Mindfulness: An Introduction
Though not a new idea, “mindfulness” is a term that has been recently revived and seems to be popping up everywhere these days. Everyone from CEOs to fitness gurus are promoting this practice that calls for the ability to slow down and take notice of what is happening around you, right now. There are countless mindfulness Pinterest boards, blog posts, e-books, YouTube videos, and podcasts about it and people are reading and watching, sharing and re-sharing them. But what exactly is mindfulness?
It’s being present, living in the moment, not putting off tomorrow what you can do today, embracing the now, and living life to its fullest. It’s paying attention, on purpose. As Eastern philosophy meets mainstream western culture, this practice is touted as being an essential life skill that so many of us in this fast-paced, competitive, technological world are lacking.
In studies with children, mindfulness is said to:
- Reduce stress and anxiety
- Develop sustained focus and deepen concentration
- Promote internal motivation and time management
- Reduce impulsive behavior and promote the practice of patience
- Encourage peacefulness and provide tools for conflict resolution
- Connect students to the whole school community (across grade levels and with adults)
- Make decisions and actions purposeful
- Increase empathy, kindness, altruism and compassion for others
Mindfulness in the Classroom
If mindfulness is indeed essential for productivity and happiness, shouldn’t it be a priority in our educational system? Shouldn’t our children learn this practice at the youngest age possible to ensure that their lives can be led to the fullest? How might we teach today’s children a skill that will instill the calm and confidence necessary to navigate a world changing at breakneck speeds?
In “The Power of Mindful Learning,” Ellen J. Langer suggests the following techniques to gain these results in the classroom:
- Keeping information available instead of relying on memorization
- Drawing distinctions from material you are presented instead of being told what to see
- Valuing skepticism and doubt
- Sideways learning (journeying together in guided instruction instead of top down by expert opinion or bottom up by first-hand experience only)
- Creative Problem solving
- Focusing on process rather than outcome
- Teaching understanding of material rather than memorization of it
- Turning work into play
- Enhancing novelty and varying perspective on material to be learned
- Being open to different interpretations of “right”
Mindfulness and Montessori
What is striking when reading through Langer’s list is how easily the Montessori Method fits with mindfulness, or rather, how Montessori is by design a mindful approach to education. The signature prepared environment of the Montessori classroom invites quiet observation. Having only one of each “work” promotes practicing patience. Carefully navigating around rugs rolled out on the floor in defined workspaces or gaining a teacher’s attention without disturbing others teaches respect. Unobtrusively observing a classmate do his work, encourages sideways learning. Providing simple, natural real materials that are both useful and beautiful for children to handle engages the senses and allows for both creative expression and open ended problem solving. Allowing students to move at will around the classroom and work where, how and on what they chose provides a sense of independence and self-motivation that is unparalleled in the traditional classroom. All kids know that playing is fun. Montessori students happily do purposeful “works” as play, thus instilling that, when it is something engaging to and chosen by the individual, work is also fun.
The Montessori method allows and encourages preschool age children to explore the classroom uninterrupted. They might observe fellow students at work, a science experiment in progress, classroom pets, artwork or the outside world through a window or door. Children learn through observation and contemplation, when no one is telling them what conclusions to draw. Instead, when they share what they have taken in on their own with a teacher, they are not corrected or criticized but simply listened to. By making eye contact with a child, a teacher is also making a human connection as she engages him in a conversation about his interests. Using natural sensitive periods that all children go through, the room is carefully designed to give children open access to the things they are innately eager to learn in order to gain independence. The calm, warm hum of purposeful activity in a Montessori classroom is often very striking to someone who enters for the first time.
Elementary and middle school students take the Montessori roots from their primary years and blossom into unique individuals who never take anything at face value, always seek the “whys” and “hows” in addition to the “whats.” They eagerly research topics in which they are interested and present their findings to classmates who willingly offer constructive feedback and challenging questions. Teachers journey with their students by acting as both guides and fellow students. Looking at things from different perspectives is encouraged, and understanding the process is more important than the end product. It is why Montessori does not use grades or test scores as a measure of success. It is only when Village School students reach Upper Elementary do they take a standardized test, but even this is done with a specific purpose in mind – to develop the skill of test-taking it self. Scores are not emphasized – again, process over results.
Mindfulness at The Village School
So how is The Village School proactively practicing Mindfulness?
A few years ago, Upper Elementary teacher, Catrina Paterson attended a mindfulness workshop at the Omega Institute, an organization that focuses on holistic living. She became very taken with what she learned there and did further reading and research on how to use mindfulness techniques in the classroom. Since then, the movement has spread through the program levels at the Village School such that every class has incorporated its own deliberate mindfulness techniques appropriate for the age of the students involved.
Our use of tactile materials encourages everyday mindfulness as well. Each classroom houses an instrument of peace, be it a music box, a gong, a set of chimes, or a Tibetan singing bowl. Though not loud, when one of these is played by a teacher or student, everyone in the classroom stops and turns their attention to the announcement. Transitions are fluid and done with everyone’s patience and cooperation. In addition, some classrooms have Hoberman Spheres which are collapsible spheres that fold in a fluid and peaceful way. The kids call these “breathing balls” because as they use their hands to slowly expand and contract the sphere and use their eyes to focus their attention on watching the fluid motion, students find themselves slowing their breath and calming their minds and bodies.
In addition, the elementary classes have incorporated blocks of time into their week to work on their mindfulness practice. Lower elementary classes are using a program called MindUp which offers different exercises to encourage students to focus their minds while relaxing their bodies. Recently, one lower elementary class did a simple exercise of silently standing on one foot and observing how their balance was affected by where their eyes were focused. Those who focused on something in motion like a tree outside the window or a fellow student were more likely to wobble than those who focused on something simple and stationary like a chair or a table leg.
Students in many classes were focused on learning about how the brain works. They were fascinated to learn that human beings possess a brain part from very early in our evolution (the amygdala) that controls emotions, memory and fear, as well as a more advanced part (the prefrontal cortex) that allows for complex thought, imagination and decision making. Teachers found that by identifying how their mind and body are intrinsically connected, students are able to see that what happens to one greatly affects the other, which enhances the mindfulness of their actions.
Upper elementary classes are using different mindfulness exercises from the following books:
- The Mindful Child by Susan Kaiser Greenland
- Child’s Mind by Christopher Willard
- Planting Seeds by Thich Nhat Hanh
- Spinning Inward by Maureen Murdock
One of these exercises called “sending wishes” was helpful to students after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. Students upset by the news had trouble settling their minds into their work for the day. Teachers led students in a guided exercise in which they began with sending wishes of love first inward to themselves and then outward to each other, family and friends, and then eventually to strangers. After this mindfulness exercise, students described feeling more at peace and were able to move on with their day, feeling as if they had done something to connect with people they did not know but wanted to help. They were able to use their mind to find peace within themselves at a time of uncertainty and sadness in the world.
Mindfulness promotes contentment. Montessori emphasizes peace. As we prepare our children to enter a world often completely consumed what’s next, we are fortunate to be a part of a community that values the joys of the present.
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