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Teacher Intentionality: Brining the Spirit into Early Childhood Education

By Bekah Barrles

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“I remember when I was little … there is this picture of me and my siblings. My mother bought a house with a garden in the back. She did not garden but it was already there, so my mom let us play in the garden and there is this picture of us just simply covered—face, hands and legs—in mud and smiling looking like we are having the greatest time. I want to be that child again.” (Interview with Caroline Buss, February 20, 2017).

How many of us have memories like this from our childhood? Moments where we were allowed to just completely explore the world independently. No rules. No thoughts to consequences, just total and complete exploration, investigation, curiosity, imagination, discovery and FUN. I bet if we all really thought about it most of our favorite childhood memories come from these types of experiences.

So why has early childhood education removed these types of experiences from young children’s learning? We all know, understand and believe that children learn best through play and yet there still seems to be something missing.

As early childhood professionals we are constantly hearing about “the whole child.” In our work with children we need to make sure we address the whole child, or all the developmental domains. This is drilled into us in all of our training. When thinking about the developmental domains, most early childhood professionals consider the domains of cognitive, social, emotional, physical, language and occasionally adaptive development and learning (Gibson, 2011; Wilson, 2011). Most educators know what to look for and how to help children meet objectives in each of these areas (Wilson, 2011). Therefore, children’s growth in these areas is usually addressed and fostered through intentional teaching based on the teacher’s knowledge of these developmental areas. It is my belief, however, that there is a serious lack in children’s development when looking at this traditional view of the whole child.

I believe children’s spiritual development needs to also be intentionally developed by teachers, in order for children to truly grow in all areas of their development. Gibson (2011) stated that all of the developmental domains overlap each other and if there is one area of deficit it can have a negative influence on other areas of development and across all environments of a child’s life. Therefore, by including spiritual development in the whole child concept, not only can we address an area lacking in traditional early childhood education, but we can also benefit the other areas of development included in the whole child concept.

What do I mean by spiritual development? When I am discussing the child’s spirit in no way am I referring to the Holy Spirit or any other aspect of religion or the supernatural. In terms of spiritual development and how it applies to early childhood education, the best definition is as follows: “The capacity in human beings for wonderment … for interest in the nature and origin of things; and for considering how one is related to others, to oneself and to the world around us” (as cited by Baumgartner & Buchanan, 2010).

To make this applicable to early childhood educators’ work with children, I have broken down the domain of spiritual development into a sub domain of “exploration of the world” with four specific objectives for children:

  • To gain an understanding of how they connect with others and world around them.
  • The ability to move into the unknown through perseverance, curiosity and risk-taking.
  • To appreciate the mysteries and beauties of the natural world through wonderment and awe.
  • To inspire greatness in others through contributions benefiting something larger then self.

“When they (children) have the opportunity to explore, risk and try again in an environment that is both safe and challenging, (children) can engage in motor practice play that leads to advanced physical abilities, mobility, agility, dexterity, and as a result, confidence, independence and learning” (Editorial, Risky Play, n.d. p. 8).

Children will receive so many benefits by adding these objectives into classroom practice, not just for their spiritual development but in other developmental areas as well. Intentionally developing a child’s spirit has many benefits:

  • It will create experiences and stimuli that are important for overall development.
  • It has psychological, physical, perceptual, social, intellectual and health benefits.
  • Children will learn vital life skills and gain experience that is needed to face the unpredictable nature of our world.
  • It will lead to an enhanced human condition with higher positive human factors, such as imagination, gentleness, generosity, caring, compassion, forgiveness, selflessness, kindness, responsibility, accountability, integrity, sharing, courtesy and consideration.

Page 30 shows examples of some of the many benefits children will receive in other domains by developing their spirits.

In addition, there are negative outcomes associated with not developing a child’s spirit, including’ physical health challenges, behavior difficulties, depression, unwillingness to act, and social problems such as exploitation, alienation, suicide, crime, inequality, poverty and conflicts (Adu-Febiri, 2011).

Now that we understand what spiritual development is and how important it is, how can teachers intentionally develop a child’s spirit? It is first important to define what it means to be intentional. According to Epstein, “intentional teaching means teachers act with specific outcomes or goals in mind for children’s development and learning. Teachers must know when to use a given strategy to accommodate the different ways that individual children learn and the specific content they are learning” (as cited by Epstein, 2009, p. 46).

