Making Meaning of God

May 24th, 2018 | Category: Church Work Professional, DCE Ministry, Early Childhood Education, Faith/Learning
By Mimi Larson

Editor’s Note: In 2014, Mimi Larson successfully defended her dissertation in early childhood education. Her empirical research was done in a preschool classroom of the Concordia Early Childhood Education Center. Her research has been presented at two national conferences: the National Association for the Education of Young Children in November 2015, and the Children’s Spirituality Conference in June 2016. The following summary of her presentation at the Children’s Spirituality Conference is a chapter in the forthcoming book of the Society for Children’s Spirituality entitled Story, Culture and Formation, to be published by Wipf and Stock. The next conference of this Society will be the Children’s Spirituality Summit, June 27–29, 2018, at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. This conference explores children’s faith development and spiritual formation from a Christian perspective. More information about the upcoming conference is available at

The Faith Experiences of Preschool Children

Part of being human is to make meaning of our experiences. We question why things happen. We seek to understand new ideas. We look for meaning in the stories we hear. Children are no different as they make meaning of the world they encounter. But their ability to make meaning comes through the common experiences of childhood. Through discovery and play, wonder and stories, reflection and language, young children are able to make meaning of their lives and experiences. Children are capable of creating understandings and form knowledge through language, stories, play, and relationships. This research aimed at understanding how these common experiences of childhood help young children engage and make meaning of faith. Is it possible for preschool children to engage in the biblical story and understand abstract spiritual ideas? We will discover that faith for young children is fostered through exploration and intentional experiences, all within a strong atmosphere of faith.

Exploring the Literature

Christian education has been highly influenced by developmental theorists. Piagetian theorists believe that basic theological concepts are difficult for a child to understand, for a child’s religious development is intricately connected to their cognitive development. Within this train of thought, a young child does not have the cognitive ability to understand faith. These ideas, along with the stage-based theory of cognitive development, have affected the church’s understanding of moral development (see Fowler, 1981, and Kohlberg, 1984, for extended discussion).

John Westerhoff and Lev Vygotsky emphasized the importance of community and social experiences that form the context for children’s understanding and learning (Vygotsky, 1978; Westerhoff, 2000). For Vygotsky, it is the social relationship with others, containing interaction, language, and thought that forms a foundation for an individual’s learning (Court, 2010). Children are capable of knowing things before they can verbalize or articulate them. For Westerhoff, it is not the words that create a place for meaning and understanding for the child. Instead, it is the child’s experiences, the experiences connected with words that truly matter for the child and his or her faith development. Faith “is an action which includes thinking, feeling and willing and it is transmitted, sustained and expanded through our interactions with other faithing selves in a community of faith” (Westerhoff, 2000, p. 89).

Traditionally, education is thought of as one person imparting knowledge to another person with the goal of producing a specific learning outcome in that individual. Westerhoff challenged that view, believing in an enculturation model that emphasizes “what one person has to bring to another and the dialogical relationship between equals” (Westerhoff, 2000, p. 80). This idea of interaction, not instruction, undergirds his theory of faith development. Faith requires the interaction between “faithing selves” in order to emerge, to make meaning, to expand and develop in character and content. This is a relational faith, and it is in the intersection between these experiences, these interactions, these sharings, where faith is nurtured and grows.

The Means of Making Meaning

Experiences provide the context for young children’s ability to make meaning where they explore, play, discover, and wonder. They experience enormous growth in their physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development. Through language, stories, play, relationships, and experiences, young children are able to grasp information and create understanding.

Language is a means for children to express their understandings and is more than words. Language also encompasses actions, emotions, and attitudes (Cavaletti, Coulter, Gobbi & Montanaro, 1994). Drawing is also a form of language (Cox, 2005). Since drawing is a communicative form of language and meaning-making (Tay-Lim & Lim, 2013), it is through their art where children are able to express their ideas and understandings (Chang, 2012; Pahl, 1999). This research contained a drawing activity following the biblical storytelling where children drew pictures and then engaged in a dialogical relationship where they were invited to share their understandings.

Play is a common childhood experience and it is through everyday lived experiences such as play where children make meaning. Play enables a child’s ability to make meaning (Yust, 2004). Elkind (2007) contends that for early childhood, play is “the dominant and directing mode of learning” (p. 7). When children play, they have the opportunity to experience and try out new ideas which bear no consequences since it is only play (Eaude, 2005). Vygotsky (1978) asserts that in real life, action overrules meaning. Yet, it is in play where “action is subordinated to meaning” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 101). As children engage in play and make meaning through these experiences, they are equipped to integrate these new ideas into both their family and community life (Paradise & Rogoff, 2009).

