By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW
When I think back to some of my favorite memories as a young child at school, I realize how many of them included “outside the box” approaches. Outside the box is a funny expression when you really think about it. And when it is applied to educational experiences for kids, I think we can imagine that the “box” is the student’s desk area. Often, learning happens in this box, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, many of the things that leave lasting impressions on children involve movement or other unusual activities away from that box. Let us not be afraid to venture there!
I can recall, from my elementary school years, one particularly memorable experience during music class. Our teacher had us all lie down in separate areas of the room, and she turned down the lights. Next, she ran through a short script to relax us, and she guided us to become more aware of our bodies and to begin to engage mindfully in the exercise. After this, she played an instrumental piece that had something to do with spring (as I remember it, anyway). It was at this point that the music truly came to life in my mind! I could actually visualize fields of flowers in a vibrant palette of colors and new life forming in all four corners of the earth. There were bees following behind butterflies with a radiant sun shining down on all of it. It was so cool.
The bigger impact this had on me was that the teacher encouraged us to be fully present. She wanted us to be still in our bodies and really hear and connect with the music. She facilitated a process where we each were able to do this independently, and it left a powerful imprint on me. I am so glad to have been outside the box that day.
What Does It Mean to Be Mindful?
Mindfulness is not a complicated concept, yet it can be a powerful tool. I consider mindfulness to be a conscious state of awareness. While mindfulness has garnered much attention in the last several years (likely due to its multiple benefits), it can often be misunderstood. Many folks I talk with about mindfulness think that my sunny, positive nature is mindfulness.
And yes, mindfulness plays a part in my ability to maintain this outlook. However, mindfulness is not just this. There are many times when I am, in fact, quite frustrated, and mindfulness is there to guide me through it. It helps me consciously consider what direction my thoughts have taken and why.
Mindfulness includes acknowledging whatever emotion I am feeling and allows me to honor the emotion appropriately. This involves taking stock of how my body feels in that very moment. Where am I carrying tension? Is my jaw feeling tight or is my stomach becoming upset with nerves? Mindfulness connects the mind and the body, and it does all this without judgment. Mindfulness just notices. And in the noticing, it allows us to make choices as to how we will respond.
Should We Be Teaching Mindfulness to Young Kids?
The short answer to this is YES! A more complex response is that young children are already fairly adept at using a mindful lens and often do so quite naturally. They fully lean into experiences, for better or worse. They feel their feelings genuinely and with a wide range of intensities.
However, we can and should make this tendency more intentional. We can take advantage of the fact that children are already quite mindful beings and name these habits for them. We can also validate mindfulness as an important tool for staying whole and connected with what is happening around us and more than that—being okay with what is happening.
Mindful Movement Matters
Doing mindful movement activities with children can help build up their mindfulness muscles. Plus, mindful movement can be really fun. When students are able to sit with their experiences, recognize feelings and sensations, and understand the choices available for responding, they are developing important thinking strategies and coping tools.
One of my favorite mindfulness experiences is quite simple. I ask kids to scan through their five senses and then tell me five things they see, four things they hear, three things they can feel through touch, two things they smell, and one thing they taste. I sometimes use this as an initial check-in activity to make sure kids are present in their bodies and focused in the space. I also use this activity when a student is struggling with dysregulation of some type, such as anxiety or frustration. It can be used anywhere and is a very effective tool.
To add movement to this simple scanning activity, pair it with a walk through the building or outside, encouraging students to notice these things out loud with you or a classmate. Or you can ask kids to collect this information in their minds and then later offer them a chance to share what they observed.
Here are some resources that can help you introduce more mindful movement into your work with children:
- Listening to My Body by Gabi Garcia is a wonderful resource for helping kids understand the connection between physical sensations and emotions. It includes a few fun and simple mindful movement exercises to use and talk about with young kids. I particularly like gently tracing the palm with a finger and then noticing the sensation (it tickles!) and also rubbing hands together quickly for one minute and observing that sensation (it tingles!).
- Master of Mindfulness by Laurie Grossman is another book that explores mindfulness through the eyes of kids, with a group of fifth graders helping author the book. It has plenty of interesting insights and is child-led in its approach.
- Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel is a fantastic book for young children that teaches skills to enhance mindful awareness. It also comes with an audio CD to help guide mindful movement activities for kids and parents.
- Mindful Games by Susan Kaiser Greenland has many practical activities to encourage mindful movement and thoughtful discussion around how mindfulness skills can be fun and helpful.
- I cannot say enough about Yoga 4 Classrooms! Our school received training in this evidence-based curriculum, and teachers are now able to conduct yoga and mindfulness activities daily with their students. In addition, the Yoga 4 Classrooms Activity Card Deck provides lots of easy-to-use activities. It includes movement ideas to increase activity and awareness levels, as well as exercises designed to settle, soothe, and focus. I particularly enjoy the “Washing Machine” card: Students stand and let their arms “fly around them” in a rhythmic yet purposeful way, releasing anger and frustration and connecting their minds and bodies.
Mini Mindful Movement
While the resources listed above are excellent, user friendly, and well thought out, mindful movement does not have to be limited to books and structured activities. In fact, when adults are operating out of a truly mindful and present state, we are more inclined to find opportunities for mindful movement for kiddos around every corner!
Some “mini” mindful movement ideas include:
- While walking, suggest that kids take notice of how their feet feel inside their shoes. Or observe how the surface of the terrain feels beneath their feet with each step.
- Encourage moving around a like specific kind of animal—for example, a penguin—and notice how the body feels and how the muscles move differently than they normally might.
- Have kids move around the classroom, find 10 things they never really noticed before, and write down some details they observed.
- Have the class notice their heartbeats in their chests before a transition, during the transition, and then after it.
The more we can stay connected to our bodies and feelings, the more equipped we will be to tolerate and manage challenging experiences. Staying aware through mindful movement can be invaluable to our children. So while we should continue to take good care of the learning that takes place inside the box, we must also not be afraid to step out!
Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker currently serving as a school adjustment counselor in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She adores her work with children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13, and 6), and enjoys spending time with them taking in all the beauty and joy in the world. She enjoys writing, knitting, laughing, walking, and using mindfulness. Connect with Amanda on Twitter @LicswAmanda and on her blog www.amandasymmes.com.
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