Teaching children about God: A book for the Life Syllabus ~The LMLD Library Project





Title: The Religious Potential of the Child

Author: Sophia Cavalletti

File Under: Education; Life Syllabus


The Life Syllabus, as you will remember, is a list of books requested by a reader that a young mother might delve into while her children are young enough — before her duties become overwhelming.

It’s a list I’ve started of books that helped me when I was young. But it also includes some books I wish I had known about at the time. I feel like I flailed in the wasteland, my inchoate ideas neither confirmed nor denied by wiser heads. Especially when it comes to teaching about faith, I wish I had known about this book.

A reader emailed to ask me about the Atrium, which is short for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Montessori-style religious education program I adverted to earlier. She had visited the CGS website and wondered how to implement the ideas at home, and that’s a good question. Like Montessori schools in general, the Atrium is too involved and too space consuming for the home.

Yet, the idea behind the Atrium is exactly what the parents need to understand their irreplaceable role in transmitting the faith to the child.

I strongly suggest reading this book, The Religious Potential of the Child, before plunging into — or panicking over your inability to plunge into —  this structured program. Or just while you are sorting out different ideas about how to teach religion to your child. If you are blessed to live near an Atrium, reading this book might help you to realize that you don’t need the whole set-up to live the principles.

Each home is unique. Some people’s style is suited to Montessori (and I might argue that they could consider loosening up a bit), and some people’s style is not (and I might suggest figuring out some way to incorporate the main principles without worrying about the particulars). But the insights Cavalletti offers will help no matter what. This book is really just the thought behind the program. Cavalletti muses on how a child learns about God and about his faith.

The most important point she makes is to distinguish the way we learn about most things from the way we learn about God. The former way is to start with what we know and move outward and inward to what we don’t know. That’s why it’s faulty pedagogy, for instance, to plunge into the study of the cell before you have observed animals and plants and man — and stones and water and the sun.

But if we look at how Jesus taught about the faith, we see a difference. He started with the things we know, true — a mustard seed, a woman who loses a coin, and, pre-eminently, a lost sheep — but we do not have to know more about those things than we already know in order to listen to Him.  And he immediately moves to repentance, forgiveness, trust, sin, salvation…

Cavalletti urges us to stop explaining things to children, interposing ourselves between the Word and the child. She advocates a particular sort of presentation of the Word (especially the parables, Jesus’ own curriculum) which allows the child to absorb what’s read to him, speak about it if he wishes, and “work” (what we would think of as play, Montessori calls the child’s “work”) with simple materials to make it his own.

I think that if you read this book, you will begin to understand what will work best at home. Your home doesn’t have to resemble a classroom. I lean against, honestly. But the elements of the Atrium — the prayer table, the candle, living the Liturgical Year, reading Scripture, not rushing anything — these are part of life in a family as it should be lived, without anxiety.

You might also find this book of Montessori’s helpful:

The Mass Explained to Children

Most Catholics don’t attend the form of the liturgy that was celebrated when Montessori wrote this book. But any parent can learn from her method of explaining important and holy things to children. Just “hearing” her take her time and delve into the details will be an education in itself for us.

Disclosure: I am sure you know that we get a little something when you click through and buy at Amazon. This funds our own book-buying! Thank you!



  1. says

    I love this recommendation! Two books that might be more practical for home engagement is “The Good Shepherd and the Child: A Joyful Journey” which is newly revised and the new version comes out in the spring (see Liturgy Planning Publications). The other is “Listening to God with Children” which gives the aspect of the prayer and the Montessori method. “Religious Potential” is so awesome, but it was written to convince the Catechetical and Theologian community that beginning religious education at age 6 is too late, and a young child has the capacity and capability to learn even at 3. So sometimes it can be a little tedious.

    I was just discussing with my husband yesterday on how the CGS gives the essential kernel of Faith to the youngest children. They are presented the richest and deepest mysteries of the Faith. The older child is not given “bigger” mysteries of the Faith just because they are older. From the young age, with the heart or kernel of the Truth, a spiral out from that heart continues. The spiral continues, with the mystery not deepening, but expanding.

