Simple Ways to add Movement and Mindfulness to our Work with Children (No Apps Required)
Updated: Jul 20
The beginning of this school year has been like no other. If you are like me, you are probably feeling that all you know has been uprooted, and you are trying to find some ground. I am just about to begin week three in my school. We are doing a hybrid model. I begin each day in person and end online. You are likely doing some variation of this plan. Both settings are still unfamiliar because school does not look like school. There are so many new procedures, and they can be exhausting and perhaps, even impossible to implement.
Clean every object a student touches.
Don’t let them touch you.
Keep children 6 feet apart.
Keep their masks on.
Keep your mask on.
Take your temperature every day and make sure to check in.
Follow an alternating schedule.
Coordinate with families who are going remote.
And on and on…….
I know these are the rules. I have inadvertently broken many of them (and this is only the third week). Yes, it is very, very stressful but I have still managed to find a great deal of joy. First, joy is my choice. It is so easy to go down the path of least resistance and join in when there is so much stress around us. Starting each day with the intention to stay on my own path takes work, but it is worth the effort. I have also continued to make connection my primary focus. I have played, moved and initiated mindful moments this week. I have allowed myself time to just really feel the warmth and love of my students. Yes, I have gone home worn out, but I am still feeling really excited to go back the next day. I want that for all of us. The research on stress contagion is clear. Stressed teachers create stressed students. Connection through mindfulness and movement can really be the antidote for both you and your students.
The evidence is mounting on the positive impact that movement and mindfulness have on stress and anxiety. As therapists we are experts in the mind/ body connection so in order to have emotional wellness we know we have to get the body involved. Not only can we do this in our occupational therapy sessions, but to support teachers we can give them ideas on how to add movement and mindfulness into the classroom. With the explosion of technology this is easier than ever. We can provide the teacher with website links or an app suggestion and the problem is solved...or is it?
Since March of this unprecedented year, we have all had to increase our technology usage to meet our students' needs. I think most of us have felt that it has not been ideal. You may still be in that situation and there are so many amazing therapists who are creating innovative content to help teach us how to be better online. I am indebted and applaud them for their efforts. However, I know that just putting a child in front of a computer is incomplete. The best part of our sessions has likely been the face to face contact, even if it is through the computer. If we just send a child to a website how will they connect with us or each other. I know we can do better.
When we, and our teachers, do movement and mindfulness practices with students we get the benefits ourselves. We prime ourself neurologically through movement. We also get a chance to connect. Oxytocin is released through human connection. Oxytocin makes us feel good through its powerful way of relaxing us and creating positive feelings towards each other. We rob ourselves, as well as our students, when we just place them in front of a recording. The powerful tools of movement and mindfulness can be done in isolation, but the impact of sharing them is incalculable.
I know you are stretched. You need quick answers. I offer a simple plan here for you to use in your sessions and for you to give to your teachers. As the stress level is so high, we really can create a routine that requires no prep and is repeated each week. One movement and mindfulness activity suggestion for every day of the week, so just 5 movements and 5 mindfulness suggestions in all. Children thrive on routine. We sometimes feel a need to complicate things by adding tons of novelty or creating long lists for teachers to follow. It makes everyone feel overwhelmed and usually nothing gets accomplished. For myself, I do the same daily meditation practices for weeks at a time. This is comforting, and with so much change, I need comfort right now. Remember to not confabulate our own boredom with our students. I believe simplicity is the answer in these trying times, so here is my offering:
Monday through Friday plan:
Marching super slow to marching fast to running in place - When they finish running ask them to close their eyes and place a hand on their heart to notice their heartbeat- During this activity see how slow they can go and how fast (Easy way to work on modulation).
Set a timer for one minute to just listen- no talking. Ask students to listen for sounds outside of the room. When they are done ask them what they heard.
Jumping day- Squat jumps to twist jumps to jumping on one foot and then the other. Also, take a moment to connect (placing a hand on their heart like in Monday's movement). Can end with a forward fold by having students try to touch their toes. We can ask the students to pretend to dump all their problems on to the floor when they are folded.
Have children create a little turtle shell over their body by either going into a child’s pose on the floor and covering their heads with their arms or doing the same arm position with their head resting on their desk. Count out 10 breaths. Count slowly and audibly, only on the exhale.
