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Resilience, Development, and Children’s Spirituality: How Gardening as a Spiritual Practice for Children Builds Resilience in the Face of Trauma

In the wake of the ongoing pandemic, the climate crisis, international refugee crises, and racial conflicts persisting in North America, people hear about trauma from the moment they arise to the time their head hits the pillow in the evening. Trauma is not new—humans have been witnessing, causing, and even inventing traumas throughout time. With the technological revolution coupled with the COVID pandemic, however, some experts suggest that adverse child experiences and particular forms of trauma are on the rise (Bryant et al. 193).

What would it look like to live in a world where we equipped our children in schools, religious institutions, homes, and even government systems (like foster care), to face trauma with resilience? In a day and age where we are trying to figure out how to cope with the masses of individuals struggling with mental health issues, perhaps preventative measures in early childhood could benefit not just individuals and communities, but society as a whole.

This paper considers equipping children from a young age to be able to cope with resilience in the face of trauma, possibly preventing negative psychopathological outcomes. It specifically explores gardening as a spiritual practice of resilience in the lives of children. Drawing together interdisciplinary work in psychological resilience, developmental studies, and children’s spirituality this paper critically engages how gardening as a spiritual activity can help cultivate resilience for children in the face of trauma.

As it pertains to psychological resilience, gardening can be seen in several empirical studies, as a protective factor or promoting factor for resilience (Vinueza 95). Most of these studies are not specific to children, rather they demonstrate that the task of gardening gives meaning, purpose, and productivity in the midst of challenging situations.

In developmental studies, protective factors for resilience include peer relationships, ritual, service, spirituality, and creativity (Cohen et al. 1907). All of these factors may be attained through community garden initiatives. Additionally, gardening with a parent, teacher, or trusted adult not only teaches self-efficacy skills, which is another protective factor for resilience (Blaustein et al. 21), but builds a helpful bond of attachment through a co-creative enterprise. At least one significant attachment with a trusted adult has proven in numerous studies to be the most promising protective factor for resilience (Blaustein et al. 20).

Furthermore, when psychological insights from resilience and developmental studies are combined with insights from children’s spirituality there may be additional benefits. The work of Hay and Nye, though written through a Christian lens, broadly speak of children’s spirituality in terms of “awareness-sensing, mystery-sensing, and value-sensing” as “categories of spiritual sensitivity,” (Hay and Nye 64-65). While these three spiritual sensitivities can be further explicated with regards to specific religious frameworks, for the purpose of this paper, they will be used broadly, so that they can help cultivate a sense of spirituality regardless of religious background.

A major contention behind this vein of thinking is that adult understandings of religion and faith through cognitive frameworks do not compute into the spiritual life of a child (Levine 125). Rather, when mystery, awareness, and value are emphasized in the context of spirituality, it paves a pathway for a robust spirituality to emerge in childhood, from which a religious orientation may develop later in life. Combining some of these insights from the work of Hay and Nye with resilience studies and developmental psychology, children’s resilience might be fostered through open-ended spiritual practices, like gardening.

While certain forms of meditation are associated with Buddhism, the rosary is associated with Catholicism, and praying toward Mecca is associated with Islam, no religion stakes a claim on gardening as *their* spiritual practice or ritual. Though references to gardening may be found in numerous holy writings, people, the world over, garden. It is not inherent to one religion or faith. It offers an open space to connect with nature, nurture the environment, work alongside other people, develop community and relationships, and ultimately foster resilience. Applied broadly as a spiritual practice, gardening for resilience may be integrated into multiple spiritual modalities, including but not limited to: Indigenous spiritualities, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, secular humanism, and interfaith or inter-religious  practice.

How might gardening be developed into an interfaith, multi-religious spiritual practice for children? According to Hay and Nye’s framework, awareness-sensing is about practicing attuning oneself to the surrounding environment (Hay et al. 65). Gardeners do this as they touch the dirt to assess its moisture content, as they smell the berries to check ripeness, and as they listen to the leaves rustle for signs of autumn approaching.

Mystery-sensing deals more with the spiritual process of awe—those moments in life where time seems almost suspended (Hay et al. 65). Again, this capacity can be exercised in the garden as one engages in activity and play in the dirt while noticing the beauty and aesthetics of nature. A transcendent experience might be witnessed as sunlight beams through trees or as quiet is experienced in the context of nature, even in the midst of a bustling city.

Finally, value-sensing, as it pertains to Hay and Nye’s work deals with the traits that are developed in early childhood which might become religious virtues later in life (Hay et al. 65). In a garden children can learn about care for the environment, as they work against climate change. Children also may learn the value of food-security, whether they are food-insecure themselves, or help cultivate food to donate to others, values of equitability, mutuality, and generosity may be formed in the garden.

Combining insights from studies in children’s spirituality (broadly speaking) along with studies in psychological development and resilience, this paper explores gardening as a spiritual practice for resilience in the lives of children as they face an increasingly uncertain future in an ever-changing global climate.

*Full bibliography available upon request.

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

In the wake of the pandemic, the climate crisis, and international conflicts, trauma and strife are all around us. What would it look like to equip children who are growing up in this context with protective factors for resilience in the face of trauma? Combining insights from studies in children’s spirituality, with studies in psychological development and resilience, this paper explores gardening as a spiritual practice for resilience in the lives of children as they face an increasingly uncertain future in an ever-changing world. Drawing upon empirical studies in resilience and developmental psychology, this paper correlates specific protective factors in resilience to the act of gardening. Then bringing in work in children’s spirituality, gardening will be explored as an inter-religious spiritual practice which further builds resilience in children who face trauma.

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