How to Play - Practicing Mindfulness
I think that sometimes the image that pops into our minds of "mindfulness" is an image of someone meditating or someone who is juggling three kiddos at once with a calm smile or a teacher with a storm around her while she is totally calm. This calm may seem unattainable so we may throw out the idea of practicing mindfulness without a real attempt. In this post, you'll find strategies to create your own image of mindfulness so you can play with mindfulness at home or in your classroom, on your own or with learners. I've gathered these practices in my work as a yoga teacher, study skills teacher, and mother. Before we jump into that though, a working definition of mindfulness and knowledge of some key benefits to practicing mindfulness are helpful.
What is mindfulness? I love Shonda Moralis's, MSW, LCSW, definition of mindfulness, that it "is the practice of deliberately bringing our attention to the present moment with kindness" (2017, p. 3-4). Mindfulness is when we manage to attend to the moment at hand rather than worrying about something that happened recently or listing 100000 things to do in our heads. When I think about mindfulness in relationships with my kiddo, spouse, friends, or students, I love the idea from Timothy Dukes, PhD, that to be fully in the moment, we have to choose to step from our world into the world of another. We also have to know when our world is so busy/overwhelming that we can't and we have to share that kindly. Maybe you're teaching and you just had an evaluative meeting during your planning period and you got some feedback you didn't love. This is on your mind. Perhaps, you can let go of it enough for now to teach with your normal gusto. Or perhaps you say, "I'm sorry y'all, I'm having a tough day. I might not seem as excited as normal, BUT, I'm still excited about teaching you all about planetary motion (or whatever) today. We'll recap it tomorrow in case we miss anything". An important point to emphasize is that mindfulness is a PRACTICE. It isn't an end goal you are working toward, it is a choice to try and play with each moment and each day.
Why should we care about mindfulness? Consistent efforts to practice mindfulness are shown to reduce stress, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and sleeplessness and to improve focus, listening skills, self-esteem, and leadership habits (see more here, here, and here). While the research on beginning a mindfulness practice with children and teens is limited, what is out there suggests similar benefits to what is seen for adults, especially for children who struggle with attention and focus. As a yoga teacher with trauma-informed training, I think anything we can do to provide people with resources for later is wonderful. A time of crisis is not a fun time to learn how to deal with crisis. If we can learn how to find calmness when our life is calm-ish, it'll be easier for us to find that calm when we hit a bump in the road (I tell my students the same thing about study and organization skills... they love hearing that... :). The Harvard Center on the Developing Child shares, "The emotional well-being of young children is directly tied to the functioning of their caregivers and the families in which they live" which suggests that the more we do to take care of ourselves as teachers, leaders, parents, and caregivers the healthier the children in our lives will be. Executive function skills, like focusing, switching from task to task, organizing information to make sense of it, and more, are learned and practiced; children don't necessarily learn to "pay attention" on their own, and it doesn't mean they are misbehaving if they cannot pay attention, it means they need practice - and working on a mindfulness practice gives children and teens a chance to build these skills. If you work in a school or childcare setting, you likely have relationships with children who experience toxic levels of stress, inhibiting their ability to develop executive function skills. Children experiencing toxic stress and any Adverse Childhood Experiences need caring and supportive relationships. We are better able to care for others when we care for ourselves. Taking time throughout our day, on our own, with our families, and with our classroom of kiddos, is a wonderful way to deepen relationships, maintain our own resilience, and model effective strategies for coping with those around us.
How can we practice mindfulness? Now... onto my favorite part - the "put it into play and practice" section! When we aim to make playing with mindfulness a consistent part of our routine, I think of a few different categories of activities, activities that help us become aware of what our mind is doing (so we can answer the question, "Am I being mindful?") and strategies that allow us to step into a state of mindfulness when our mind or body or breath has other ideas. What works for each person and age will look like slightly different flavors and variations of the suggestions below. For example, movement can definitely be mindful...or it can be harmful or somewhere in between. I used to run a lot. The first part of a long run enabled me to fine tune how I'd present the day's lesson to students. A few miles in, I'd be thoroughly in the moment, enjoying the sunrise and watching animals, by the end, I'd have pain in my hips and be ready to just be done. So, if I was to truly use running to be mindful, I'd have cut my runs shorter. For people who hate running, running is not likely to be a kind-to-yourself activity that promotes mindfulness. Find what works for you and enjoy it! Here are some ways to play with building a practice of mindfulness for yourself and with the people in your life:
Draw your mind. I LOVE doing this with teens and preteens. Before exams, I have students draw what their mind looks like when a test is put in front of them. I draw an example of a brain full of spaghetti mush frantic thoughts and panic. I share that their brain might go blank or start listing everything they know so fast they can't keep up. I share that some of us may approach tests more calmly and we talk about how. This often leads to a discussion of positive self-talk. We also talk about how we can take a moment to slow our brain down, organize our thoughts, list on scrap paper some things we know, and then move on. This practice lets us approach the rest of the test with a steady pace. I think this is a great practice for adults too. I find that sometimes when we are in a tense moment and are having trouble being present, taking a moment to do a thing that seems "little kiddish" can help us switch gears. You could try this with kiddos who are younger, but it may be harder for them to imagine their brain/thoughts.
Set a timer for worrying. If something is weighing on your mind, a student's mind, or your kiddo's mind, and it just cannot be let go of, try setting a timer for worrying. During that time, you can write down, draw, or say all the worries you have. Then, you can toss them in a bucket to return to later, tear them up and recycle them, or burn them if you need something a bit more final (DO NOT do this in a classroom!).