Stories provide a narrative framework for children to interpret meaning (Hall, 2007). Robert Coles (1989) contends that storytelling provides a better and richer sense of ourselves and our experiences. He states: “Novels and stories are renderings of life; they cannot only keep us company, but admonish us, point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course. They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers—offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we might make soundings” (Coles, 1989, p. 159–160). In terms of a child’s spirituality, it is within stories and rituals where children are encouraged to explore, question, and wonder about spiritual and sacred understandings. Spiritual stories can encourage a sacred space for children to wonder and awe, a natural quality that is nurtured and developed through exploration.

Because of the connection between cognitive and social learning (Ainsworth, 1969; Rogoff, 1990), relationships contribute to a child’s meaning making. “Children’s spirituality involves living, exploring, and belonging by building close relationships with peers” (Harris, 2007, p. 271). Social relationships help children respond to and make sense of significant moments and nurture the inner realm of the child. Through the everyday tasks of living, parents, caretakers, and other significant adults can nurture this inner spirituality.

Implications of Making Meaning in Terms of a Child’s Spirituality

Current research on children’s spirituality rarely discusses early childhood or preschool children, and little data are available on what meanings young children can actually make of their spiritual experiences. One reason for this might be the belief that faith and the verbal articulation of faith must be linked. This belief is disconcerting since it means that several populations may not be able to possess faith such as those with dementia, the intellectually disabled, and the young. Research shows that children are capable of being deeply spiritual (Stonehouse & May, 2010). They are capable of reflecting on spiritual questions (Gersch, Dowling, Panaglotaki & Potton, 2008). They are even able to make spiritual meanings (Lipscomb & Gersch, 2012).

The Present Study

With these understandings from the literature, this qualitative study explored how preschool children make meaning of their faith experiences. This study was set in a full-day preschool classroom in a Midwestern Christian early childhood center, and the purposeful and information-rich sampling contained a total of twenty-six three-, four-, and five-year-old children in which approximately fourteen to eighteen children participated in the research activity each day.

For four consecutive weeks, the children engaged in their regular Christian education time three times a week. The first experience was a storytelling experience where the teacher read a children’s storybook based on a biblical story. The second experience utilized Young Children and Worship (Stewart & Berryman, 1989), a form of godly play storytelling that encourages children to engage the biblical story through words, questions, silence, movement, and wooden figures. While the third faith experience was not originally included in the research design, it emerged from the lead teacher’s desire to continue exploring the week’s biblical story and contained music, stories and dialogue between the teacher and children. The biblical stories chosen for this research included the story of the Good Shepherd (based on Ps 23), the Good Shepherd and the lost sheep (based on Psalm 23 and John 10), the Good Shepherd and the wolf (based on Psalm 23, John 10, and Matt 18), and Jesus and the little children (based on Matt 18, Mark 10, and Luke 18).

After the first and second experiences, children were encouraged to participate in a drawing activity, creating a meaningful picture from the story or an expression of what the story meant to them. Both the researcher and lead teacher were present at the table to ask questions of the children, encouraging their dialogue and expression of thoughts. Following the drawing, children were interviewed and asked to share their pictures and thoughts. The storybooks and story figures were available throughout the week for children to use and engage with.

In terms of data collection, observations were founded on the children’s actions and behaviors, dialogue and questions, and non-verbal interactions. Similar to photo elicitation, the children’s drawings were used to facilitate the interview questioning, gaining insight to the children’s understandings and meaning-making. The discussions at the drawing table included a combination of group talk, self-talk, and specific dialogue between the adults and children.

Documents were also gathered and consisted of the children’s drawings and weekly teacher reflective journals. Since children create meaning though a variety of means such as non-formalized play, informal conversations, and other behaviors, the teacher journals were utilized to capture any meaningful behaviors, dialogue, comments, or questions that occurred throughout the week from the children that related to the faith experiences.

Data were analyzed based on what Westerhoff (2000) describes as Experienced Faith where faith is experienced enactively and children have the freedom to explore, wonder, question, try, imagine, create, observe, copy, play, experience, and react. The eight individual coding categories were defined and any additional codes that emerged through further reading and analysis of the data were added. Further understanding regarding a child’s demonstration of meaning-making was assessed based on language, actions and behaviors, and interaction with others.