The following is a list of specific suggestions for early childhood professionals to use as a way to help children develop their spirits. Before these can be put successfully in place it is first important to establish trusting relationships with each child so they feel safe and able to explore and make mistakes. It is also important that teachers have the mindset that children are the leaders of the activities, and that the adult is present to provide safety and guidance, as stated by Caroline Buss (interview, February, 20, 2017).

1. Spend a minimum of three hours outside daily (unless under the threat of dangerous weather). Ideally this would include opportunities to explore with natural environments and elements. Allow children to explore the way the outdoor environment naturally changes with the seasons. Teachers should not be afraid to do more activities outdoors, such as drop off or meal times, noted Lyndsay Blohm. Also, find time for those quiet moments outside when children can just “be.”

2. Provide natural and open-ended materials in each of the interest centers as well as outside. Examples of natural materials include sticks, pine cones, acorns, pebbles, rocks, sea shells, sponges, leaves, dirt, natural spices and herbs, water, sand, tree stumps, tree bark, cotton, seeds, and so on. Open ended materials are materials that do not have a specific purpose, like a specific button to press that only creates one effect.

3. Compile a list of open-ended questions to use regularly. Open-ended questions do not have a right answer or a yes/no answer. Teachers should compile a list that they can reference on a daily basis in their interactions with children, such as, “Why do you think that is?,” “What do you think will happen if you do….?,” “What does that feel like?,” “Can you tell me more about….?”

4. Provide opportunities that involve an element of risk. The element of risk involves several areas listed below.
a. Height—Provide natural places for jumping and climbing—hills, tree stumps, branches and boulders.
b. Speed—Provide open areas to run and hills for rolling, running or sliding down.
c. Use of real tools—Great examples of this would include hammers and nails in a woodworking station or knives for cutting food at meal time.
d. Places to get lost—Create spaces in the classroom and outside such as book nooks or forts created with natural materials.

5. Provide opportunities for group or volunteer work. The creation of opportunities for work will take more effort of the teacher’s part, however, these can still be very organic, such as cleaning up trash on a walk around the neighborhood, weeding a neighbor’s yard, or helping to collect and deliver food for a food pantry. Opportunities for group work can happen spontaneously as well, as long as propermaterials are provided. For example, provide a large piece of paper in the art center for children to continually add to a group mural or provide a stage in the dramatic play area where children can put on plays together. Another great way to encourage group work is to have the children participate in caring for a classroom pet or plant.

Every single one of these strategies will help children meet the four objectives proposed: to gain an understanding of how they connect with others and the world around them, gain the ability to move into the unknown through perseverance, curiosity, and risk-taking, to appreciate the mysteries and beauties of the natural world through wonderment and awe, and to inspire greatness in others through contributions benefiting something larger than self. I believe the beauty of spiritual development is that it can be unstructured. Melinda Miles said, “You can’t develop spirituality in a box…. (we need to) allow (children) to learn rather than teaching them.” In our daily practice, all of us can be more intentional in creating environments that allow children to develop their spirits. It is important that the teachers have the correct approach when engaging with children; understanding there is a purpose behind these suggestions, and creating an element of intentionality, even if the activities are spontaneous. Being intentional in developing a child’s spirit is more of a mindset or teaching style than a written part of the curriculum. Therefore, it is important for teachers to allow for plenty of unstructured and child-initiated play throughout the day, in a safe environment.

In order for developing a child’s spirit to become truly intentional, teachers do need to formally document and assess how children are developing in these specific objectives. I highly suggest teachers add these objectives to whatever system they are currently using for documenting and assessing children. These observations should then be shared with colleagues and parents during collaboration meetings and parent-teacher conferences, to ensure that everyone understands the importance of developing a child’s spirit. Through the process of observing, documenting and assessing children in these objectives, teachers will become more intentional about providing further spiritual opportunities for children.


Adu-Febiri, F. (2011). Inviting emotions, morals and spirit into our classrooms: A sociological perspective on the human factor model of education. Review of Human Factor Studies, 17 (1) 40-89. Retrieved from https://ezproxy.lib.uwm.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.uwm.edu/docview/1240982607?accountid=15078

Baumgartner, J.J. & Buchanan, T. (2010). Supporting Each Child’s Spirit. Young Children, 65 (2), 90-95.

