In the process of diving into research for my book Holy Work With Children, I developed a new method for working and doing research with children. Active Wondering became the most beneficial process for my work as a researcher. Engaging in these open conversations created a safe space for us to wonder together, revealing the children’s thoughts and discoveries.
We learned together as we wrestled with the mystery of faith together. This method opens space for children to share their voice, develops critical thinking skills (in response to the modeling done by the researcher and the work done by the children practicing this process), and helps all participants not only recognize but reflect God’s presence in their lives as they wonder, learn, share, and teach each other. As one child said, “Wonder is a good word.” Indeed it is.
In an Active Wondering mindset, faithful ministry with children begins with deep respect and understanding of God’s active presence in the lives of all people, no matter their age. As adults in ministry with children, our work is to create a space for persons of all ages to hear God. When I take the time to sit and listen to children, I discover that God “shows up” in new and exciting ways. Together, we can wonder with the children in our communities about God’s presence in our lives. This work of wondering helps us make meaning about God, our relationships, and the world.
Active Wondering in action
In these holy moments, the children and faithful adults wonder together how God moves and participates in the life of creation. This can be done through stories. Using the Godly Play curriculum, we sit together watching and listening as God’s stories unfold. One of the children’s favorite stories is the Parable of the Good Shephard. This parable combines Psalm 23 with the Parable of the Good shepherd found in the Gospel of John. In this Godly Play story, sheep are moved across a flat piece of felt. They move through the good grass, the cool, still, fresh water and the places of danger.
As the sheep move, the children and I wonder together: “I wonder when you have been to the good grass… I wonder when you have felt the cool, fresh water… I wonder when you have been in a place of danger?” In response, the children share their life experiences: moments when they lay in the grass on a summer day with their families; times when they smelled the grass as they kicked a soccer ball and made their first goal; stories of summers spent swimming in Lake Michigan and playing in the water with friends. And children share times when they were lost or afraid.
“One time I got lost in a shopping mall,” one seven-year-old boy shared. “I remember looking around and seeing a bunch of people but I couldn’t find my mom.”
“How did that make you feel?” I asked.
“Really scared,” he said. “And alone,” he continued.
“What happened next?” I asked.
“A friendly woman found me and asked me if I knew where my mom was. She showed me the booth where I could talk to someone who worked at the mall who could help me.”
“I wonder how that made you feel?” I responded.
“Good, but kinda scared—I didn’t know if she was a good person.”
“How did you find your mom?” I asked.
“The mall person helped me. She called over the intercom and my mom came to me.”
“Wow,” I said. “I bet that felt good.”
“Yes,” the child answered. “I was so happy and so relieved… It was like when the good shepherd found the lost sheep… She held my hand tightly as we walked to the car together… Just like the Good Shepherd… she led me to safety.”
In such moments, children help me see the connections between Scripture and real-life events. This is foundational to the meaning-making process. Our interactions reveal how God moves in and through their wonderings and stories. Children reveal God—or in this boy’s case, Christ as the Good Shepherd—at work in their lives. As another child said; “God always protects me when I am scared… Sometimes at night I pray that God will keep the bad dreams from coming… Most of the time they stay gone.” These holy conversations remind every person in that holy space that God is active in our lives.
By doing this work of faith formation together, we grow in our faith and in our relationshiops with God and each other. It is a reciprocal growing process. When we create space to listen, we find ways to leave behind the busy and loud voices of the world and listen more carefully to God’s still and quiet voice withing and to each other. It is through this holy work that all of us as God’s children discover our calling together as the Body of Christ and find new ways to love God and neighbor, together.
Editor’s Note: This blog is adapted from Rev. Dr. Tanya Campen’s new book Holy Work With Children – Pickwick Publications (June 29, 2021).
The Rev. Dr. Tanya Eustace Campen is an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church and currently serves as the Director of Intergenerational Discipleship for the Rio Texas Conference. For a more in-depth reflection on how children make meaning, and a practical exploration of the tools they use to do this work, register for Dr. Tanya Campen’s MasterClass: Learning the Practice of Faith Formation with Children. And check out Holy Work With Children: Making Meaning Together. She is also a Coach at Vibrant Faith.