How Children Make Meaning of God

Children approached meaning-making through a combination of verbal communication, play, story, art, and mirroring behaviors in which relationships were a critical link between engagement and articulation of understanding.

Meaning Making through Verbal and Non-Verbal Behaviors

In their faith experience, children utilized both verbal and non-verbal behaviors when making meaning of faith. For example, after hearing the story of Jesus and the children through the Young Children and Worship storytelling technique, a four-year-old girl mimicked the storyteller’s movements as she walked the little children figures out of the city toward the Jesus figure, placing the disciple in between Jesus and the children. Looking at the story figures on the floor, she exclaimed: “Stop! Jesus is too busy for you!” She then picked up the Jesus figure and stated: “Let the little children come to me.” Placing the disciple off to the side, she holds the Jesus figure in one hand, bringing the children one by one to Jesus, having him kiss each child.

Later, that morning, this same four-year-old demonstrated the combination of verbal and non-verbal behavior in her drawings and interview. While she was drawing, she non-verbally represented the story with the familiar characters of Jesus, the disciples, and the children. She drew quietly, stopping at one point to verbally explain to herself, “I’m drawing another one because so there are two disciples.” In describing the picture to the interviewer, she stated: “It’s the disciples who said S-T-O-O-P…that means ‘stop’…Jesus is too busy for you!” When asked what she understood of Jesus, she shouted, “Let the little children come to me!” and shared that Jesus loves the children and kisses them on the cheek. This verbal description resembles the previous non-verbal behavior that occurred during play where she held Jesus and had him kiss the children.

This young girl demonstrated how young children are able to integrate and flow between the verbal and the nonverbal as they seek to make meaning and articulate understandings. Relationships also have an impact on the child’s verbal and non-verbal behaviors. A skilled teacher is able to draw out verbal explanations, helping children articulate the meanings and understandings. As educators, it is important for us to learn to listen to both children’s verbal and non-verbal behavior in order to understand how young children make meaning of their faith.

Meaning Making through Language and Images

As children spoke, they utilized various forms of language to articulate their faith, and these various forms of language reflect the creative and varied way children are able to make meaning. These forms of language include a descriptive and concrete language, a symbolic language, a theological language, a fairy tale or fantasy language, and a private or inner language.

Meaning Described with Descriptive and Concrete Language.

The children utilized descriptive and concrete language to express their understandings of faith. For example, when asked who the Good Shepherd is, a child replied: “That’s Jesus.” When the teacher explored by further asking “Who is Jesus?” the child, unable to articulate the connection between Jesus and the Good Shepherd, physically pointed to the Bible and said “that you’re reading” and then pointed to the wooden shepherd figure in her hand and stated: “Him.”

In an interview with a three-year-old child, she also used descriptive and concrete language when describing her picture with these words:

Girl: (pointing to a line on the side of her page) This is God.

Researcher: That’s God? And what is this?

Girl: Those are the sheep that go blah blah.

Researcher: They go blah blah?

Girl: Uh-huh. Blah blah.

Researcher: They what?

Girl: They look like babies that play?

Researcher: They look like babies that play? Does Jesus play with the sheep?

Girl: No. He only watches…

Researcher: He what…

Girl: He’s big and his heart still beats because he is so big.

This three-year-old girl described the lambs as babies and Jesus as big with a heart that still beats. In drawings, she used images such as a vertical line to demonstrate God. These concrete and descriptive images express her understanding of the meanings she has ascribed to the biblical story and are rooted in her experience. Another child demonstrated this concrete and descriptive language when he explained that Jesus “cares for the sheep and eats breakfast with them every day.” This breakfast experience, one in which the child has partaken, was utilized to concretely describe his understanding of the caring relationship between Jesus as the Good Shepherd and the sheep. Just like children eat breakfast with their parents, the sheep eat breakfast with Jesus.

Meaning Described with Symbolic Language.

The data also demonstrated the children’s use of symbolic thought and language in describing meaning. They exhibited this by stating that we are all sheep, or as one child exclaimed “the lambs are us!” Whether by words or created drawings or objects, the young children used a symbol, such as a sheep, to form a representation of a real object or person, all of which aids their making meaning.

