I brought my stack of magazines with me on a trip out west so I could ‘catch up’, read and toss. I typically pick up a book to read so my pile of magazines was growing. As I settled in to reading on the plane I found a common theme in all the magazines; mindfulness. There were articles about reducing stress, focusing on strengths, relaxing, down time, yoga, connecting more effectively with others, and more. I wasn’t surprised at all.
Mindfulness is the hot topic and ‘buzz word’ in education. It has reached a high level that began with yoga decades ago. Educators understand that if the mind and body are working together, learning takes place. So what is mindfulness, and why is it important ?
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to, and being in, the present. It is sensory, not cognitive, and taps into different parts of the brain. With children, it helps with emotional regulation and cognitive focus; children first need to develop emotional and social skills before effective learning can take place. The cognitive piece fits right in, when a child is focused and ‘in the moment’- mindful.
Tapping into the senses in a purposeful way helps make the mental connections necessary to pay attention. I like to use sound. Years ago I began using a bell, like the one they use at a store counter to get the attention of the employee. I wasn’t thinking mindfulness, I was thinking of how I could make math and science games at group meetings more exciting and engaging. When children took a turn, they got to ring the bell. It was simple and powerful at the same time. Now, I use different bells with different sounds before starting an activity. One bell has a ring that lasts for a long time. We close our eyes and silently count until the ringing stops, then share our numbers. Being in the present means being aware of and including each other as well. Another bell has a shorter sound, so I ring it a number of times and we count the number of rings.
I have two tuning forks of different sounds. As I play them in a child’s ear other children cannot hear a sound, yet they are focused, in the present, and mindful. Once all the children have listened to the sound of the tuning forks we can have a discussion rich in learning, beginning with “W” questions. We can use other senses, such as feeling the vibration of the tuning forks, and watching the vibrations make water splash.
When we use our senses and begin mindfulness, we first close our eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths to ‘get ready’, much like an athlete warming up muscles. Perhaps this practice is part of why chapter reading aloud is successful in my class; before listening to the words we turn off the lights, take a breath and close our eyes. We ‘make the pictures in our head’. External stimulation is eliminated, and our brain has to rely solely on listening. Children therefore learn and understand, including deep discussions.
Listening to classical music, particularly identifying certain instruments, is part of my curriculum. This year I plan to make it mindful!
As adults, we yearn to find peace and relaxation, get away, cope with stress, and simply be happy in the present. If this is not easy for adults, imagine how difficult it is for young children to manage themselves. Unlike decades ago, children today are often anxious and bombarded with external stimuli. On top of that, test taking and scores have swallowed much of school time, leaving little for real and meaningful learning, along with follow-through of thought provoking questions and discussions. The mental connections often aren’t happening. Teachers and parents can make a difference by adding simple mindful practices to the classroom and at home. Let’s use what we know about the brain and about children, and help them to learn. I do!