Since 2007, Prayer Spaces in Schools has hosted interactive prayer spaces for children and young people up and down the country. Earlier this year an independent evaluation revealed fascinating insights into what these spaces meant for the children and young people who used them. Here were the key findings
Drawing on prior research into young people’s spirituality, the research focused on the impact of the Prayer Space on four different aspects of young people’s relationships: with themselves, with other people, with the world and with the sacred or divine. The researchers interviewed 71 children and young people from both primary and secondary schools and surveyed a further 555 with questionnaires. You can read the full report at the Prayer Spaces in School website.
1. Relationship with the self
In terms of spiritual development, the biggest influence of prayer spaces appeared to be on pupils’ relationships with themselves.
46% of responses from the children and young people referred to the self, over others, the world or the divine. When asked why their favourite activities were good, 72% of answers referred to themselves.
“I think it's like a conversation that you're having with yourself because it's sort of saying one thing in half of your mind and you're saying it again in your other half which I quite like." (Pupil)
2. Relationship with other people
After the self, the second most significant theme was pupils’ relationships with other people, making up 35% of their responses in interviews and questionnaires.
“I thought about people who I’ve lost who are in heaven, because it’s... a time to reflect on them... I don’t really do it when I am at home.” (Pupil)
3. Relationship with the world
Next came pupils’ relationship with the world, with 8% of all responses mentioning animals, nature and non-human objects. The prayer spaces provided an outlet for pupils’ thoughts and anxieties about the wider world, including where this overlapped with people.
“How refugees had no home like my old cat Patch” (Pupil)
4. Relationship with the sacred and divine
Finally, 11% of the pupils’ responses made reference to the sacred and divine. 24% of pupils mentioned the sacred and divine in response to ‘these are the people I met or thought about in the prayer space’.
“It calmed me down and made me think about myself and thank God for making me.” (Pupil)
This was a rare opportunity to ask pupils what they were actually thinking about when they were invited into a ‘prayer space’, and the answer is mostly ‘themselves’. The authors describe these experiences as a kind of internal conversation, a chance to both talk and listen to yourself. You’ll know from your own experience how important silence and ‘head-space’ is.
Self-reflection facilitates the possibility of making different choices about who we are, what we believe and what we do. Far from selfish, it can lead us to greater awareness of our relationships with other people – the second theme of pupils’ experience in prayer rooms. Pupils used prayer spaces to think and pray about their relationships with friends and families, what was going well, what was difficult and where forgiveness might be needed. They also processed grief, loss and suffering, all of which suggests that prayer spaces play a valuable role in developing emotional, as well as spiritual well-being.
A second important take-away is how distinct prayer spaces are, as both spiritual and educational experiences. Pupils and adults valued the immersive and kinaesthetic qualities of the experience: fizzy forgiveness, bubble tubes, tents and low lighting to name a few. This was contrasted with learning ‘about’ religion in the formal setting of an RE lesson, and/or compulsory acts of collective worship.
“I liked the stone activity because I wanted to keep my thoughts and that way I was able to keep them” (Pupil)
As well as being tactile, activities are self-directed. Pupils have control over how they engage, what they do and when. This allows them to actively bring their own experiences and needs into a prayerful environment, as this quote suggests:
“On that day I had a bad day and I felt stressed but when I got to the prayer space I felt my self being calm for once in a while” (Pupil)
Finally, references to the divine or sacred came bottom of the list of themes from interviews and questionnaires. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us – most pupils who took part didn’t identify as Christian. But the report raises some questions about where Prayer Spaces fit in the broad mission of the Church. The authors reflect that one of the great strengths of Prayer Spaces is inclusivity. The language of ‘God’ is used, allowing pupils of all or no faith to engage more easily. Some might decry the absence of the name of Jesus, but we shouldn’t doubt His presence. Instead I think we should celebrate that it is the Church creating and holding this space for pupils – a space which is clearly beneficial, and theologically grounded (fizzy forgiveness!). The report is positive about this ‘creative ambiguity’ because it allows all pupils to engage. The task for the Church is to create even more spaces, in and beyond the school, where the Christian story takes shape in all its fullness.