In particular, there was one five-year-old girl who demonstrated this interplay between the verbal and creative thinking. Upon hearing the story in the first week, she exclaimed that she understood who the sheep were in the story. During the second week, she spoke of “sheep-people” and in her drawings, called the sheep “people.” The third week, looking at a picture of Jesus with children, she shouted out “Look at all the sheep!” After being told that there were no sheep in that specific picture, she mimicked the picture and illustrated the people following Jesus as sheep who were following Jesus, the Good Shepherd. In the fourth week, she continued drawing pictures of sheep. When asked why she was drawing sheep since there no sheep in the biblical story for that day, she explained, “The sheep are the people.” When questioned what that might have to do with the story, she responded by stating: “The sheep are them, the people…kids.”

This interplay of symbolic and imaginative understanding was also demonstrated in her drawings. When the story told of parents bringing their children to see Jesus, she drew a picture of grandma and grandpa sheep with a kid sheep at the feet of the shepherd, who she verbally described as Jesus. She continued to demonstrate her ability to make meaning through imaginative and symbolic thinking by describing Jesus leading his sheep to the door, initially described as a city, then clarified to be the sheepfold, and later identified as a church. On the last day of data collection, she created the story of the Good Shepherd out of clay. Engaging in symbolic language, she explained her creation, describing Jesus as the one who “takes care of the sheep.” Her symbolic meaning-making was captured even past the completion of formal research when she was able to expand this symbolic thinking to other biblical stories. When hearing the biblical parable of the prodigal son, the little girl “burst out” and exclaimed that the story was just “like the Good Shepherd!” She went on to explain that “the daddy was like the shepherd and he loved the son, even though he went and was lost, they still had a party.” This young child demonstrated the ability to make meaning of symbolic language within the biblical stories.

Meaning Described with Theological Language.

Whether it was a form of imitation or mirroring behavior, the young children also utilized a form of theological language to describe meanings of their experiences. Upon seeing an illustration of three crosses, a child described it as “the sign of the cross,” a phrase used in the classroom as well as in the church to describe a crossing motion that the children made to signify the cross of Jesus Christ. Children also utilized typical “Jesus” answers, in which a child quickly responds to any spiritual question by answering “Jesus.” The teacher or storyteller would ask additional questions to push past the surface “Jesus” answer, which would engage the children in deeper thought and understanding.

For the children, theological language was simple and concrete, yet it demonstrated significant meaning-making. For example, a four-year-old girl simply described salvation and Jesus as the “door to heaven.” She expanded this meaning by illustrating Jesus with sheep following him to heaven. While her simple description might have mirrored or replicated a phrase both seen and heard in an earlier story, she explained that “Jesus is leading…is leading the sheep home” where Jesus is opening the door to heaven and the sheep willingly follow Jesus because he knows their names.

Meaning Described with Fairy Tale and Fantasy Language.

In understanding their experiences, preschool children utilized what could be described as a fairy tale or fantasy language to express meanings. They described the protagonist in the story (in this case, the Good Shepherd) as “the good guy” and antagonists (the thief or the disciples) as the “bad guys.” They described the disciples as mean and the wolf as harmful. They talked about the Good Shepherd who saves and of the sheepfold as being safe. They knew there were scary and dark places in which the Good Shepherd would rescue the lost sheep.

In the play activity, children utilized this language as well to demonstrate meaning making. As a three-year-old boy played with the wooden figures, he made Jesus the hero whose adversaries in the story were the disciples. He described the Jerusalem city as “the church” and placed Jesus “at the top of the church.” With the children looking up to Jesus, he said, “they are learning about God” while singing to himself “The B-I-B-L-E” song. Later, he has the disciple figures trying to enter the church (Jerusalem city) and placed Jesus in their way. As he attempts to have the disciples knock Jesus down, he did not let Jesus fall. Holding Jesus to face the disciples, he said: “You are not the boss of me,” and then brings the protected children figures to the hero Jesus, quietly whispering, “thank you.” He then proclaimed to himself: “Jesus loves the children.”

Meaning Described with Private or Inner Language.

Private speech is a process where children talk to themselves, describing their actions, asking themselves questions, or repeating phrases, attempting to utilize language “as an instrument of thought” (Frauenglass & Diaz, 1985, p. 357). In this research, children demonstrated the use of private or inner speech usually during an authentic and personal activity such as drawing pictures or playing with wooden figures. As mentioned earlier, the three-year-old boy and four-year-old girl talked to themselves while playing with the wooden figures. This is a demonstration of private speech. During drawing time, a little boy drew a picture of Jesus welcoming the children and the disciples trying to stop them. While drawing, he kept repeating to himself, “little children come to me.” Another boy drew a picture of Jesus with people, telling himself: “Remember…remember Jesus died on Easter.”

