A new religious education program offers hands-on learning for children

By Patrick Mott, Editor, Orange County Catholic     9/29/2015

Remember how you learned as a little kid?

You didn’t attend lectures or ruminate over textbooks. You acted. You picked things up, handled them, turned them over, got up close. You listened to stories and, later, maybe acted them out. You went where your curiosity took you.

That’s the basis of a unique approach to religious education for small children that’s enjoying success in several parishes in the Diocese of Orange. Called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS), its foundation is the philosophy put forth by education pioneer Maria Montessori: “that each child learns through exploring the environment and the knowledge base that’s provided for them,” says Katie Dawson.

Dawson, the Director of Parish Faith Formation for the Diocese of Orange, has seen Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at work in parishes and remains enthusiastic in its support, emphasizing that the learning children experience in the program actually builds on an earlier foundation.

The CGS program, she says, “allows children to explore their relationship with God, which actually is pre-existent to coming to Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. In other words, every child already has a relationship with God. What we do is help them to explore and deepen that relationship.”

To accomplish that, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd offers not only a specific and unique presentation, but a special designated place for it all to happen: the atrium.

The atrium is a particularly dedicated space where the learning takes place. It is not considered a classroom, but “a special place where a child comes to meet Jesus,” says Rose Antognoli, the Director of Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Huntington Beach, where Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has been presented for several years. “The atrium is a place where the child can walk quietly and speak softly and can come to know Jesus and hear his voice in this special room.”

Within the atrium are various hands-on displays, such as a prayer table and an altar table where models of the various articles used during Mass are displayed—chalices, patens, ciboria, cruets and others. Various gestures are demonstrated by teachers in the atrium—as elementary as the Sign of the Cross and as specific as the gestures of epiclesis and offering as presented during the consecration at Mass. Throughout, the learning is heavily tactile and visual.

And, as the title of the program suggests, “the first parable the children hear is the parable of the Good Shepherd, and how the Good Shepherd calls them by name and how they know his voice,” says Antognoli. “That’s what really starts to foster the relationship with the child, that parable, because the children know that the Good Shepherd loves and cares for them.”

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is designed for three age levels: Level One for ages 3 to 6, Level Two for ages 6 to 9, and Level Three for ages 9 to 12. It exists in more than 60 countries and has grown over the course of its 60 years.

“It’s all over the world,” says Antognoli. “You’ll see atria in Third World countries where they only use stick figures, but it fits any kind of budget and any kind of culture.”

The atmosphere in the atrium, she says, is conducive to contemplation, even with a room full of 3-year-olds.

“We have works there that we call ‘practical life,’” she says, “such as spooning grains and pouring liquids as part of learning about parables or one of the infancy narratives. It helps to quiet a 3-year-old. They’ve heard the Word, and now they’re able to take that presentation and do something in the atrium to reflect on it. It helps to slow them down, because they come from very busy worlds.”

The faith the children learn in the atrium often resurfaces at home, says Antognoli.

“The children frequently bring home the Word and proclaims it to their parents,” she says. “We see that families are really impacted by the journey of the child in their relationship with God. They really respond to the notion that we have this tremendous gift of life from God and that we want to give back gratitude. They’re very in touch with this notion of gratitude and they bring it to the family.”