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Developing the Whole Child: Celebrating the Spirit of Each Child
By Ruth A. Wilson Ph. D.

Competencies for Whole Child Article

The Child Development Associates (CDA) competencies that can be used for this article are:

• To support social and emotional development and to provide positive guidance.

• To ensure a well-run, purposeful program responsive to participant needs.

For more information on the CDA competency requirements, contact the Council for Early Childhood Recognition at (800) 424-4310.

This article helps meet the following Certified Childcare Professionals (CCP) professional ability areas: 

• The ability to enhance children’s social and emotional development.

• The ability to establish and maintain a well-run and purposeful early childhood educational environment for children.

For more information on the CCP certification, contact the National Child Care Association at (800) 543-7161.

What do Froebel, Pestalozzi, Montessori, and Rudolph Steiner have in common?  Many of us recognize them as significant contributors to the child-centered approach to early childhood education, but what we may not realize is that they were also pioneers in the holistic education movement and believed that education should contribute to the spiritual development of children. They all viewed the young child as more than just a growing body and mind. They saw a spiritual dimension to human development as well.



Supporters of Spirituality in Education

Most of us know Froebel as the founder of the kindergarten movement and a believer in a “children’s garden” environment for fostering optimal growth and development. We may also be aware of his focus on respecting the inherent nature of the child, which he believed was deeply spiritual. According to Froebel, the end of education should not be reason, per se, but rather the unfolding of the divine essence within the child. He thus urged educators to respect the spontaneous and essentially creative nature of this unfolding (Miller, 1997). In his view, the role of education “is to build on the ‘living core’ of the child’s intrinsic spiritual capacities” (Dillon, 2000, p.  11).              

Pestalozzi also advocated respect for the unique nature of each child and felt that the end or purpose of education was to foster the holistic development of the students.   Education, he said, was not intended to make children into people “such as we are” (Miller, 1997). Rather the role of the teacher was to guide children to become the humans their natures required them to be – including what was divine and sacred in their nature (Miller, 1997). Pestalozzi also believed in the innate goodness and wisdom of the human being and felt that the focus of education should not be so much to learn something as to be something. As expressed by Miller (1997), Pestalozzi “was more concerned with the needs and characteristics of the learner than with the requirements of the subject matter” (p. 94).

Montessori also believed in a spiritual force that guides human development (Miller, 1997). She referred to this force as “an individual spiritual embryo” (Montessori, 1972, p.  109). According to Montessori, children will seek growth and development because that is consistent with their nature. She urged educators to respect this spiritual force and to follow the inclinations or nature of the child. According to Montessori, the direction of a child’s life is contained within his own soul (Miller, 1997). In her writings for educators, Montessori once said, “Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire ‘to make him learn things,’ but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called the intelligence” (Montessori, 1965, p.  240). Montessori believed that the first six years are especially crucial to the holistic and spiritual development of the child. During this time, she said, “The young child literally ‘incarnates’ the world around him. The things he sees are not just remembered; they form part of his soul” (Montessori, 1973, p. 63). The poet, Walt Whitman, expressed something similar when he said, “There was a child went forth every day; and the first object he looked upon, that object he became” (2001). 

Rudolph Steiner also saw human development as an unfolding from within and believed that human nature is comprised of body (our physical being), soul (our personal inner life), and spirit (ultimate being). Steiner believed that while the role of education is to foster growth in all areas of human development, its primary focus should be on the unfolding of the individual’s spirit (Miller, 1997, p. 171). Steiner’s views are exemplified in Waldorf Schools where education “is not a pedagogical system but an Art – the Art of awakening what is actually there within the human being. Fundamentally, the Waldorf School does not want to educate, but to awaken” (Steiner, 1967, p. 23). One distinguishing feature of Waldorf Schools is the integration of art into all areas of study.


Spirituality Defined

While the educational theories of Froebel, Pestalozzi, Montessori, and Steiner all reflect, to varying degrees, a spiritual framework, most of us are uncomfortable about openly expressing a commitment to spiritual development in our curriculum. This discomfort may be prompted, in part, by a fuzzy idea of what we mean by spirit and spiritual. To some people, making spiritual development a part of the curriculum suggests the teaching of religion. Fostering the spiritual development of children, however, need not involve religion at all. Spiritual development in its most basic form means development of the spirit, or the animating principle of our being. Spirit, in this sense, is often defined as the nonmaterial part of humans, in contrast to the body, which represents the material aspect of who we are. The word soul is sometimes used as a synonym for spirit, especially when used in the context of “body and soul.”    

