Young children have deep within them a profound awareness of God and great potential for religious experience long before they are able to understand and articulate those theological constructs we adults are so eager to teach them. So insist internationally known religious educators Dr. Sofia Cavalletti of Rome, Italy, and Dr. Jerome W. Berryman of Houston, Texas. Their research and work with young children, using a worship-learning environment modeled on Montessori principles, has much to offer those of us who seek new ways to encourage and build our children's faith.
In Berryman and Cavalletti's approach, parables (the parable of the Good Shepherd in particular) provide the foundation for exploring and drawing out children's awareness of God. Pointing out that Jesus used parables as a way of evoking faith responses in his listeners, Berryman and Cavalletti advocate a method of "entering into" stories with children. Unlike the traditional method of teaching and explaining Bible stories to children, the Berryman and Cavalletti approach encourages children to experience the story and discover new meaning in it without the intervention of a teacher who tells the learner how to think or feel.
In a Berryman or Cavalletti classroom the leader presents a parable or story simply (without verbal embellishment), using three-dimensional materials to represent people and places that figure in the narrative. Story materials are moved with great care and quiet reverence, and later are made available to the children to use in their own reflection on and re-creation of the parable. Children are also given opportunity to respond to the story by using a variety of other art media. During this response time children are encouraged to represent their personal experiences rather than to articulate answers to the teacher's questions or state conclusions that summarize or analyze.
The work that Berryman and Cavalletti have done with children challenges the church to stretch its thinking and to evaluate its approach to passing on the faith to its children. The emphasis Berryman and Cavalletti place on experiencing parables with students encourages religious educators to think beyond the "we-they" model of our present church-school and children's worship settings in which adults "fill up" the minds of little ones with faith language and religious concepts. For a more in-depth presentation of methods, materials, and outcomes of this unique approach, see:
Berryman, Jerome, "Being in Parables with Children," Religious Education, vol. 74, no. 3 (May-June, 1979).
Berryman, Jerome, "Montessori and Religious Education," Religious Education, vol. 75, no. 3 (May-June, 1980)
Cavalletti, Sofia, The Religious Potential of the Child. New York: Paulist Press, 1983.