“One of the great things about children is that they have no other concern than to be simply interested in things. It is considered by some the height of mindfulness to approach the world afresh like a child.” ~ John Dickerson
Since March of 2020, it has twice been necessary for educators to teach remotely because of COVID-19, and for children and families to adjust to learning and working at home. These are challenging and stressful times for everyone. Returning to work in kindergarten last fall was anxiety-inducing. We constantly wondered how we would promote physical distancing in a classroom of wiggly four-year-olds; how we would keep on top of daily sanitizing all of the learning materials; and how we would follow all of the protocols necessary for keeping the staff and students healthy and safe. We needed appropriate ways to talk to children about the pandemic, and resources for the families. And we needed to embrace a new vision of what children really need given these strange circumstances. Ironically, the pandemic pushed us to work harder to provide for young children those things we know they should always receive – smaller class sizes, increased opportunities for outdoor play and exploration, and time in the day for being calm and mindful. Thanks to some inspiration from Cosmic Kids we transformed a dramatic play area that had fallen into disuse because of COVID, into a Zen Den where they could do things like relax, do yoga, and engage in mindful colouring. Each day ended with a story about our feelings, an opportunity to describe the Zone we are in, and to either lie down, draw, or build while listening to relaxing music. This had become our daily routine before the New Year saw schools closing again. How would we maintain this? What would mindfulness look like in a virtual classroom?
“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” – Alan Watts
The first time I taught remotely (2020), more time was spent loading activities into the virtual classroom for the children to do independently than was spent actually engaging with them. And truthfully, I had a lot to learn about using educational technology in order to adapt to this situation. On the occasions that I did meet with small groups online, I was struck most by how much the children missed each other. One boy curled his little fingers together into the shape of a heart and leaned close to the computer screen to show his friends and feel close to them. He clearly felt the loss of human contact. I was reminded that experiencing emotional well-being is as high a priority as understanding letters and numbers. Now in 2021, as I reflect on this first month of teaching remotely – which has required more live instruction – mindfulness has taken on a new meaning. We deliberately planned to teach literacy, math and inquiry in the morning, when children would be alert, and better able to participate, and to conclude each day on a calm note. We begin our days with a greeting song and a special fingerplay called Heart to show we care. We take regular breaks for creative movement to laugh and feel good in our bodies. We play games that encourage attending to sounds. We are considering unusual ways to encourage mindful eating during our snack break. Breathing techniques are added to the daily choice boards, as well as invitations to create your own Zen Den at home. (One of our students made a Zen Den from chairs, blankets and a yoga mat!). During our daily time for sharing and relaxing, we continue to talk about the Zones we are in, to read stories about feelings, and to quietly draw, shape plasticine, or build while we listen to gentle music that calms and inspires us. Mindfulness has been thoughtfully woven throughout each day, so that we can experience it in many different ways. Though the teachers and children are not physically together, these daily mindful practices and our shared community time make us feel as though we are.
“When I’m hungry, I eat what I love. When I’m bored, I do something I love. When I’m lonely, I connect with someone I love. When I feel sad, I remember that I am loved.”– Michelle May
What about the educators, parents and care providers? Last year I attended a virtual conference and had the privilege of hearing Dr. Maria Hersey speak on the topic of self-care for educators. At a time when there was so much fear and uncertainty in the world, her words provided so much comfort, and the reminder that as we take care of ourselves, we become better able to do our jobs, and be present to meet the needs of the children in our care. Our work gives us a lot of satisfaction and ongoing opportunities for learning, but it is also a source of stress. I’m sure we have all been experiencing things like insomnia, anxiety and exhaustion. I certainly have. Withdrawing, arguing, and feeling numb are only a few of the ways that our stress shows itself. Adults and children alike need strategies for coping with stress. What can we do? We can take time to better understand how our brains work and their role in how we react to stress. We can develop greater awareness of our emotions, thoughts and values. We can build some habits of mind that help us face our challenges and solve our problems. We can practice self-compassion and treat ourselves gently when things are rough. We can take a few moments for self-care routines such as a body scan meditation. We can develop attitudes of mindfulness that make our lives both simpler and richer. So many resources are available to us – to help us feel calm, to encourage us to stay positive, to remind us that we are doing our best, and to give us permission to forgive ourselves for not feeling strong or for not being perfect all the time. I share these resources with you because teaching during the pandemic has challenged us all in extraordinary ways. Educators, parents and care providers need to receive the care and love they give each day as they provide a calming presence for the children who count on us to do just that. If this past month has taught me one important thing it is this: children and their adults can move on the path towards mindfulness, together.
“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” ~ L.R. Knost
This post is dedicated to all the teachers and grown ups out there who are giving children all they have got, whether remotely or in person. But it is especially for Nikki, an amazing teacher, a person who is both strong and calm.