The meaning of spirit or spiritual development, as advocated in this article, differs from the religious definitions. It also differs from ethics and moral development. It does, however, relate to philosophical thinking, especially as such thinking focuses on ultimate questions about life.  


Spirituality in Education

Spirituality, when used in the context of education, is sometimes presented in two mutually compatible ways:  1) as a worldview that includes a belief in the reality of the sacred or transcendent (or that which goes beyond material reality) and 2) as a part of human development that strives for self-realization, including “the realization of the sacred as our essential nature” (Snauwaert & Kane, 2000, p. 2).            

Spirituality in its broadest sense is a worldview that stands in direct contrast to a materialistic view of the world. Materialism, or a materialistic view of the world, collapses the multidimensional universe into one dimension: the physical (Snauwaert & Kane, 2000, p. 2). In contrast, a spiritual perspective places the individual in a multidimensional universe where the spirit dimension of human existence is recognized as real (Snauwaert & Kane, 2000). Spirituality, in this sense, refers to “the wholeness of life and the unity of all natural phenomena. This is in reference to the belief that the whole of the universe is more than the sum of the parts” (Purpel, 2000, p.  47).           

As already mentioned, spirituality also refers to a process of internal development or as a process of opening to the transcendent part of our being – that is the nonmaterial or spiritual dimension to the human experience (Snauwaert & Kane, 2000). That such a dimension actually exists is widely accepted by many philosophers, psychologists, and others involved in the study of human nature. The term “spiritual child” includes the idea that “children are prone to rather deep and frequent spiritual experiences” (Dillon, 2000, p. 4). An experience is defined as spiritual if it involves the child in a sense of unity and profound mystery, or if it connects the child with deep meanings and values (Dillon, 2000). Children have been described in the literature as “deep thinkers and feelers who wrestle with life’s mysteries and hunger for meaning and value by which to live their lives” (Dillon, 2000, p. 4). This description certainly suggests a spiritual dimension to children’s experience.


Spiritual Development Suppressed

Unfortunately, our culture, including the culture of our schools, does little to foster the spiritual dimension of our humanness. Some, in fact, have concluded, “our culture is systematically impoverishing the human soul” (Miller, 1997, p. 202). The result is that many children remain chronically undernourished in their spiritual development.              

Some of the elements in our culture which work against the development of the human spirit include materialism, competition, and individualism (Snauwaert & Kane, 2000). In our schools, “constant evaluation and competition” also do violence to the healthy growth of the spiritual life (Miller, 1997, p. 207). A dismissive attitude about the spiritual development of children is also part of the problem. Many educators “do not typically think of children as being particularly spiritual” (Dillon, 2000, p. 5). Dillon, in his research on the spiritual child, identified at least four overlapping reasons for this dismissive attitude: 

1.       Adults tend to think about human development in terms of phases or stages. This view suggests that developmental progress involves the movement “up from” earlier stages of infancy and childhood. With this model, children are not viewed as having strength or competence on their own, other than as precursors to more mature forms. Their ability to experience the spiritual dimensions of the world and themselves is considered to be something that they will perhaps grow into versus already having in place. This view of development is deeply entrenched, and has nearly dominated modern educational and psychological research. As Dillon (2000) notes, “to date, no current educational or developmental psychology textbook even mentions childhood spirituality” (p.  8).

2.       Spirituality is often equated with the “higher” mental functions such as language and abstract thought. Because young children tend to have poorly developed higher-order linguistic and cognitive skills, it is assumed that they cannot experience a spiritual life until these higher functions develop, usually in later childhood and adolescence. This view strongly suggests that spirituality is primarily about thinking – a suggestion that Dillon (2000) finds of special concern. He notes, “I think that we are missing something vitally important about spirituality with such an exclusive focus on thought and its development…Cognitive-developmental theories may actually pose a threat to our understanding of children’s spirituality in that these developmental sequences always seem to cast the stage of early childhood as ‘primitive’ and ‘deficient,’ and present the child’s thought processes in terms of what they lack rather than what they are in and of themselves” (p.  9).    