Definition of Human Spirit as defined by Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.wikipedia.com

Editorial, risky play- Barnados Ireland. (n.d). Retrieved from https://shop.barnardos.ie/products/ebook-childlinks-childrensriskyplayissue32011

Epstein, A.S. (2009, January/February). Think Before You (Inter)act: What it Means to Be an Intentional Teacher. Exchange. Retrieved from https://www.childcareexchange.com/article/think-before-you-interact-what-it-means-to-be-an-intentional-teacher/5018546/

Gibson, C. (2011, September/October). Overlapping Developmental Domains. Exchange. Retrieved from https://www.childcareexchange.com/article/overlapping-developmental-domains/5020153/

Guckian, M. (2005). Human Spirit. Studies. An Irish Quarterly Review, 9(375), 254. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30095766

Jones, E. (2012, July/August). Giving Ourselves Permission to Take Risks. Exchange. Retrieved from https://www.childcareexchange.com/article/giving-ourselves-permission-to-take-risks/5020646/

Myers, B.K. & Myers, M.E. (1999). Engaging Children’s Spirit and Spirituality through Literature. Childhood Education, 76(1) 28-32. DOI: 10.1080/00094056.1999.10522066

Newsletter of the Nature Action Collaborative for Children. (2016, January/February). Here is to Children and Nature. Exchange. Retrieved from https://www.childcareexchange.com/article/here-is-to-children-and-nature!/5022789/

Sell, L. (2013). The Human Spirit. The Blog, The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lorenz-sell/the-human-spirit_b_3016651.html

Silvern, S.B. (2006). Educating Mind and spirit. Childhood Education, 83(1), 2-5. DOI: 1080/00094056.2006.10522867

Wilson, R. (2011, May/June). Becoming Whole: Developing an Ecological Identity. Exchange. Retrieved from https://www.childcareexchange.com/article/becoming-whole-developing-an-ecological-identity/5019903/



Benefits of Spiritual Development

Social Development:

  • Creates a sense of belonging
  • Respectful of others and property
  • Widens world view and deeper understanding and respect of the environment
  • Leads to the development of a more peaceful, caring and ethical society
  • Reduced social problems
  • Learns to understand what is dangerous
  • Cooperative and harmonious play
  • Creates a community of learners
  • Learns boundaries of behavior
  • Promotes love, respect, appreciation, and tolerance for others and the world
  • Celebrates individuality
  • Learns how to make positive contributions
  • Learns how their actions affect others and the world and assumes responsibility

Physical Development:

  • Learns sense of balance
  • Learns spatial awareness
  • Better motor control and coordination
  • Learns physical literacy—aware of what they are able to do and their limits
  • Creates a love of exercise
  • Strengthens muscles

Language Development:

  • Facilitates language development
  • Listens well
  • Learns to pick up on non-verbal cues
  • Develops the ability to discuss ideas with friends

Cognitive Development:

  • Develops problem-solving skills
  • Creates an identity as a learner
  • Learns how to be resourceful, creative and inventive
  • Learns how to identify, assess and manage risk through a risk-benefit analysis
  • Higher academic intrinsic motivation and achievement
  • Learns how to pay attention
  • Learns how to act and reflect
  • Learns how to practice with diligence creating accomplishments

Emotional Development:

  • Learns self-control
  • Creates a positive “I can do it” attitude
  • Overcomes fears of the unknown
  • Builds confidence, self-esteem, independence, autonomy and self-reliance
  • Learns how to cope with everyday challenges and cope with risk
  • Experiences positive emotions, such as; fun, thrill, enjoyment, pride and self-confidence
  • Becomes emotionally resilient
  • Develops moral competence
  • Become self-motivated and more self-aware
  • Promotes a sense of hope and relaxation
  • Never feels alone


Author Bio

Bekah Barrales is the owner/administrator of Bee Balm Learning Center in Madison, Wisconsin. She has 15 years experience in the early childhood education field in a classroom, administrative and community setting. Barrales is a member of the Director’s Caucus in Madison, Wisconsin. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as administrator and leadership credentials from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Barrales lives in Oregon, Wisconsin, with her husband, son and two dogs.