We who nurture the life of children could be compared to gardeners, conscientiously serving the God-given stages of the growing plant. We seek to support its development as a seedling, a young plant, and a fruit-bearing or mature plant.
However, Christian educators of young children often begin to water, weed, and prune without first observing children to grasp the stages of their relationship with God. God has planned human and spiritual growth just as well as God has prepared plant growth.
Catholic scholar Sofia Cavalletti and her collaborators Gianna Gobbi and others around the world and in many denominations have carefully observed the stages of newborn to 12 year-old children’s relationship with God, and they have developed an approach to religious formation, called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, that serves those stages well. The encounter with God over the years includes coming to know God who is love, God who is personal, and God who is just and merciful, as these and other aspects of God match the developmental strengths of the growing child.
Here is that development and its implications in very broad strokes:
A final note. God acted and spoke in history, but rarely explained. God’s gifts were freely shared so that each generation could explore them for their meaning in our lives. Our work with children must be done as respectfully as God’s work with us. We put these stories and signs in the hands of children with materials that allow them to reflect on their meaning at their own pace, drawing their own conclusions. After a brief introduction we withdraw from their work, allowing the Holy Spirit to “teach.” To attempt to control children’s understanding of God is a bit like trying to tug on the plants in our care to make them grow.
Catherine Maresca has been a catechist in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for 32 years at Christian Family Montessori School in Washington, D.C. She has been training catechists since 1985 throughout the United States. Maresca is the author of Double Close: The Young Child’s Knowledge of God  and founder and director of the Center for Children and Theology, where she continues to research the spiritual life of young children.