    The example we were contemplating was the seemingly simple thought of “Jesus is the Light”. And yet, this is a profound mystery seen throughout our Liturgy. Every year we can understand and see this connection.

    The other wonderful thing about the CGS is the symbiosis with the Bible and the Liturgy. It is not complicated, but so natural and necessary. And many of the readers are already doing aspects of this approach if they are incorporating the Liturgical year in the family.

  2. Anna says

    Thanks for the recommendation. My daughter is 4 and her ability to understand the basics of our faith have really surprised me. Before I had children, I would not have thought that a 4 year old could understand much about God. Very simple things like reading about the saints had much such an impression on her.

    My husband has been working very long hours recently and he always takes a short break in the evening to talk to our daughter right before bedtime on FaceTime. Last week, she was telling him the story of St. Agnes and how she was martyred and how St. Agnes was like St. Lucia. My DH’s coworkers thought it was hysterical. I thought to myself that this is why I no longer work. Why we’re sacrificing so much so I can be home with her instead of putting her in a daycare all day long. (I did omit the brothel part of the St. Agnes though.)

    I also highly recommend We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland. It’s published by the SSPX but it’s an old book and as far as I know the author had nothing to do with the Society.

  3. Sharla says

    Great recommendation. There are a series of books out that show you how to bring the Atrium presentations to the home (Home Catechesis by Moira Farrell at OurFathersHouse(dot)biz). The official CGSers probably don’t approve entirely, but it was a great way for me to learn about the program with my kids at home. She walks you through how to make the materials from things found at your craft store…a little time intensive, but worth it. We now have an atrium closeby and I’m trained in Level 1, but before that, it was nice to have these books.

  4. Jaime says


    Thank you – your time and wisdom will help our family be open to allowing Christ to more fully work in our home to draw us nearer to Him and His truths. :)

    Please keep sharing – many are just soaking this up!

  5. Kate says

    Aristotle said that in learning “we move from the greater known to the lesser known.” It’s odd how a lot of educational theory has forgotten that pretty self-evident observation. It’s been many years since I read Sofia Cavaletti’s book, but I remember not being able to really get into or make practical sense of it. Maybe something is lost in translation. I found Maria Montessori’s “The Child in the Church” much more approachable. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in *actual practice* is also easier to get a handle on. One of my sisters took the CGS training and helped set up an atrium, so she was able to cut through the overly theorized theory and explain what the Catholic child needs and why. I have another sister who is a certified Montessori teacher and she also agrees Montessori is more approachable than Cavalleti. Another book I found useful for teaching religion to little ones is “The Catholic Mother’s Helper in Training Her Children.” It was originally published by St. Anthony’s Guild Press in the 40’s and composed by three religious who taught preschool and kindergarten. My copy is an edition republished by Our Lady of the Rosary School. Well worth looking for.

  6. says

    Thanks for the “practical” book recommendations. I just want to remind you that this is “background” reading, so to speak. This particular book is precisely to get your thoughts going on how children learn in general, and about faith in particular.

    So it’s not going to be very helpful for a practical approach. And Cavalletti has that very typical European style going on — her writing isn’t forthright — she doesn’t simply make a case. She’s suggesting, evoking, leading…

    She makes interesting points, for instance, about the wisdom of starting catechesis with the child’s own experience — for instance, experience of family life or relationship (speaking of the classroom here). How does one know that the relationship in question is good and pure? If it’s broken, does that condition the way the child perceives God?

    Thus, she builds the case for trusting God in his Word. The Word heals all and transcends whatever imperfect experience the child may be suffering from.

    This approach is in contrast to the techniques used today in catechetical texts. These uniformly begin with the child’s supposed context, even though there is no way to predict exactly what that would be. For instance, if you open a chapter about saints, you will find a discussion of heroes to be the point of departure — even of sports stars!

