara Falls.  Environmental educator and author, Laura Parker Roerden, notes the connection between spirituality and nature. Roerden, the founder and executive director of Ocean Matters, has been connecting students and nature through deep learning experiences for 25 years. She points out that taking children into nature does not guarantee a spiritual experience, however, she provides numerous examples of the profound impact that experiencing nature can have on the spiritual life of young people. However, one wishes to define it, getting out into nature is good for the soul. Mother Nature is a master teacher that provides lessons on wonder, transcendence, connection, solitude, healing and a host of other experiences.

Mindfulness is another touchstone to the spiritual potential of the whole child. There is an ever growing body of research that points to the power of mindfulness.  Country Day’s Portrait of a Graduate includes the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is associated with a long list of positive outcomes including: better health, greater social and emotional well-being, reduced stress, higher levels of self-awareness, greater resiliency, deeper rest, and greater empathy. While it is often taught from an entirely secular perspective, mindfulness can easily translate into a spiritual practice and actually has its origins in the Buddhist tradition. In the Middle School students are taught mindfulness as part of the Life Skills curriculum. Several teachers incorporate mindfulness in their everyday classroom routines. All of the Country Day guidance counselors incorporate mindfulness in their work with individual students when appropriate. 

There are all sorts of advantages of an independent school education. One of them is the ability to focus on a mission that embraces an understanding of the whole child which includes the spiritual dimension. Many of us know either intuitively or through our own personal experience the importance of spirituality. The French philosopher and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin suggested that, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” He may very well have been right!

Dr. John Davies has dedicated 32 years of his educational career, 17 as Head of School at Miami Country Day, to creating a safe, progressive and empowering learning environment for children ages 3 to Grade 12. He is our Portrait of a Head of School and leads by example. This is Dr. Davies’ final year as Head of School at Miami Country Day.

Reference: Lisa Miller, The Spiritual Child: The New Science of Parenting for Health and lifelong Thriving.  St. Martin’s Press, 2015.  
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Miami Country Day School is a college preparatory learning community committed to educating the whole child. Through the core values of honor, respect, wisdom and compassion, we prepare students to be lifelong learners. We inspire our children to develop their intellectual, physical, aesthetic, social, emotional and spiritual potentials by valuing every student every day.
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