An Atrium is a room of special beauty with miniature replicas of the materials the children see in the Church, pictures, coloured vestments, all designed and in proportion to the children’s size and placed on low shelving. It is a place where children familiarise themselves with concepts and materials relative to religion. This Atrium fosters the religious life of children and the materials help them to concentrate thus nurturing the capacity for contemplation. The materials consist of objects which the children can touch, hold, manipulate and work with according to their needs. Small models of everything found in the Church are in the Atrium.
The Good Shepherd Parable is one of the earlier presentations in the Atrium. This Parable is presented with reference to the Biblical text. The material consists of a 2D wooden sheepfold, ten wooden sheep and a Good Shepherd model. The material is firstly presented as a story, then the Biblical text is read and the sheep are moved accordingly. The purpose of using storytelling primarily to introduce a topic is to engage the child in the sense of wonder. If the catechist demonstrates a sense of wonder as the story is being related, the children will respond accordingly. The goal of this approach is not to transfer answers or facts but to teach the art of using the language in a meaningful way and to find direction in life. A presentation is followed by a reflection period.
Dr Cavalletti feels that to explain the parable would be limiting its meaning. Instead, through the use of carefully chosen meditative questions, the meaning of the parable is explored with the children, leading to a better understanding. Thereafter, an appropriate song is sung, followed by Art work. The children are free to choose materials which appeal to them and to work with them on a mat or a table. The Catechist makes herself available to read the Bible text to a non-reading child during this working period.
As the children develop within this religious environment the Biblical and Liturgical themes are extended further to suit the older children. It took years of research and years of material-making before a concise programme was put in place. The responses to the material had to be verified in different environments, different geographical and cultural settings to ensure that this was not happening by chance in one place and not in another. Today a programme exists and Atria are prepared accordingly for children of 3-6 years; 6-9 years; 9-12 years.
Areas in the Atrium consist of ; a Baptismal Area, where the Baptismal Font, with water has a prominent place; candles and oils that communicate the meaning of Baptism; a Geography area displaying the towns in the life of Jesus, to help children to connect Jesus to real places; a History area displaying the materials of the Infancy Narratives or the Paschal Mysteries; a Eucharistic area showing the materials of the Mass; a Prayer corner where children prepare a small table covered with a cloth corresponding to the colour of the Liturgical Season on which is placed a statue of the Good Shepherd or Our Lady and where the children go to pray. In the corner a small kneeler or cushion is provided to add comfort.
Once a week, the children meet in the Atrium for a presentation after which they have the opportunity to carry out freely chosen activities where they develop their religious experience together with the catechists; a place for celebrating the Word of God, for listening, for praying, for reflecting, for meditating and for work. The experience of catechists is that children have a strong desire to keep on working even when the parents come to collect them.