3.       Spirituality is often equated with religion. Most young children have limited abilities to think and talk about such concepts as God, soul, spirituality, etc.; they are “very often seen to exist in a pre-spiritual wasteland” (Dillon, 2000, p. 5).   Dillon and others find this lamentable and note that it’s not just children who find it difficult to understand and explain spiritual experiences. “Many who have spiritual experiences are unable to either understand or talk about them at the time they occur. The individual may take days, months, years, even an entire lifetime to develop suitable language and concepts that will enable him to begin to approach and understand the experience” (Dillon, 2000, p. 10). The pairing of spirituality with the ability to talk about religious concepts, then, fails to recognize the true nature of spirituality. This is true whether we’re talking about children or adults.

4.       Many adults have repressed their own childhood spirituality, and thus find it difficult to recognize it in young children. If we agree that there is a spiritual dimension to our humanness, then educational programs which fail to address this aspect of human development cannot serve the holistic needs of the young child. The idea of bringing a spiritual dimension to early childhood education, however, can be intimidating. We find that, even as adults, we are on a perpetual search for the meaning of spirituality in our own lives and are afraid that we will be inadequate in fostering such development in children. Bringing a spiritual dimension to the classroom, however, doesn’t require an “absolute truth” in hand. The following suggestions are offered as first steps in helping teachers become more comfortable in fostering the spiritual development of young children. Echoes of Froebel, Pestalozzi, Montessori, Steiner and other leaders in early childhood education are clearly evident in some of these suggestions.



Recommended Children’s Literature

Carefully selected children’s literature can be especially helpful in fostering the spiritual development in young children. Books that recognize the value of imagination, creativity, generosity, and courage tend to touch and expand the spirit. Two books that address deeply spiritual concepts are The Other Way to Listen and Frederick.


Baylor, B. & Parnall, P. (1997). The Other Way to Listen. Aladdin Library.

As might be expected, The Other Way to Listen (by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall) is about another way of knowing. The story focuses on the beauty of intuition, deep listening, and quiet reflection. As the introduction on the book cover indicates, “When you know ‘the other way to listen,’ you can hear wildflower seeds burst open, you can hear the rocks murmuring, and the hills singing, and it seems like the most natural thing in the world.” Of course, most people never hear such things – probably because it takes a lot of practice and you can’t be in a hurry. In The Other Way to Listen, two people do hear such things – one who has been doing it for a long time and one who took a long time learning. Openness and patience are finally rewarded with a taste of the deeper mysteries of life. The story, told primarily in dialogue and delicate line drawings, is accessible to young children.


Lionni, L. (1987). Frederick. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

The story of Frederick (by Leo Lionni) celebrates the beauty and mystery of imagination. While the rest of the family of field mice prepare for the winter in practical ways (such as gathering things to eat), Frederick sits in the warmth of the sun and stares at the colors of the meadow. When Frederick is reproached for “doing nothing,” he explains that he is quite busy gathering sunrays, colors, and words. It’s only when the more practical supplies are gone that Frederick’s contributions are finally appreciated.




Fostering Spiritual Development in the Classroom

Perhaps one of the best ways to foster spiritual development in young children is to recognize and foster “other ways of knowing.” Many of us cling to a narrow understanding of knowing – that is, we think of knowing in terms of a solely theoretical and rational activity. There is another kind of knowing, however, which tends to receive a lot less attention and respect in the educational community. This other type of knowing, sometimes referred to as “aesthetic knowing,” involves us in the “direct apprehension” or “intuition” of experience (Dillon, 2000).            

Aesthetic modes of knowing are “very prominent in early childhood and are often lost in the course of the ‘development’ of most Western children” (Dillon, 2000, p. 11). Joseph Clinton Pearce (1977), a researcher who has studied children’s ways of knowing the world, used the terms “magical thinking” and “primary perceptions” in reference to their aesthetic knowing. He also notes that this way of knowing tends to disappear as children mature. Rachel Sebba (1991), another researcher looking at different ways of knowing, believes that children have a “unique and unrepeatable ability…to grasp surroundings,” an ability, she says, that for most people “recedes over time” (p.  398). 

The richness of young children’s ways of perceiving the world is based, in part, on their gift of “primal seeing” (Sebba, 1991). Rather than being incorrect or inferior, primal seeing is spiritual and allows children to experience the “magic” or “essence” of things in the world around them. Because, for most people, primary seeing is experienced only (or most intensely) during childhood, it would be good and right and beautiful for parents and early childhood educators to honor and celebrate this way of knowing and experiencing the world (Wilson, 1997). “Other ways of knowing” can be fostered through art, music, ancient myths and stories, and close encounters with the natural world.            