Notice and name each feeling. When we can shift from our busy brain to naming the feeling that is taking over our brain it becomes easier to choose how to react in the moment. Teaching children and students to notice and name feelings shows them that every feeling is valid, no feeling is bad, and that we have space and time in our brains and bodies to choose to react in constructive ways. With a toddler this might sound like, "You seem really mad! What can we do about it?". To a student, I might say, "I see that you're upset. Would you like to put your head down or go get water so you can find some calm?". If we can slow down our mind, we can slow down our reaction, and we are empowered to make choices we are happy with in reflection.
Let stories be clouds. This is one of my all time favorites and the only way I've ever been able to successfully try to meditate. This practice invites us to become aware of what we are dwelling on and then to let go. For example, when lying still at the end of a yoga class I might be thinking, "Oh man, my shoulders really hurt. I shouldn't have lifted so much weight and I wouldn't have if..." or while washing dishes this might sound like, "UGH, why aren't the utensils ever in the right part of the dishwasher? No one listens to me. I wish people listened to me..." Instead, you kind of "catch" the thought. You say something like, "Well, poop, my shoulders are sore, moving on..." or "Okay, I'm feeling frustrated" in your head and let the rest of the story quiet itself down so you can be in the moment.
Create a bucket of joy and thanks. This is the warm and fuzzy version of the stress and worry bucket above. My family loves to do this at meal times. On scrap paper, we jot down things that made us happy recently or things we are thankful for. We then add these to a bucket. On particularly blah days, we'll pull some joys and thanks out of the bucket and read them. This reminds us that even the smallest moments can be joyful and fulfilling if we step into them kindly and with intention.
Breathe big. When our brains and bodies are restless, we have our breath to re-anchor us. Breathing big can let us come down from anger, quell panic, save some excitement for later, etc. Some ways to do this: Take three sips of inhales and do one GIANT exhale. Lie down on your back, place something on your belly, breathe so big it falls off or gets a roller coaster ride (that's how I use this with kids). Breathe in and when you breathe out, HUM! Count your breath - aim for a 5 count inhale, 3 second hold, 5 count exhale :). Regulating our breathing can help us regulate our actions. As a mama of a little one, when HG is really riled up, I'll sometimes hold her tight and breathe to show her how this works. It's pretty cool to feel her kind of melt in my arms as she calms down.
Move your body. Like breathing, sometimes our minds are restless because our bodies are OR our body is so restless our mind can't focus on anything. Moving, then, "burns off" some of that extra energy so our mind can quiet a little. Yoga is pretty much my favorite form of mindful movement, but anything works, from jumping jacks to walking to doing cartwheels and kickboxing. When we move, we have to breathe, and if we are moving hard, our minds usually have to quiet down a little :). Find some excellent, simple ways to move your body from Cosmic Kids Yoga here.
Get outside (or to another place that brings you wonder and awe). I was listening to Gretchen Rubin's Happier podcast which was my, "DUHHH" reminder to include getting outside on here. In moments of awe and wonder it is hard to let anything else distract our mind and it is easy to be in the moment. For me, this is sunrises (which I don't see often right now), sunsets, stars, and storms. This might be finding the new perfect book at a bookstore or a record that you simply love. There is research that suggests that getting outside for at least 2 hours a week (less than 18min a day) can boost health and well-being. I LOVE the definition of outside/greenspaces that we use in Tinkergarten, we simply need ground and sky (you can learn more about why this is my preferred idea of "nature" here). When we limit our definition of getting outside to going deep into undisturbed wilderness we make it less motivating to get outside because it becomes a big ordeal rather than a daily routine. Often, when we get outside it is easier to leave other distractions (screens, chores, grocery lists...) behind AND, we are often moving which helps our bodies relax and our minds calm so we can notice what is around us.
Simply listen. You can take this provocation in many directions. You can put down devices, look your kiddo in the face, and hear what they're saying, getting fully into their world. You can sit still and notice the sounds around you. Turn on some music and doodle while you listen if sitting still is hard. Truly listening to what is around us lets our worries get quieter.
Create and use affirmations. Sometimes when we begin the work of noticing and naming feelings or letting stories drift away we start to identify trends in how we are feeling and thinking. We might notice some of our thought patterns are not kind or not thoughts we'd really love to keep happening. Having a phrase to repeat or to kind of throw at that "yucky" thought can be a wonderful tool to shift our patterns. For example, your kiddo finds she is often mad at a sibling for not taking turns. A phrase might be, "She is learning to share. I am teaching her calmly". Studying for tests, I used to remind myself, "A 93 and a 100 are both As" (or, in physics, "A 70 and an 80 are both passing"). I love the affirmations here (use a line from any manifesto/download that resonates with you) and here.
Try a half-smile. This is from a fabulous book I read for yoga teacher training called The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. For this simple practice, you simply notice what your face is doing and try to maintain a half-smile throughout the day. I've set alarms to go off on the hour and used that as my reminder to half-smile. This brings us calm and also brings us into our bodies and the moment enough that we can notice and name our feelings.
Eat a raisin or chocolate chip slowly. Mindful eating is a FANTASTIC little tool I love to use at the end of yoga classes. You take a chocolate chip or raisin or some other teeny thing and notice how slowly you can eat it. You can smell it, let it swell or melt on your tongue, chew a billion times, etc. This practice lets us focus on one teeny, manageable part of the present moment so we can let our minds quiet.
Watch a candle flicker. In a very similar way to mindful eating, watching a candle flicker is an invitation to focus on one single, teeny part of our physical surroundings. This narrowed focus lets us turn down the volume on everything else around us. For people who are anxious or have trouble with attention, a practice like this is truly wonderful. Start small, even 5 seconds. Then, make the time longer and longer. I use LED candles in schools and classes with children.
Share a mindful moment you have with your family, classroom, or by yourself and use #watchwonderbloom! Have other favorite ways to practice mindfulness? Please share!