Balancing day- Start with practicing in the yoga tree pose. Tell students to take a breath, find a point of visual focus and tell themselves they are good at balancing (don’t look at each other or the screen). Follow up with a Warrior 3 (airplane) pose. This is standing on one foot with other leg rising towards 90 degrees behind them and leaning body over like they are flying. Do both poses on both sides. They can try to balance with their eyes closed and open and inquire if they notice any difference.
Children hold their pencil and for one minute they will just look at the tip of the pencil. Tell them to keep their eyes soft. When we just concentrate on one part of our experience there is often a relaxation response. Ask if they notice this.
Isometrics Day- Children can push themselves up an inch in their chair and hold. They can stand in a mountain pose (perfect alignment in standing) and pretend to be a mountain that cannot be moved. They then can pretend to push imaginary walls away from them. Following this they can squeeze their entire body (face included) into a ball in their chair. Hold position for the count of 10 and then relax everything and try to notice the difference between the tension and the relaxation
Hot pizza followed by cocoa breaths- Have them imagine they are holding a hot slice of pizza. Slowly smell the pizza and even more slowly blow it to cool it down. Try to imagine the warmth. Can do the same with the cup of cocoa. Ask them if they could actually feel the temperature.
Dancing- Freeze dance for many of the younger grades or “Show me your moves and we will follow" for the older grades. This can be done many different ways. Children can take turns picking music.
Mindful walk around the classroom. Have children follow each other. How slowly and quietly can they move from one space to another. Can they concentrate on their feet while they walk? What do they notice when they concentrate?
For children at home ask them to walk as slowly and quietly as possible from the computer screen to the opposite side of the room. You will be listening for any noise. Again,ask them to concentrate on their feet.
Here is a one page PDF of the above plan
Special considerations for online teaching
Remember that human connection still counts online. Take a moment before your students get on the computer to take a breath and ground yourself in your body so you are ready to socially connect.
Commit to being present. It is very easy to keep tabs open on our computer and get distracted. When teaching movement and mindfulness it is crucial that we model presence. Many studies have shown that when we are actually in the moment, we are naturally happier.
I always start with movement when I am online. Often, we, as well as our students, have been sitting for long periods and need to move our energy. If the child states they are tired, I will often ask them to do at least a quick stretch because I say that I need it. Once they are up it is usually easier to convince them to go a little farther. After I move with students, whether in person or online, I always announce how I feel. If you have read any of my blogs, or listened to me speak, this is a big part of my work. We have the opportunity to encourage life-affirming habits by connecting movement and mindfulness with pleasure. Let children know how you feel.
Show children what it means to have a mindful body by showing them the worst posture first. Let them play with slouching. Demonstrate this for yourself. Play it up by looking very bored while lying on your desk. Have your students then teach you what an alert, attentive body should look like. Children love teaching the teacher.
When you are doing any of the breaths, be very dramatic so the children can see and hear it.
After giving instructions and demonstrating, for the mindful moments on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday you can invite your students to turn their chair away from the screen and face it towards the window. It is a nice way to take a break from the computer and perhaps connect with nature.
The last consideration is to not worry if children are distracted or even if they say they don't like doing mindfulness. I have had great success with teenagers who told me how much they disliked the practices and then later have come back (when they were alone) to tell me how much it helped them. We truly never know our impact so don't get discouraged or take things personally.
I cannot emphasize enough the power of doing these practices together with our students. When we move with children, we may feel silly or embarrassed. I urge you to take the risk and do them anyway. When we are open and vulnerable, we invite children to do the same. Remember that vulnerability is the glue that bonds relationships together and relationship is the ultimate therapeutic tool.
If you are in person, you can offer to teach the whole class and serve as a model for our over-taxed teachers. Sometimes teachers need to see that these ideas can be implemented easily. You can do the movements first, and then follow them up with a meditation, or they can be done at separate times. I often start my occupational therapy sessions with movement and then end with some mindfulness. Teachers can do a movement in the morning and a mindfulness technique in the afternoon. Consistency is really key. Mindfulness is like a muscle, so small moments practiced, over time, really make a huge difference.
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