Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Occupational Therapy for the Religious Lives of Our Children

For the past couple of months my son has been in occupational therapy once a week. It has been helpful for him as he works on understanding his body and how to give it the increased physical and sensory stimulus it seems to need.

I was not immediately sold on the therapy, though.

He spends a little under an hour playing with his therapist - rolling in beanbag chairs, jumping rope, throwing sticky frogs at a target while holding his head upside down, practicing yoga positions, spinning in an egg-shaped chair, and even snacking on Nutella and crackers. It was hard for me to understand the benefit and to justify the cost.

My son absolutely loves it. He loves his therapist. He loves the child-centered world that is her therapy room. He loves the stimulus and the attention. From the waiting room I can hear almost non-stop laughter from the first activity to the moment his time is up. Every time we walk out of the building he says, “I love that. I can’t wait till next week.”

I have begun to come around on the benefit of the therapy, and it has gotten me wondering why we don’t have a system to offer “religious therapy” for our children as well.


As a pastor it was not uncommon for parents to bring children to me to have specific conversations about religious questions, or even to talk through a death or divorce. Often those were just one time visits, not regular and reoccurring appointments. There was no chance to build on conversations in a meaningful way. I would have loved to have spent every day in ministry in one on one conversations with children. It would have been one of the most valuable uses of my time as a pastor.

It is important to note here that unless a clergy person is also trained and certified as a counselor, they should NOT meet regularly with a child or an adult to help work on psychological or emotional issues. It is imperative that pastors refer people to professional therapists for ongoing counseling.

BUT, that’s not what I am suggesting here. What I am imagining would be something more along the lines of music lessons or even religious tutoring...but with way more laughter and joy than I had at many of my piano lessons as a child.

Here are some of the ways that I imagine this kind of religious “therapy” for children might look:

  • With younger children it might include reading together from the many beautiful children’s Bibles or picture books that are available today, especially those that tackle theological and biblical concepts that when explored early on can shape the way children’s religious thinking is colored.
  • With older children it might mean agreeing to read books together in preparation for conversations about God and the world. Can you imagine giving a child the opportunity to read something by Katherine Patterson, C.S. Lewis or Madeleine L’Engle knowing that another adult was anxious to hear their opinions and listen to their questions?
  • We could retell the stories of the Bible to each other using nativity sets and other “religious manipulatives” like those used in programs like Godly Play
  • We could talk about our prayers together, establish good habits, and learn creative ways to pray, like Praying in Color
  • We could look at artistic interpretations of Bible stories and images of God through art cards and icons, talking about how the artist visualized God and/or interpreted the story. What art do they like? What does the artist teach them about God? How do they describe God through their own art? 
  • We could see and touch objects used in worship on different occasions and in different seasons of the church year. My office was filled with the “stuff” of our religious lives, and it was always a place where children could come and explore. What better way to teach them that church is a welcoming place and that the rituals of the church are important than to actually let them get their hands on them? 

An obvious question all of this raises is why parents would need to take their children to a professional for these kinds of conversations and exploration. After all, I am always stressing that children are more interested in what their parents believe than in what their pastor believes.

I also could probably give my son the same physical stimulation he gets from his occupational therapy on my own, but the truth is I don’t have the professional education and training to motivate me and to keep me on a consistent track with him at home. (Last year I tried to teach my own child to play the piano; that did not go well.)

Inviting a pastor or religious educator into this kind of ongoing personal education with your child would show them that this kind of exploration, learning and practice is just as important as all of the other things we run them to after school and on Saturday mornings.

This past week while my son was in therapy I sat in a different spot in the waiting room, from where I could get an even better understanding of what was happening in my son’s therapy, since I was just on the other side of a thin wall from the therapy room. I could tell that they were working their way through some modified yoga poses that will help him to loosen his hamstrings. The therapist had shown them to me in a few quick minutes before his session began.

I could hear him struggling to get them right and to stay on task, and then I heard what was the most important lesson I have gotten from his time in therapy.

I heard his therapist make him focus and say, “It is important that you pay attention when we are together, because you will need to be sure to help your parents understand how to do this when you are at home together.”

What a perfect reminder for all of us. So often our religious lives as parents are enhanced simply by the fact that we are trying to help shape the religious lives of our children. What better thing to do than to make sure that they receive the very best training from someone we invite into their lives who in the end will help us keep our lives on track as well.

How do you think your child would benefit from this kind of one on one education?

3 comments:

  1. sooo much food for thought here! I am mulling a kids church book club as I read this. . . I think your piece is another reminder about the importance of partnership between parents and educators of every stripe in cultivating skills, interests and talents in our children

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    1. Becky, I love the idea of a book club for kids at church. I tried that a few times and found that it worked best when we were discussing a book that they were already reading...once I tried to get children and their families to add a "new" book to their plate I was not as successful.

      I have been thinking a lot about Newberry Award books lately and think those would be a great place to start since most of them have religious themes to them.

      blessings in your ministry!

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  2. Oh my goodness...this post has my head spinning. I have many families who are connected to the church but come on a very sporadic basis. I would really prefer that these families commit to come to corporate worship and such on a regular basis, but I wonder if offering some "occupational therapy" for individuals or sibling groups might encourage those who have strange schedules or are uncomfortable with group setting for whatever reason to get reconnected with the Church. Hmmmm-I must ponder this.

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