Bringing Choice and Mindfulness into the Montessori Classroom
by Amanda Childers
In my last article I stated, “Mindfulness isn’t going to solve the problems of the world.” Well, in hindsight, I’d like to rethink that statement. Mindfulness may not solve 100% of our global challenges but it has the ability to start small ripples with the potential to reach way beyond our own pond.
Mindfulness gives us the gift of freedom - freedom to choose our own reactions. When we are mindful, we have the ability to select how we behave. We are no longer bundles of emotion with instantaneous reactions to every perceived slight coming our way. If we are able to go about our day with a mindful purpose, a whole new world opens up to us because we are free. We get to choose how to be and how to react. We are not emotional robots on autopilot responding and reacting without thought and consideration of consequences. Mindfulness is the switch that allows us to designate our wise mind as the driver for the day. Once we make that choice, the emotional, often fearful mind climbs in the back seat and stays quiet for the ride.
In The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Montessori wrote, “Free choice is one of the highest of all the mental processes. It is not possible to speak of free choice when all kinds of external stimuli attract a child at the same time and, having no will power, he responds to every call, passing restlessly from one thing to another.” By working mindfulness into the everyday routine of your classroom, you are teaching focus. You are giving your students the gift of discernment. They have the opportunity to develop their own method of observation and understanding. The child experiences the influence of her wise mind at work.
Susan Kaiser Greenland writes in Mindful Games, “Internal and external transformation is the ultimate goal of mindfulness and meditation; when children change their minds for the better, they’re able to speak, act, and relate with more wisdom and compassion.” She uses the word “transformation” and that is a key. Mindfulness is not a life skill that simply happens with a few lessons and then we move on to the next objective. Mindfulness involves unlearning our old ways of mindless reflex responses and then replacing them with new ways of relating to the stimuli of our everyday reality. Mindfulness involves learning habits that open our eyes to new and different ways of experiencing everything from the mundane to the miraculous.
An example of this is a simple mindful eating exercise that illustrates the extreme difference between our habitual way of eating and a mindful way of eating. This technique is easily accessible for a wide range of children and can be shortened or lengthened depending upon your group of students.
As the guide for this experience, you will first have to decide on what to eat. Think along the lines of raisins, tangerines, or apples and of course, take into consideration any food allergies of your students. You will be both the guide and a participant for this activity so that you are able to share the adventure. Begin much the same way as we did in our anchor breath activity: coming together in community circle, sitting up tall, and settling both body and energy. Once again, in language that is comfortable for you and appropriate to your students, explain that you are going to take some time out together to truly taste a raisin (my chosen example). As each child receives a raisin, ask him to simply hold it in his hand. Once everyone has a raisin, you can begin to ask questions about this little raisin. Start with some questions on how that raisin was able to move from the vine where it grew into their hands today. These questions can be general or detailed in nature depending on your age group.
Then, move into sensory prompts for the children. “How does the skin of the raisin feel?” “Do you see a stem on your raisin?” “What does your raisin smell like?” “Are you able to estimate how much your raisin weighs?” Most of your students will have eaten raisins before but in this exercise you are attempting to awaken a curiosity regarding the simple little raisin. This slowed down approach gives them a chance to pay attention to something that is ever so familiar to most of them.
For the next portion of our raisin meditation, ask the children to listen to your guidance and to try not to jump ahead of you. You might want to tell the children to close their eyes so that they can isolate their sense of taste. Ask them to bring the raisin up to their lips and pause for just a moment. Your prompts can be something along the lines of: “Is anything happening in your mouth or stomach right now?” “Is anyone’s mouth watering or stomach grumbling?” Next, ask the children to place the raisin inside their mouths on their tongues but no chewing! Again, ask them to check in with any physical sensations that might be going on in their bodies. “Can you already taste the sweetness even though you haven’t chewed the raisin?” Now prompt your students to use their tongues to move the raisin over to their teeth and hold the raisin with their teeth, without biting! Allow them to experience this elongated tasting process so that the children can connect with their bodies and senses. By now, they are probably getting squirmy so go ahead and allow them to chew but challenge them to see just how slowly they can chew the raisin. “How many bites does it take before you swallow?”
This is a fun, giggle inducing activity that shifts us into slow motion while at the same time; we pay attention to something mundane – eating a raisin. It is a tangible mindfulness experience that works for all ages, adults included.
We don’t always have the ability to go about our day with this kind of slow motion attention but we can choose to find little opportunities to work mindfulness into our day. The more of these opportunities we find to make deliberate choices, the stronger our mindful muscles become. We are not trying to “fix” ourselves with mindfulness; instead, we are learning choice. By stopping and deliberately examining a situation, we are able to respond with intention and not react out of habit. This is our freedom and with this freedom we are more aware of our choices and how our choices may affect those around us. Amy Saltzman, MD, author of A Still Quiet Place, offers the following explanation of mindfulness to children: “Mindfulness is paying attention here and now, with kindness and curiosity, and then choosing your behavior.” There’s that word again – choice. Choice allows us the opportunity to invite our wise mind to decide what happens next. How many times throughout the course of a day do we simply react with the first thought, the first word that pops up? What happens when we give ourselves a moment to pause and think? Do we make different decisions?
Try this experiment. Think back to an interaction with another person (adult or child) that if you could, you would erase from your memory. Don’t relive every detail of the experience (no need to add more trauma than necessary!) but do think about what prompted your reaction. Does your regret stem from a mind-less response or a mind-full response? Did you give yourself a breath between stimulus and response? Or did you let habit take over? For most of us, the answer will be the same. I rarely regret well thought out words and actions, even when they are unpopular. It’s those times when mindfulness escapes me that live to haunt me.
Mindfulness gives me the opportunity to choose kindness and compassion. And, maybe that choice won’t end hunger or create world peace but it will make my little pond a better place to live.
Respond; don’t react.
Listen; don’t talk.
Think; don’t assume.