In Pursuit of the Spirit: Spiritual Formation with Toddlers (Or Lectio in Nature)


After a freezing first winter in Chicago (frequently described as Chiberia), and bipolar summer (hot and humid one day, cold and rainy the next), I am feeling particularly grateful for the beautiful fall we’ve been having recently. The sun has been out, the temperatures have been moderate, the leaves are beginning to change, and it is generally delightful to be outside.

Often the time I spend outside is with our toddler. It’s sometimes a challenge to convince him to come outside when he has so many fun toys inside, but we both like to sit on our front step and watch the street. We live on a small cul-de-sac that doesn’t see much traffic, but there are dogs in the windows across the street and we frequently will see bunnies or squirrels if our dog isn’t outside with us. In an effort to engage my son so he’ll stay outside longer, I’ve begun playing a modified version of “I spy” with him. I’ll look around and find something fairly obvious and unique that isn’t directly in front of us and then I’ll tell him what I see. He looks around until he spots it and then points it out with glee. When I run out of unique objects, I begin naming colors and he’ll start finding things that match the color I’ve picked.

I don’t often think much about spiritual formation with my toddler—he’s only two-and-a-half after all, but I do look for opportunities to help him notice what’s around him, to slow down, and to put words around what he sees and feels. All of these tasks are challenging, mostly because of his age, but I think they’re the foundations of spiritual formation (observation, meditation, and reflection) and important building blocks for life. Playing “I Spy” outside is one way I try to engage him in these practices and practice them myself.

Lectio Divina means “sacred reading” in Latin and it is a way of reading the Bible for formation rather than information. The basic steps involve slowly reading through a short passage of Scripture once or twice listening for the word or phrase that stands out, shimmers, bothers, or calls to you. Then, with that word or phrase in mind, you slowly read through the passage again, pausing at the end to ask what God might be trying to say to you through this word or phrase (another way to ask this is to ask how this word or phrase intersects or speaks to your life at this moment). In the third step, you slowly read the text again and ask yourself how you’d like to respond to God. Then, you read the text one final time and allow yourself to rest in God’s presence. Lectio Divina takes seriously our belief that God speaks to each of us individually in and through Scripture.

Scripture, however, is not the only medium through which God can speak. If we believe that God created the world, then God’s fingerprints are all over nature and it too can reveal God’s presence and Word to us. Lectio in nature mimics the process of Sacred Reading, but looks for what it is in nature that stands out to us (much like the burning bush stood out to Moses) and then asks what God might be saying to us through that aspect of nature.

Playing “I Spy” with a toddler doesn’t give one much time for contemplation and reflection, but it does offer the opportunity to notice our surroundings and to pay attention to what might be calling out to us. Whether it is through a tree blazing with fall colors, a piece of trash that escaped the garbage truck, a neighbor we don’t know, or a squirrel busily storing nuts, God can speak to us if we are willing to listen.

Blog-HeadShot-300x300Sarah Walker Cleaveland is a spiritual director, preacher, teacher, retreat leader, and writer. After graduating from Hobart & William Smith Colleges with a degree in religious studies, she spent two years working in Christian Education at a Presbyterian Church and a Presbyterian Retreat Center. She earned her M.Div. at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, married her husband Adam, then earned a Masters of Theology from Princeton Seminary. Adam serves as Associate Pastor at Winnetka Presbyterian Church in a suburb north of Chicago. Sarah is currently chasing their two and a half year old son Caleb and developing her spiritual direction practice.

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