The ‘classroom’ was a high ceilinged gymnasium in a day school that serves hundreds of children of all backgrounds, ages 2-5. A sea of colorful yoga mats was spread out on the floor. My own rainbow hued mat decorated with the om symbol was placed at the end of the room and on it sat a few percussion instruments, tingsha bells and the children’s classic book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, that was ready to be read. I too was ready to rock, roll and ramble with these tiny tots….or was I? For years, I have counseled and taught humans of all ages, with my target audience being adults. When the opportunity arose to work with pre-k kids, I jumped at the chance, since for many years, I was a clown. Singing and dancing, playing games, reading and writing, coloring and exploring nature, are all activities that I did as a child and am glad to engage in them with the generations that have followed. I love to be with youngsters since their vibrant energy is contagious. I knew I would be in my element, since, even at 58, I am still youthful. The topic was mindfulness.
I have been practicing meditation in one form or another, since I was young. A competitive swimmer from the time I was 11 years old, I would use the otherwise tedious time swimming multiple laps for hours, being in ‘the zone’. I didn’t know what to call it back then, but it was indeed a meditative state. Throughout college and into later adulthood, I have dipped my toes back into those restful waters, albeit, not as often as would benefit me to slow the ‘monkey mind chatter,’ that often distracts me and bring me back to here and now reality.
When I was asked to teach the topic for children, I had an immediate response of, “If I’m going to be teaching it, I’d better be living it.” In the past few months, I have delved into what it is that makes mindfulfulness so appealing and yet, at times, so elusive. Often, I have told myself that I am far too busy to slow it down and that I won’t accomplish the items on my ever growing check list. The reality is, this is all the more reason to take time to make time.
What Is Mindfulness?
Greater Good which operates out of the University of California, Berkeley campus, defines it as: “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.”
One of the pioneers of the genre is Jon Kabat-Zinn who created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which began at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. Since then, he has trained thousands of people in this life enhancing and in some cases, life saving modality.
Children can be viewed as little sponges who absorb everything around them. Sadly, some of what they soak up is stressful and negative, as a result of world events, home environment and the general state of being human. By the time they reach kindegarten, they may already have begun to believe that they can’t be happy, aren’t good enough to achieve what they want and that the world is a frightening place.
Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) might be a key that opens the door for adults to create an environment in which children thrive. Topics such as communication, anti-bullying, self esteem, and conflict resolution are part of such curricula that are offered world wide.
Dr. Dan Siegel, author, of, among others, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive, is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine.
Siegel echoes the questions of educators, “How do we teach children about their own minds? How do we teach them to strengthen their minds so they can see the internal worlds of themselves and others more clearly?’”
His answer goes beyond the traditional ‘three R’s, and instead, teaches another important triumvirate: “relationships, reflection and resilience.”
“Kids feel better about themselves,” when engaged in mindulness practices, according to Siegel. “They’re better able to regulate their emotions and communicate with others.”
Wisdom From A Surprising Source
Most people would not consider actor Goldie Hawn to be a teacher of mindfulness and yet, she is stepping into that role. As a result of using techniques with her own family, she is the author of “10 Mindful Minutes,” which educates parents on applying the principles at home.
“Mindful breathing is probably the single most important practice…because it can be used to help with all the other practices and applied to hundreds of situations throughout the day. I call it the “secret sauce.”
There are various breathing exercises that are fun for children to learn, since they tap into the all- important imagination. One of the exercises I asked each group to do, was to place their fingers in the shape of a heart over the center of their chests. Some of the younger ones were more adept at forming a diamond than a heart, but hey, that works too, since I wanted them to see themselves as treasures. The next step was for them to inhale through their noses and then exhale through their mouths as if they were blowing out birthday candles, imagining that they were sending love out from their hearts.
On the intial day of working with the young ones, in four 30 minute increments, with groups of 18-24, they trooped in, two by two, holding hands and then settled themselves down on the mats, which I referred to as their magic carpets that could take them anywhere they wanted to go. Some decided they were venturing forth to the moon, others to a swimming pool, on which they would float. I shared with them that it was my first day of school and that I was a little bit nervous. They laughed, since they were likely not used to an adult admitting that kind of vulnerability. I asked them to tell me what their first day was like and some of them said that they were feeling like I did, but added that it got better. What I didn’t share with them was that I wondered how I would keep them occupied. I think of myself and my team mates as ‘edutainers’ who both educate and entertain.
It turns out that I had nothing to worry about, since we moved fluidly from songs (“If You’re Happy and You Know It,” turned into including the emotions of sad, scared, shy, angry and brave as we made feelings faces to illustrate them. It reminded me of the Disney film called Inside Out in which the internal workings of a family are showcased while they are making major life transitions.), to simple yoga poses, to identifying colors, to taking note of objects in the room, to talking about people they love, to hugging themselves.
I used the aforementioned bells to help them to listen to sounds and follow them into silence. What was most amazing to me was how eager they were to experience calmness, rather than just animation, as those of that developmental level are more at ease in that state.
Over the next six months during which I will be working/playing/teaching/learning with these soon to be mindfulness mavens, I am certain that they too will be my teachers and that they and I will become more present in the process.