7th International Conference on Children's Spirituality

University of Winchester, UK 23 - 27 July 2006

Conference report

Inga Belousa
Institute of Sustainable Education, Daugavpils University, Latvia

Discourse about spirituality is rather challenging because spirituality is a very broad and vague, general and specific concept even if it is related to any particular field, including education. I come from Latvia-the former Soviet Union and the current new EU member country-where over the last decade scholars and practitioners have begun to include or reinclude spirituality in educational discourse. In spite of the increased interest in the role of spirituality in society, the link between spirituality and education is not extensively discussed neither in popular, nor in academic sources in Latvia. To be present and actively involved in discourse about spirituality I was looking for an opportunity to join the corresponding international event.

As my professional and research interests are connected with the issue of spirituality as a pedagogical category, for me, the Seventh International Conference on Children's Spirituality was highly inviting. Here I hoped to meet the leading researchers and practitioners who are passionate about the issue of spirituality, to challenge my perspective, to share my learnings, and to formulate new insights that could contribute to the field of education, especially teachers' education in Latvia. I was both surprised and impressed to find out a worldwide network of spiritualityconcerned professionals there. The delegate list included more than 60 names of participants from different parts of the world-the UK, Belgium, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Latvia, Canada, the US, China, Australia and New Zealand- who came from a broad variety of institutions-universities, institutes, primary and high schools, colleges, dioceses, hospitals, research, development and education centres and offices, etc. All of them, including me, were warmly welcomed by the convening team of the conference-Cathy Ota, Jane Erricker and Clive Erricker.

The first glance on the theme of the conference-spirituality, rights and democracy-for me as an educator was rather intriguing. Working at the Institute of Sustainable Education I was used to consider an issue of spirituality mostly within educational context. This conference in Winchester broadened my perspective with interdisciplinary appreciation of spiritual dimension of a human person and openness to understand the concept children's spirituality as inclusive to everybody and all connected with it. For me the conference was a short but rather saturated and deep journey vitalized by five ways of learning-keynotes, collegiate papers, practical workshops, site visits, and personal connections-about the current thinking, research, methodological concerns, and environmental particularities within the area of children's spirituality. These ways of learning provided a symbolic meeting point of education, society, religion, culture, health and social care, literature and arts, and spirituality. They represented a dimension with a holistic approach towards spirituality. These five ways made the conference to be both comprehensive and connected with diversity of human life.

Keynote speakers included Dr Jim Conroy from the University of Glasgow (UK), Dr Tobin Hart from the University of West Georgia (USA), Dr Philip Woods and Dr Glenys Woods from the University of West of England (UK), and Dr Marian de Souza from the Australian Catholic University, Ballarat (Australia). They challenged the participants to re-evaluate classical assumptions, concepts, forms, and ways of thinking in the light of general theme of the conference. Keynote addresses implied the belief in reconstructive and transformative perspective.

Over three conference days 35 collegiate papers based on professional development, research and experience were provided. They discussed issues introduced by contemporary research into spirituality, spiritual development and spiritual identity. Several presenters followed pedagogical perspective and explored holistic and spiritualitybased developmental approach, spirituality-inclusive education policy, and spiritual dimension of curriculum, teaching, and learning. Some of them considered spirituality within school communities and school ethos. Others followed the theme of the conference and highlighted the connection of spirituality and responsibility, freedom, hope, voice, rights, citizenship, social capital, globalization, migration/immigration, totalitarism, democracy and public space. Presentations discussed spirituality according to both, religious and public types of education, children's and adolescents' manifestation, and different perspectives-global and local, educational, clinical, pediatric, religious, cultural, and social. Presentations I was especially looking forward to hear were about teacher education and training, about teachers' voice and understanding of meta-curricular content of education. I was happy to experience a rather broad perspective that embodies nothing but a common background where the post-soviet situation and view on spirituality becomes an organic part of it.

Educational practitioners offered workshops that shared practical ideas, experience, and educational strategies. They were a rather rich alternative to conceptual theorizing of an issue of spirituality.

The conference offered not only subjective moments of scholarly reflection and practice- based insights but also search for communal embodiment of spirituality. It was ensured by hospitality of four faith communities-Gurdwara (St Mark's Road, Southampton), Vedic Society Hindu Temple (Radcliffe Road, North Southampton),Medina Mosque (St Mary's Road, Southampton), Cittaviveka (the heart without attachment) Chithurst Buddhist Monastery (Chithurst, Hampshire). These communities welcomed us and shared some insights about their spiritual identity. We joined question and answer connection and silence meditation, experienced wanders about the difference and the likeness, enjoyed the offered food, and reflected about the fragility and strength of an inner world in the current age of global terrorism. Our common openness to pluralistic reality where the common focus was the sought bridge over the gap created by mistrust and intolerance in society was remarkable. The thing I was very much inspired by was a genuine, sincere connection between us that rose above words.

Winchester, the place where conference was organized, itself was a rather inspiring site with beautiful and peaceful historical heritage successfully interwoven with modern visual attractions. King Alfred's city immersed us - the participants of the conference - in a perfect blend of medieval spirit and stories and unexpected contemporary walks and sights. The England's ancient capital's sophisticated charm evoked introspective and recreational feelings that matched the nature of the conference. Providing various ways of learning the conference gives hope that it is possible to inquire the challenging concept of spirituality and to employ the acquired learnings in order to make difference in school, social, and family setting. It is so because the cohesive and supportive group of participants that meets at the annual conferences has definitely created community of collegial discourse. Communal spirit was present in critical reflection on presentations, introduction to personal and professional life, planning common extra-conference activities, advising and mentoring, talking about life, and even dancing. I am very thankful for all informal chats about cultural particularities of keeping and sustaining spirituality in complicated periods of time/ history, about common ways and means of manipulation, about surprises and roots of a human potential, about having one's own voice and healthy way of living.

By the help of the conference an international network of spirituality-concerned researchers and practitioners growing out of the Children and Worldviews Project continues to expand. An International Association for Children's Spirituality founded at the conference in Winchester has become the third 'meeting place' closely interrelated with annual conferences on children's spirituality and the International Journal of Children's Spirituality, however slightly distinctive from those two. With an aim to promote research, practice, and communication in relation to children's spirituality the association is dedicated to enhance the importance of children's spirituality as a significant educational focus and to contribute to its recognition within wider contexts in time between conferences.

The further discourse and search for a holistic vision of spirituality, spiritual development, knowing, living and teaching will be continued in the next international conference: 'The role of spirituality in education and health: finding connectedness to promote health and well-being amongst children and adolescents'. This eighth conference will be held in Australia at the ACU National Ballarat Campus in Victoria from the 20th to the 24th January, 2008.