The sun is nervous
as a kite
that can’t quite keep
its own string tight.
Some days are fair,
and some are raw.
The timid earth
decides to thaw.
Shy budlets peep
from twigs on trees,
and robins join
poke through the ground
like noses come
to sniff around.
The mud smells happy
on our shoes.
We still wear mittens
which we lose.
– March by John Updike
Spring is a time of new life and can also be an ideal opportunity to work on awareness with your children. As a weekend gardener, I am noticing my tulips and daffodils emerging from the soil and the very tips of leaf buds on the trees. I am often amazed by the details that my son notices around him as we go through our day. But I shouldn’t be. Children are hard-wired to notice details. Because their brains are eagerly taking in and making sense of information in order to learn about their environment, they are able to receive many more details than we as adults do. Adults have processed so much over the years about their environment that we necessarily make assumptions and skip over details in order to deal with the sheer volume of information that comes at us daily. However, experiencing greater awareness with your children can enhance your own focus and presence in the moment and it can give your children valuable practice in doing the same. For children, practice in awareness can contribute to their focused attention on any task including school work and allow them the chance to exercise self-control.
Last week, I had the chance to meet Congressman Tim Ryan from Youngstown, Ohio. He has adopted mindfulness as his central message and vehicle for social change across sectors – politics, business, education and health. His book, A Mindful Nation,1 defines mindfulness as simply “finding ways to slow down and pay attention to the present moment.” Not only does a focus on the present moment reduce stress but it also makes us more sensitive to ourselves and those around us so that it can assist in our ability to resist impulses, listen with empathy and make better decisions. It can contribute to better health and deepen our ability to learn. Congressman Ryan claims “Happiness is found by deeply experiencing the exact moment we are in.”
Also some schools have recognized the value of teaching children about how their brains work and how they can become more aware of themselves in each moment so that they are able to focus on learning. The Mind Up Curriculum through the Goldie Hawn Foundation is a series of lessons and activities that promote greater awareness. These programs incorporate “Brain Breaks” throughout the day in which children simply learn to close their eyes and notice their breathing for a few minutes. That simple practice can help calm anxieties and engage them fully in the next activity.
There are many ways you might practice mindful awareness at home with your children. Practicing together can help you connect with your family and assist in managing stress around your household. Try one or more of the following this spring and see if it makes a difference for you.
Modeling presence with your child can be rewarding for both of you. After school is an ideal time since most children need a snack and a break from the rigorous schedule and demands of school. But pick the best time of day for you and just focus on your child and whatever they want to tell you. Notice what thoughts come into your head as you listen. Often we get distracted by thoughts of our own day. If you notice this is happening, gently return yourself to the moment with your child and engage in listening to what they are saying. Ask related questions or make comments that deepen the conversation and continue to focus on your child.
Tell your child that you have an organ in your body – the lungs – that acts like two connected balloons. Picture what the balloons look like together. Visualize them in your child’s favorite color. Close your eyes and envision with your child the air moving from the outside into your balloons expanding them a little. And then exhale as you visualize your balloons shrinking a bit. Try to do this for at least three breathes and see if your child enjoys balloon breathing.
Tennis Ball Tighten and Release
When my son has a strong case of the wiggles before bedtime, I have used this exercise to help calm him down. Lie down side by side on the floor or on the child’s bed, backs to the floor. Close your eyes and ask your child to close his as well. Using a gentle voice, ask your child to pretend there is a tennis ball at the base of his feet. Ask him to try and grab the ball with his whole foot including his toes with all his might. Ask him to hold it for a few seconds. Then, let the ball go. Now ask him to pretend the ball is between his ankles. Squeeze the imaginary ball as hard as possible for a few seconds and then let it go. Try this at his knees, on his tummy, between his arms and his side, in his hands, at his neck and at the back of his head where it touches the floor. Each time tighten those muscles for a few seconds and then fully release. This will guide a child to notice each part of his body, focus on that part and send relaxation to that part of the body letting the tension go.
Eating a Raisin
In the Mind Up Curriculum, students fully experience eating a raising by paying attention to each aspect of the eating process. This is so simple to try at home. Take one raisin per person participating. Examine how the raisin looks on the table. Ask your child to describe it. Then, pick it up and feel it. How does it feel? Now smell it. Describe how it smells. Lastly, taste it slowly so that you savor each bite. See how many words you and your child can come up with to describe the taste of the raisin.
A Bug or Bud Walk
“We’re going on a bug walk, a bug walk, a bug walk. We’re going on a bug walk to see what we can see,” we chant as we stalk the ground for insects. This is a game that is enjoyable no matter the age of the child and can be incorporated into any basic walk around the block. Also spring in particular is a great time to go on a “bud” walk and see if you can find budding leaves or plants on trees, bushes and coming up from the ground. This noticing creates a greater awareness of the environment in which you live.
Drawing or Painting a Still Life
I know I am at my most sensitive to the details of objects around me when I am drawing or painting them. To give your children a chance to look more closely, set up a still life that they might enjoy or that might engage them. A bowl of fruit might inspire you but your child could be excited by a pile of his favorite stuffed animals. Create a scene of many and varied small toys and ask your child to pick out the part that he is most interested in to draw in detail. Notice the detail together and talk about and point out the detail of the subjects of your artwork.
Check out the following resources for more on mindfulness below. Give yourself and your family the gift of presence this spring. It will require your own awareness and some discipline to focus on your family in the moment. But the reward will be great.
Great Springtime Children’s Books about Awareness:
Wise Brown, Margaret. Author. McCue, Lisa. Illustrator. (2000). Bunny’s Noisy Book. NY: Hyperion Books for Children.
McCue, Lisa. Quiet Bunny’s Many Colors. NY: Sterling Publishing.
Check out this video on the Mind Up Curriculum in schools.
The Hawn Foundation. (2011). MindUp Curriculum; Brain-focused Strategies for Learning – and Living. NY: Scholastic.
Check out the following video short (3 minutes) entitled “Just Breathe” of kids talking about intense emotions and how they can calm down using breathing.
For Parent Reading:
Greenland, S.K. (2010). The Mindful Child; How to Help your Kid Manage Stress. NY: Free Press.
1 Ryan, T. (2012). A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance and Recapture the American Spirit. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.
Originally published on March 27, 2014.