    They rely heavily on “narrating” Scripture or summarizing, rather than reading Scripture directly. They seek to explain Scripture to the child, rather than simply introducing the child to Scripture and letting God do the explaining.

    This is only one of her points. But you can see that before you arrive at the thought that the Atrium might be worth visiting, you might have to rid yourself of these preconceived ideas (which in fact are quite recent and are based on a faulty anthropology and educational theory as it applies to faith).

    She also explains the role of silence, which I think is so important, and encourages the teacher not to rush the child or test him or subject him to her own anxieties about learning a certain amount of material. I do think there is also a place — later on — for memorization and analytical learning. But starting here is going to make the home environment a much richer place.

    There are many who simply visit the Atrium and understand immediately. But for someone who would like to think about the theory first, isn’t near an Atrium, or who simply has time to devote to reading now, I think this book is worthwhile.

  7. says

    I, too, recommend Listening to God with children. It’s a great way to see what happens in the Atrium, especially if you can’t locate one close to you! BUT if you can, I highly recommending watching the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in progress. Ways to Nurture the Relationship with God by Sofia Cavalletti is also WONDERFUL.

  8. says

    Leila, What a wonderful “Life Syllabus” book! My own book has been loved and underlined and worn and I keep coming back to it as a PARENT more than a catechist. Reading some of the other comments, I think you responded well to the spirit of Cavelleti. When I think of your post on providing a home of Order & Wonder, which is probably one of my favorites, I think so much of the term the “prepared environment.” Although I do not have an Atrium in my home, by keeping (ha…trying to keep) order and beauty in my home I am making an environment conducive to the imagination and contemplation and LEISURE. Also, I am starting to realize that the best “prepared environment” for a child to meet God is the one He made Himself…NATURE! You are wonderful, I eat up anything on here that you post on CGS. I get giddy at a teeny mention of it because it has brought this family so much JOY and I want it to SPREAD!!!

  9. says

    Ooh, well put, Leila!
    My own mother is a catechesis trainer of teachers and the kids go to an atrium. But we don’t have a prayer table. (except at Advent and Lent.) Thanks for the encouragement to do one! Will consider.
    I love how Cavaletti says that “it is the poverty of the materials that speaks to the soul of the child” and that making the materials is an essential part of the formation of the teachers. I take this to heart in my own mothering and homemaking as well as teaching.
    I love this blog for girding up the loins of the mind!

  10. says

    Auntie Leila, I’m actually doing a book group on this during Lent this year! I posted on my own blog about it and I’m telling everybody to get the book through you. :-) Thanks for everything you do. Your bricks look great, by the way!

  11. says

    This is a book that totally changed my world. I highly agree with your recommendation.

    One of the things that impressed me the most was Cavaletti’s description of the process by which they discerned which Bible stories to teach: they watched the children and saw which ones they responded to. That was perhaps the thing I loved most about this book: the emphasis on watching the child, learning from the child what it is that he needs, trusting that he will let you know. It confirmed what I’d already been learning from my own observations: that even as a toddler, much younger than two, my daughter already had a relationship with Christ. That she was happy to be in her Father’s house and that she loved it when we made a visit there and when we spent time in prayer.

    No one seems to think that catechesis can begin as early as 1, and yet there it was. I love that Cavaletti argues we should begin teaching children much younger than the standard age; but my own observation led me to wonder whether if anything Cavaletti, thinking of a classroom setting, doesn’t push the age back far enough. We begin to help our children develop a relationship with Christ much earlier, when we point to the crucifix or the tabernacle and give them the Holy Name of Jesus as one of their first words. It is such a delight to me to hear that name on the lips of a lisping toddler: “on the lips of children and of babes you have found perfect praise.”

    I love your emphasis here on focusing on the principles. Not necessarily so that you can construct an Atrium in your home, but so that you can lead your children to contemplation and adoration in whatever way works best for your family.

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