The theme for this week was kindness and compassion. Two more ways in which we can add handfuls of happiness to the world. But it was also a week of grounding ourselves in the basics of mindfulness – connecting with our breath and noticing the internal weather.
I started off the lessons by reading the story “Is that what friends do?” by Marjorie Newman. It is a story about a monkey that befriends an elephant, but the monkey is selfish and unkind. Eventually the monkey realises that no animal wants to be his friend when he is thoughtless and unkind. He changes his ways and the elephant gives him a second chance at friendship. We spoke about why the elephant initially didn’t want to be friends with the monkey. The kids were wonderfully insightful. One little girl even commented on the monkey’s inability to see how upset the elephant was when the monkey didn’t treat him with kindness.
I then passed around some sandpaper and cotton wool balls. Each child got to feel both and describe them. We then started thinking of some sandpaper words and cotton wool words. Sandpaper words are rough and can hurt. Sandpaper words are often said in a mean voice and can include name calling and unnecessary criticism. Cotton wool words on the other hand are soft and comforting. These are kind words said with love and care. Most of the children were very eager to share with the group what felt like sandpaper words and cotton wool words for them.
We also looked at some real-life examples of how to use cotton wool words instead of sandpaper words. I introduced the children to Billy and Sally, and we looked at some scenarios that might happen when Sally and Billy are on a playdate. For example, what if Sally and Billy both want to play with the same toy? Or what if Billy is having a great time at Sally’s house and does not want to go home when his mom arrives to fetch him? It was interesting to see the children think through how situations can be better handled with cotton wool words.
During the lessons this week, I felt the need to explain mindfulness to the children from a different perspective. We often talk about the glitter jar and how our minds are like the jar with lots of thoughts buzzing around, just like the glitter swirling around in the jar. And that when we practise mindfulness, our thoughts settle and our mind clears just like the water in the glitter jar when we stop shaking it. This week I used the analogy of mindfulness being like a pause button on life. My 5-year-old son often uses the pause button on our TV when he is watching a movie. Sometimes nature calls, sometimes he gets hungry or thirsty, or sometimes he just needs a quick break to check what is happening in other parts of the house. The pause button is something he is very familiar with so I thought other children might also be able to identify with the concept of mindfulness being like a pause button. We spoke about how sometimes life can feel very overwhelming and when that happens, we can use mindfulness to take a break from it all. We discussed how our breath is always available to us, and that at any time, we can simply focus on breathing in and out.
We did a great breathing exercise with play dough and pom poms (inspired by a colleague of mine). I gave each child a blob of play dough which they rolled into a sausage. I then asked them to lay out their play dough sausage into a spiral shape, placing their pom pom at the entrance. I asked them to blow the pom pom into the centre of the spiral and then back out again. It took a fair amount of skill not to blow too hard (otherwise the pom pom overshot the edges of the playdough) and not to blow too soft (the pom pom wouldn’t move). There was a lot of laughter and excitement during this exercise but it was wonderful to see the kids noticing their breath and experimenting with it.
For the guided visualisation and relaxation exercise, I read to the children from the beautiful book “Each Breath a Smile” which is based on the teachings of Ticht Nhat Hanh. This is a wonderful book to introduce children to mindful breathing. The book reads as a meditation and helps children learn to connect with their breathing to help them experience calmness. In some of the classes, we also made use of breathing buddies. I asked the children to place the small, soft toy on their chest and notice how the toy moves up and down as they breath in and out. A lovely, concrete way to notice the breath and extremely helpful for young children.
And we ended off the classes this week with a short exercise (my personal weather report) from the book “Sitting Still Like a Frog”. We sat for a few moments to notice the weather inside us. Some children felt rainbows, some felt sunny skies, some felt clouds, a few felt thunder and lightning, and one little guy said he felt like a tornado and floods were happening inside him. I always encourage the children that there are no right or wrong feelings. Mindfulness is not about always feeling rainbows and sunshine. Mindfulness is about noticing the feelings without judgement; without trying to change the feelings or dismiss them. This exercise helps children to understand that they are not their feelings. Feelings come and go. Feelings change. As the book states “We may feel the downpour, but we are not the rain. We may feel scared, but we are not a scaredy-cat.” We need to help our children to acknowledge the feelings without reacting.
So, I encourage the children to sit with the feelings of rain clouds, or the feelings of lightning and thunder, or the feelings of tornadoes and floods. To simply sit and notice.