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Getting Spiritual: soaking in the wonder of life

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Whatever your beliefs, you’ll want your child to know that life has meaning and that the good we do in the world matters. Soaking in the wonder of life as a family – walking in the woods or building a bonfire on the beach – can be a great way to achieve this, as Tim Hall reveals

True education is not just about academic excellence. It is about preparing a child to be ready to take on life as an adult, to know who they are, to have developed their full potential, to be able to make complex ethical and moral decisions, to be a leader or a great follower, to be fully who they were made to be.

At St David’s College in North Wales, where I am chaplain, we have inherited from our founder, the image of a three-legged stool as an illustration of a complete educational model. Whole person education is about developing the intellect, the physical and the spiritual. Each of these is a leg of the stool. When all three are well developed, just as a three-legged stool can stand on uneven ground without rocking, so a person will be able to stand firm when life’s ground gets churned up.

Developing these three aspects of a child is tricky and it works best when the development of all three is interwoven and integrated. However, because developing the spiritual is challenging – even defining it is a bit of an enigma – let’s explore elements of it.

The awe and the wonder

We have all been there. At the top of a mountain seeing the clouds dissolve in front of us revealing a stunning view; running down a mountainside and exploding out of the cloud base; floating through a magnificent secret gorge feeling free as a bird… whatever it was, wherever it was, we have all been there. That ‘wow’ moment that can come with being somewhere truly special and seeing something amazing, either alone or in the company of others. To some, whatever their beliefs, it is proof that there is a higher power at work and a deeper aspect to each of us. To others, it is a powerful feeling of being alive, of being part of something special, knowing you have purpose and meaning.

A number of years ago, I approached our Outdoor Education Department to see if we could explore this wow moment a little more deeply. The spirituality days we created have been running for seven years now, and they have drawn out some interesting and thought-provoking ideas from the young people involved.

Spirituality days are designed to go hand in hand with students’ regular outdoor education days, which see each year group getting out of the classroom for one day every other week. Students are asked to reflect on the experiences they have had during their outdoor education days and focus on those wow moments – the awe and wonder.

What it means to be alive

One example of a spirituality day revolves around what it means to be an animal, and how that relates to being human. Activities involve students hiding away in a forest using camouflage, running as fast as they can to compare their speed to that of other animals and undergoing a test of strength – camouflage, speed and strength being things that animals use to stay alive in the wild. Lunch is always fun as well, as we try to go back to basics, eating food with our fingers (chicken legs, corn on the cob, bread, baked potatoes) and sitting around big tables to encourage conversation and interaction.

In the afternoon, we run workshops designed to explore what it means to be alive and what makes us as human beings different from other animals. Pupils bake bread, produce a song about their experiences in the morning sessions, and take part in a play based around giving thanks. The bread, music and drama are then shared with the whole year group at the end of the day.

In a school following a strong Christian ethos, it is natural to lean towards giving thanks to God in these afternoon sessions. However, a day like this is wide open to interpretation. The aim is to explore what it means to be a part of such a wonderful world, and what we can do to better experience it – sharing as a community, serving others, conserving the places where we find these ‘wow’ moments, trying to understand why these moments make us feel so alive… and if they make us feel part of something special.

When thought becomes prayer

Another such spirituality day is based in a forest, which has a sense of magic. It has views across to the mountains of Snowdonia, a broad expanse of beach, and a remote spit of land, sometimes an island, on which the church of St. Dwynwen once stood. In some places, the forest feels wild and ancient, in others it feels warm and welcoming. It’s a great place to experience awe and wonder!

Here, the first activity is a solo activity, which involves students going out from a set point to find somewhere to reflect by themselves in silence. No phones, no tablets – just themselves, and a piece of paper and a pen in case they want to draw or write something. The children love this solo activity. They realise that being on their own can be a valuable and positive experience and, for some, thought becomes prayer.

Another activity focuses on decision making. We use a hashing trail for this, with the group making decisions about which direction to take. This is then linked back to what decisions need to be made in everyday life, and where these decisions may take us. Other activities focus on the environment around us – what fits in and what does not fit in? What are the implications of our actions on where we live and on the living environment around us?

Food is, again, an outdoor eat-with-your-hands affair. We then gather on the beach to build a volcano on the sand, and get a fire going  inside it. For those of you who have never done this, go and do it! There is something magical about sitting on a beach, looking out to sea, sat next to a smoking sand volcano. Smoke has been used in spiritual and religious ceremonies since time began, and it is easy to see why when doing this.

In the weeks that follow, it is really important that all the pupils involved have an opportunity to provide feedback on their experiences. The hope is that students will continue to reflect on the awe and the wonder, with prompting and further input.

Spirituality days have revealed that students are prepared for challenge, for alone time and for processing those moments of awe and wonder. Having looked deeply into their own meaning and purpose in life, many students begin to explore how they can use a faith system to give this expression through worship and prayer, compassion and service.

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