Another way to foster spiritual development in young children is to truly respect children’s play. Froebel recognized the importance of play to early development and cautioned teachers against suppressing children’s play in a rush for accelerated learning.   He suggested that, just as a gardener must not attempt to force plants to violate the laws of their own development, so neither should the teacher exert force on the child. He was adamantly opposed to limiting education to intellectual and moral discipline and urged educators to respect the fullness and natural stages of the divine unfolding within the child. Spiritual development, like other areas of development, cannot be forced or hurried. Such development occurs in “child time” not “adult time.” Play, then, should never be considered a waste of time but rather viewed as a medium through which each child will grow in her own time.           

Children should also be given a great deal of freedom in choosing their own activities. Both Froebel and Pestalozzi asserted that education must start with the child’s nature rather than the teacher’s preconceptions. Children should thus be free to devote their time and energy to that which they find of interest. Children often know intuitively what it is that nurtures their spirit. If a child chooses to work at the art center day after day, there must be something at that center which draws the child to it. Perhaps it’s involvement with the creative process, exposure to rich colors and textures, or a growing sense of competence in knowing how to use the materials.           

Creating beauty in the classroom also fosters spiritual development. While children’s artwork is one of the most beautiful ways to enhance the aesthetic environment of the classroom, other sources of beauty should be considered as well. These might include fresh flower arrangements and carefully chosen artwork. Beauty can also be introduced through music, sunlight, potted plants, and artistically crafted banners.             

Practicing gratitude can also nurture the spirits of children. Bombarded by advertising with messages about what we don’t have but are told we “should have,” we tend to focus on wants and perceived needs and forget to practice gratitude. This is true of young children as well as people who are older. Starting a group discussion with the question “What are you thankful for today?” often stimulates, not only rich conversation, but grateful, joyful spirits, as well. Other practices that foster the spirit (or the spiritual development) of the child include cooperative learning, service to others, the integration of the arts into all areas of study, education in and for the natural environment, and whole language activities.



While spirituality and education are seldom linked in discussions about the role of schools in our society, the failure to include the spiritual development of children as an educational goal does a great disservice to our children. If the focus of education is on the development of the whole child (rather than just the intellect), the spiritual dimension of our humanness must be addressed. It is a serious fallacy to think that young children are not ready for spiritual growth or that they do not have spiritual experiences. The opposite is likely true – childhood is the spiritual period par excellence (Dillon, 2000). Perhaps the strongest argument for making spirituality a part of our educational programs relates to the fact that there is a spiritual dimension to being human and that our spirit yearns for wholeness. We need more from our schools than information; we need meaning. “If we are to accept the notion that spirituality…is an important dimension of the human quest for meaning and purpose, then it surely has a place in educational theory and in the life of the school” (Purpel, 2000, p.  48). 


Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., is currently a visiting professor in early childhood education at the University of Toledo. She is also Professor Emeritus of Special Education at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Dr. Wilson has focused much of her research and program development efforts on early childhood environmental education.



Baylor, B. & Parnall, P. (1997). The other way to listen. Aladdin Library. 

Dillon, J.J. (2000). The spiritual child: Appreciating children’s transformative effects on adults. Encounter, 13(4), 4-18.   

Lionni, L. (1987). Frederick. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 

Miller, R.  (1997). What are schools for?  Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press. 

Montessori, M. (1972). The secret of childhood. (M.J. Costelloe, Trans.). New York: Ballantine. 

Montessori, M. (1965). Spontaneous activity in education (F. Simmonds, Trans.) New York: Schocken.    

Pearce, J.C. (1971). Magical child – rediscovering nature’s plan for our children. New York: E.P. Dutton. 

Purpel, D.E. (2000). Review essay. Encounter, 13(4), 45-54. 

Sebba, R. (1991). The landscapes of childhood – The reflection of childhood’s environment in adult memories and in children’s attitudes. Environment and Behavior, 23(4), 395-422. 

Snauwaert, D.T. & Kane, J. (2000). Defining the “spiritual” in spirituality and education: critical realism, religious pluralism, and self-realization. Encounter, 13(4), 2-3. 

Steiner, R. (1967). The younger generation. Spring Valley, NY: Anthroposophic Press.

Whitman, W. (2001). Leaves of grass. New York: Metro Books. 

Wilson, R.A. (2001). Encouraging philosophical thinking in young children. Early Childhood News, 13(3), 54-61. 

Wilson, R.A. (1997). The wonders of nature: Honoring children’s way of knowing.   Early Childhood News, 9(2), 6-9, 16-19.