The magic of a class of ten year olds keeping still discovering for themselves in the stillness about what life is all about is special, even exotic, as suggested by Pablo Neruda’s poem, Keeping Still. This mindfulness is not inactivity, rather a time of heightened awareness when our senses have a chance to really engage in the little details of life that often go unnoticed.
Much is being written at the moment about mindfulness in education. Studies are attributing practices to reduced truancy rates and better exam results. Increasingly mindfulness is seen as a tool to manage student stress and build resilience. Research indicates that Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is effective in reducing anxiety and depression in adolescents1. Increasingly there are resources for educators, such as the British DotB curriculum2 and the non-profit Mindful Schools or MindUP workshops in the United States3.
Outdoor education is well-placed to develop mindfulness amongst participants and has an important role in developing empathy and appreciation of the value of the natural world, perhaps more than the myriad of structured games and activities.
Recently I was working with a Year 6 class on a week-long residential field trip. The week had the usual components of a residential: team-building, group investigations, visits and environmental awareness games. The group was meaningfully busy from breakfast to bedtime. They had prepared with class work before the trip. Now that the students felt safe in this strange outside world, it was time to let them become really aware of their surroundings.
Being outside – let alone being quiet and still outside – was still a new experience for many of these city children, so it was important that there was a framework to cling onto for those who needed it. We used materials adapted from Project Wild4. To focus students on the task of being aware, we provided a series of sensory awareness tasks that the students could use to focus their attention. Before sending the students out to find their special spot space, we went over these guidelines and talked about how we might get to know the special spot. Students suggested how they might sit or lie, how they could use their hands to capture sounds by placing them around their ears, how we could experiment with eyes open or eyes closed. This short discussion served to excite the curiosity of the learners to try different things.
“Now we will count to twelve and all keep still” …
Students spread out within the designated area, following the suggestion that no one should be closer than three meters to each other. They settled quickly, the different characters showing themselves as some sat in the warm cool-season sun while others tucked themselves on logs under the trees. Some sat upright while others reclined but what was noticeable was the sense of stillness as if the world had really stopped. We were indeed all … together in a sudden strangeness.
Some students barely moved – wrinkling their nose to become aware of the smells, cupping their ears to focus on the sounds and then scribbling down a response.
This is why I choose to work with students outside. To provide the opportunity for city kids who four days earlier had worried about the dirt, the ants and the lack of electrical gadgetry. Now they are to be able to sit peacefully with themselves and the natural world without fear.
We could have carried on sitting there, mindful of birdsong and sunlight, insects and tiny plants, but after about half an hour we quietly reassembled. The students were keen to share but remained calm and respectful of each other. We discussed how the special spot had made them feel, and also what feelings remained with them. Without exception the words reflected feelings of peace, calm, happiness and of being relaxed. The children had elaborate names for their special spots, again reflecting the pleasant minutes they had spent there: Green Heaven, Quiet Heart, Thinking Tree and Sparkly Water Place. We discussed how we might recreate the feelings of Special Spot in other places when we wanted to feel calm and happy. The children were thoughtful and enthusiastic about this idea agreeing that if they were still, quiet and mindful they could find special spots anywhere they chose.
One boy shared more about his special spot. Excited to be outside he had carried a backpack of accessories all week – a foldable chair, a magnifying glass that collapsed into a key-ring, a torch and his camera. Alone in his special spot, sitting on his stool, he had observed and filmed a grasshopper and then a colony of ants at work. As he clicked through each frame he described in detail what was happening – how the camouflaged grasshopper had almost escaped his detection, how it moved its antennae, and then his problem in following it to film as it jumped. It was clear that he had focused well on this little insect and had been totally absorbed in his study of it.
As educators the young people in our classes are often in structured activity that fills every minute of the day. Incorporating mindfulness into our learning programs may be the only time students have the chance to be really aware of themselves and their surroundings. Is it time for us to expand beyond the classroom walls in our understanding of mindfulness? Children love to be outdoors, the benefits are well-known, if we deepen our understanding and application of mindfulness practice in outdoor education, perhaps we can guide the next generation to ensure well-being for themselves and the earth.
Keeping Quiet -Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language; let’s stop for a second, and not move our arms too much.
It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines;
we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea would not harm the whales and the man gathering salt would not hurt his hands.
Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors, would put on clean clothes and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about…
If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems to be dead in winter and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go.
1 Beigal N, Brown K, Shapiro S, Shubert C. “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for the Treatment of Adolescent Psychiatric Outpatients: A Randomized Clinical Trial” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology; 2009, Vol. 77, No. 5, 855– 866.
2 Willem K, Weare K, Ukoumunne O, et al, “Effectiveness of Mindfulness in Schools Program: non-randomized feasibility study”, The British Journal of Psychiatry; 1–6. bjp.bp.113.126649
3 Holland, E. “Can Mindfulness help students do better in school?” The Wall Street Journal, Feb 16, 2015.
4 Project WILD is a USA based conservation and environmental education program for K-12 educators and their students. http://www.projectwild.org