God touched me!" exclaimed five-year old Collin after he had spent time in the prayer corner.
"What do you mean?" asked one of the leaders.
"I don't know. I just know God touched me, " Collin replied.
A couple of weeks later, four-year-old Tony asked to go to the prayer corner. For five minutes he sat quietly in the curtained off area of the classroom. Then, because the curtain didn't come clear to the floor, I noticed him slip from the chair to his knees, resting his head in his hands on the floor. He stayed in this position for several more minutes.
These unprompted words and actions are certainly not typical of young children. As a research project for the graduate school at Wheaton College, we studied how young children used to a typical preschool experience at church would respond to symbols, liturgy, and reflection. Fifteen preschoolers participated. We were astounded by the results.
Adjusting space, pace, and volume
The first element we adjusted was the use of space. Each week we transformed an ordinary toy-filled classroom into an uncluttered space by screening off distracting toys and furniture. We set up a child-sized altar, created a prayer corner and a praise corner where a child could listen to appropriate music through a headset and make movements for God. We placed materials around the perimeter of the room for reflective response to the story. To communicate that this space was special, we all removed our shoes outside the door.
We also changed the pace and volume of the activities these preschoolers were used to. We moved and spoke more slowly and helped the children do the same. We did not rush them from one activity to the next. The same was true for teaching. Jesus, the Good Shepherd was the theme. Each week we focused on a different quality of the Shepherd. Instead of covering a lot of content, we wanted the children to know the Good Shepherd well. The children also learned to speak softly because someone near them "might be listening to God."
Initially the children responded in typical early childhood fashionbursts of energy, lots of questions, and occasional noisy interactions. But it wasn't long before the environment changed, and the children perceived church differently. One day a new child said, "This is like Sunday school." Another child responded, "No it's not. This is God's class."
In subsequent weeks we noted a marked change in their attitudes and actions. They appeared more reflective and developed a sense of calm and order within themselves. We sensed awe and wonder from them, and eagerness to engage in prayer and communion with their Shepherd. Parents began commenting about the changes they saw in their children at home.
This is your brain on God
Advancements in brain research shed light on why children appear to thrive in slow, quiet, and uncluttered spaces. Interestingly, the cognitive area of the brain can be trained to function faster and faster. But the brain's emotional center lacks a cell coating that enables ...