Mindfulness in Lower Elementary
By Jennifer Tobolski
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
Mindfulness is the art of mindful meditation. The general practice is a reminder for people to get back to their breath, to be present in the moment. Often times we think of this when we are already calm, or life is moving along pleasantly. Other times we may wonder when we could possibly fit a mindfulness practice in our very busy day, considering that we must work, shuttle children from here to there, prepare dinner and bath and bed and somehow stay on top of the laundry. We know it is important, but how can we fit it in? Similarly, how can we encourage children, so full of life and emotion, to find their breath?
In our lower elementary classroom, we practice mindfulness first thing in the morning. This exercise starts our day and grounds us for our daily routine. The developing skills in our classroom differ tremendously, and mindfulness is no different. For some children, keeping their bodies still during this time is trying. For others, it may be keeping their eyes closed or keeping a focused gaze. Others are able to keep their bodies still and their eyes closed and are now trying to focus just on their breath, letting ideas and thoughts come and go all the while returning to their breath. We can’t ever know how someone is experiencing mindfulness, but we can allow them the opportunity to train their mind and their breath. Much like the rest of our development, it will come with time and practice. We as guides are just allowing the experience to happen.
At the beginning of the year, we start by listening to the singing bowl and asking the children how long they can hear the sound. The first few times we do this exercise, it seems that the children can hear just the initial sound. As we develop our listening skills, we realize that we can actually hear the bowl much longer than originally thought. The children begin to realize that where they sit will affect how long they can hear the bowl. (It is always pleasing to see their awareness of sound and the mystery of it. We will also talk of sound as a vibration, which is not particularly related to this discourse but lends itself nicely to the curiosity of children and perhaps another blog post!)
As the year continues, we, as a class, find more comfort in the practice of finding our breath together. We accept the sounds that are made from those of us that are still training our bodies to be still. We accept the sounds we may hear of our peers sniffling or wiggling, or exhaling, the sound of the phone ringing to let us know of late arrivals. We, also, accept that we are developing our own practice, our own skill. We come to realize that we usually feel great afterward — rested, calm, centered, ready. As the years go on, the practice of mindfulness becomes more established. The third graders generally have control of their bodies, (sometimes that can be a major success!). They are more rehearsed and often settle into the exercise more readily. We are helping to develop their skill of finding their breath and tuning into their body.
The benefit of all of this, besides the obvious and well-documented benefit of daily, mindful meditative practice, is that when children get upset, which happens a lot when they are young, they are better able to find their breath; they may even be better able to work through their emotion. When things come up on the playground, or with work, or with their peers, we can remind them to find their breath, to take slow, deep breaths, breaths they have practiced many times before, thus making them easier to access. This will often help to calm themselves so that they can work through the actual problem that started the emotion in the first place. A lot of the work in lower elementary is in the realm of social development, establishing positive social interactions and appropriate social boundaries. This lends itself and indeed depends upon emotional availability and interaction. Practicing mindfulness regularly helps us to get there.