Children demonstrated various different types of language and images to express their faith understandings. As educators, we must remember these various ways of articulation, and while there are similarities, each child is different. It is important to learn each child’s unique and personal faith language in order to understand what meanings they are attributing to the biblical story.

Meaning Making through Storytelling

The way a story is told matters. In this research, children engaged in a variety of storytelling activities, each unique in presentation and style. Different types of storytelling encouraged different ways that children could make meaning.

The Importance of Exploration.

Meaning-making was demonstrated through exploration in both the Young Children and Worship activity as well as the teacher-led activity. Children led the meaningful exploration, usually, by asking questions as they searched for further understandings. Sometimes, the adult (either the lead teacher or storyteller) was needed to encourage deeper exploration by asking clarifying questions and challenging children to better articulate their understanding, making connections with prior understandings.

The Importance of Relationships.

While different in style, each of the storytelling activities incorporated relational interactions, and these relationships were important to a child’s meaning-making ability. Children were more responsive in the storybook and teacher-led activity, dependent on the teacher’s initiation of the discussion and questions. This style of interaction exposed a separation between the adult and child where the adult was more learned and the children were recipients of that knowledge. In order for the children to make meaning, the adult was needed to scaffold them to higher understandings. The Young Children and Worship activity exhibited a different type of interaction—a more relational and participatory experience. Here, there was cooperation between the adult and child where they participated as co-learners, exploring individual understandings that were then shared in a collaborative meaning-making process. In each of these situations, the meaning-making process was based within relationships, where learning is a co-constructional process involving both child and teacher (Bodrova & Leong, 1996).

The Importance of Repetition.

The repetition of the stories facilitated the children’s ability to make meaning. The children demonstrated deeper understandings as the story was told in different ways. It was the repetition of the story that provided the space for children to engage with, make associations within, and ultimately demonstrate deeper meaning and understandings about the story. On the first day, children experienced the story for the first time, making observations and asking clarifying questions. As the children continued with the story throughout the week, their engagement deepened and language improved. Children began to state deeper associations in comparison to the earlier descriptive observations, and their questions prompted deeper discussions and explorations. Westerhoff (2000) described a similar process when discussing how children learn: Children learn first through experience, then by imaging and stories, followed by use of signs such as conceptual language. The data here demonstrated this movement from experience to story to language.

The Childlike Ways of Meaning Making

In order to understand how children make meaning, adults must pay close attention or risk overlooking a serious and purposeful activity. While this appears to be child’s play, young children are engaging in a serious activity of meaning making that occurs through play, reading a storybook, drawing, or mimicking behavior—all activities that appear to be childish and inconsequential. Yet, it is here that children engage in a serious activity that helps them understand what they have experienced.

This research demonstrated that for children, meaning making is an integrative process. Young children combine verbal and non-verbal behavior and utilize a variety of language and images. Activity, including repetitive activity, facilitates their ability to personally respond, react, and make meaning of the biblical story. In this study, children played with the story figures, drew pictures, and dialogued with others to make meaning of what they experienced. And it is here, in these multiple means of knowing, where children wrestled with faith and theological understandings.

How does this, then, impact our work with young children in the church? Educators can shape an atmosphere for spiritual meaning-making by creating intentional experiences for children to engage in. Through a variety of different and repetitive activities, children can explore, engage, and express their faith in their own unique ways. These experiences engage emotions as well as cognitive facilities where children can respond both physically and intellectually. Nestled within relationships with adults and other children, young children have the ability to engage with biblical story in a holistic and integrative manner. For those who pay careful attention, they are privileged to view a young child’s faith develop through a mosaic of meaningful channels. LEJ


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Author Information

Dr. Mimi Larson is a recent Ph.D. graduate of Concordia University Chicago in early childhood education. Her research interest, from the beginning to the end of her program, was the faith formation of young children. Hence her dissertation topic. She serves on the board of the Society for Children’s Spirituality (SCS), which is planning its first Summit this summer at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. After five successful conferences as the SCS, the first four at CUC, the last at Lipscomb University, the board feels ready to reframe itself as a summit-producing group of professionals. Check it out at