FARMINGTON — Deborah Schein has spent most of the last 45 years in early childhood classrooms. Since 1972, she’s worked in urban, suburban, private and public early childhood education settings but it was a moment later in her career that set her down a path investigating one of the least explored aspects of childhood learning and development.

She was working in an urban day care in Cleveland where it was not uncommon to look out the window and see drugs being dealt outside. One day one of her students approached her with a wriggling worm in his hand and a look of absolute wonderment. When Schein saw the joy in his face, how he lit up with the discovery, she found herself struggling for the right words to mark the moment.

In her days at a Jewish day school, Schein would have honored the deeply joyful moment by sharing a soft prayer with her students. But in a public school context, she realized, she had no language on hand to describe what she saw in the young boy’s face. He was having a spiritual experience, she thought, connecting with and in awe of the natural world around him.

When she got home Schein turned to the internet for information on the spiritual development of young children. When she could not find even a single reference to the spiritual lives of children under the age of 8, she felt a question begin to crystallize in her mind.

“If we take out spirituality because of church and state,” Schein asked. “Then what is it that kids are missing?”

She thought the answer could be something of fundamental importance. Schein spoke about spirituality in the classroom at the University of Maine at Farmington on Friday.

By this point, Schein was already in her late 50s and closing in on retirement. But after a conversation with her husband, she decided to return to school to conduct research on the spiritual development of children.

By the time she received her Ph.D. she had developed a theory of childhood spiritual development she believed could help parents and educators raise confident, empathetic and engaged children.

The spiritual development of a child, Schein argues, starts with its first experiences of love and deep connection with others. When an infant stares at his mother and sees her lovingly looking back, that experience provides a deep sense of comfort and contentment. The child knows he is loved.

That experience of love breeds confidence, teaches the child to connect with others and begin to understand himself in the context of his relationships with others. Parents and teachers, Schein argues, can then create other opportunities for reflection and exploration by catering to a child’s basic dispositions —for instance linking a little boy’s obsession with cars to other concepts and learning.

Schein also identified the arenas where caretakers could create opportunities for spiritual connection including in time, space, nature, relationships and through the posing of big questions.

When a caretaker brings a child to pick their very first raspberry, Schein describes this as a spiritual moment in time. It will only happen once and with the right approach that teacher, parent or loved one can encourage the child’s sense of wonderment in that moment by speaking to the prickliness of the leaves, the soft, velvety skin of the raspberry, it’s sweet, sun-kissed taste and bright red color.

“What’s happening in a child’s mind is they’re taking in every little nuance, every little milieu,” Schein said. “They have brains different from ours, they’re like little sponges.”

It’s these kinds of moments of joy and awe that Schein believes feed a child’s love of learning and set the foundation for every other form of development whether emotional, social, cognitive or psychological.

In her more recent research, Schein has begun to apply this theory, exploring how making room for spiritual moments can encourage students’ embrace of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Over time Schein has expanded the acronym to STREAMS, with reading, art, and spirituality among the added arenas for growth and learning.

“My intention is to help (educators) to see that any work they do in STEM is connected. It’s all part of a child’s spiritual development,” Schein said. “In order to be engaged in learning spiritual development is the foundation.”

It’s an argument that makes inherent sense to Schein though she is still collecting the data to back it up. Children are best able to learn when they are open to doing so which comes with acceptance, comfort and a love of learning. Caretakers can plant those seeds early on by creating time, space and moments for deep joy, growth and connection, Schein says.

In surveys of early childhood educators, Schein says she has been encouraged to see that many educators already recognize, at some level, the moments of spiritual connection in the classroom.

“I thought spirituality was distinct in early childhood education but what I’m finding is it already exists in quality programs but we just don’t call it what it is,” Schein said.

With her work, Schein hopes to bring a more structured approach to this endeavor with frameworks and language educators can use to create meaningful, holistic connection and growth in their classrooms.

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

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Twitter: @KateRMcCormick