Preschoolers practice meditation
Take a breath. Pay attention as the air goes in…and out. There, you’ve just had a moment of mindfulness.
In the 1970s, a young scientist named Jon Kabat-Zinn began introducing mindfulness meditation to people who suffered from chronic pain. He found that bringing awareness to the pain helped them cope with it. The techniques were rooted in Eastern practices taught by the Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. And they caught on in the medical world.
Over the decades, mindfulness has become integrated into treatments for physical pain, anxiety and depression. It’s put into practice at esteemed medical centers such as UCSF. And recently, its reach has expanded into some schools. Supporters say it may be just the trick to lower stress in anxious teachers and students. But there’s still a lot to figure out — what to teach children, at what age, and what mindfulness and meditation can actually do.
KALW’s Judy Silber visited a pre-school in Marin County, where children are learning mindfulness during the earliest stages of their education.
* * *
My mind is a clear, blue sky, my mind is a clear blue sky.
And I breathe in, and I breathe out.
And my mind is a clear, blue sky.
My mind is a clear, blue sky. And the feelings come, and the feelings go.
And my mind is a clear, blue sky. My mind is a clear, blue sky.
To meditate, you have to sit still. Stillness and preschoolers ? two words that usually don’t go together. But they do for Lesley Grant, the director of the Marin Mindfulness Cooperative in San Anselmo. Through pictures and stories, she guides kids between the ages of two-and-a-half and five in following their breath.
LESLEY GRANT: And now the moon has set. And the night is gone. And the sun is about to come up. So you are a flower and you are going to breathe in the sunlight, and open your petals?
The kids are hardly perfect meditators. A few have their eyes open. One little boy lies on his stomach. Still, Grant says the deliberate breathing calms them. And it’s teaching them how to be mindful, to be present and aware of their experiences.
GRANT: ?can you ring the bell, Ezra, and let’s see if we can be mindful of the sound. Ring the bell. (bell rings) And let’s listen until the sound stops. Raise your hand when you can’t hear it.
Grant’s meditation practice began 35 years ago, when she was 17. A certified early childhood educator, in 2000 she was ordained as a Buddhist nun in Sikkim, India.
GRANT: I stayed in a monastery where there were a lot of little monks, and I watched them a lot because I had already worked with children. I watched the freedom and the joy in their play…
I met some little nuns, too. And I saw that they were very free and alive and vital in their play. And then when they were in the gompa, the meditation hall, meditating, they could be very still and peaceful.
When she returned to the U.S. in 2002, Grant began a preschool cooperative. She included meditation and mindfulness training for the parents. And then, she decided to pass it on to the kids as well.
EILEEN BROWN: I was kind of surprised, and I was really kind of skeptical. I couldn’t imagine how Lesley was getting these kids to do all of this.
Three years ago, Eileen Brown enrolled her four-year-old daughter in Grant’s co-op.
BROWN: Then when I came in to do my co-oping shift, I was just really amazed at how the kids really meditated, and how they really could. And then, what my daughter was bringing home, like she could just plop down and get in full lotus and meditate, and she’s talking about Buddhist philosophy, and different Buddhas, and that’s Shakyamuni, and that’s Green Tara, and I didn’t know any of that, so she, sort of, started teaching me.
It’s really kind of an experiment because meditation isn’t usually taught to children. The practices are geared toward adults, and that’s where the research has focused, at least until now.
PHILIPPE GOLDIN: There’s an explosion of interest right now from many different areas in society.
That’s Philippe Goldin, a clinical scientist at Stanford University. He runs a research group looking at how various meditations, mindfulness and psychotherapy affect the brain. Goldin says specific forms of meditation can increase attention and emotional awareness ? actually change the psychology of a person. But almost all those studies were on adults. Goldin says, when it comes to mindfulness and children, we know …
GOLDIN: …very little. There are many people who are trying to implement and weave in mindfulness practices into, either the home, or school, perhaps even daycare centers. There are very, very few research studies where people have tried to measure the effects.
So far, the results for children are encouraging, though not stunning. One study out of UCLA showed that mindfulness improves a quality called “executive function,” which is the ability to stay focused and on task. Over a period of eight weeks, second and third graders who started with low scores improved a lot. However, those who started with high scores didn’t change much.
Goldin’s group conducted a study in which families sat in silence for a few minutes each day, together, for eight weeks, connecting with what Goldin calls, “the still quiet place within.” The researchers tested the subjects before and after each trial. The kids, aged 8 to 12, showed improvement in their attention. And the parents?
GOLDIN: The parents additionally benefited on multiple measures of emotion regulation, decreased symptoms of anxiety, depression, increased self-efficacy, or belief in the parents’ ability to work effectively with their kids. So there are many, many benefits to the parents. The one thing we found in the kids that really was reliable was this increased ability to focus and use their attention.
The Centers for Disease Control says attention deficit hyperactivity disorder affects three to seven percent of school-age children in the U.S.Researchers say they are curious as to whether mindfulness can offer a non-pharmaceutical treatment. For adults, there’s a small, but growing body of evidence that says it might. For kids, it’s still an open question, with a lot to sort out, including whether it’s better to train children, their parents, or both.
Back at the Marin Mindfulness Cooperative, Lesley Grant is creating exercises for her students.
GRANT: We might have children open their mind like the ocean. And that’s giving them an image that helps them to bring a sense of spaciousness to their mind. Then we might ask what’s in their ocean, and they might, we might play with it like a game.
GRANT [demonstrating example]: Yes, Tobias, did you have something in your ocean?
TOBIAS: um, kitty cats.
GRANT: You had kitty cats at the edge of your ocean. What are they doing?
TOBIAS: They’re playing in the sand.
GRANT: Can you show us how kitty cat moves? And how does kitty cat feel?
GRANT: It’s a mad kitty cat. So let’s all move. Tobias will show us how the mad kitty cat moves?
GRANT: And the child gets to determine when they’re done moving, and everybody is going to sit down and we see if we let in stillness — when we’re sitting still, can let a feeling move through us.
GRANT: Okay, Tobias. And when you’re ready, ring the bell, and we’ll all sit and see if we can let that kitty cat run through us.
The scientific proof may be lacking, as yet, but Grant has great anecdotal evidence: children who meditated in the back seat of a car in response to a stressed-out parent; a 5-year old girl who used to act out by hitting, and can now catch the impulse of one fist with the other hand.
Then there was a 4-year old with impulse control issues. One day, about a year after he had been at the cooperative, he and a three-year old were making a puppet show. The younger child started knocking things down. Grant was right there.
GRANT: And the older boy who was four, said, “I want to hit him, I shouldn’t hit him.” And I said, yes, that’s right. And the boy said, “My anger fish is here.” And I said, Oh, what’s it like? And he said, “Anger fish wants to drink up all the water.” Which, to me, was a child having an insight about what anger does in the mind. I mean, isn’t it like that? It really is. When we’re angry, the anger wants to take up all the clarity of our mind, and this is how the child was saying that in a child’s way, in a way of saying it as a picture.
And I said, yes, but can he drink up the whole ocean? And the child said, “No, I’m bigger than the anger fish.” And suddenly, he had this experience that his mind, that his awareness, was bigger than his anger — which was the joy, and the sense of empowerment in him, in that moment — was just amazing.
This kind of emotional awareness is rare, even among adults. So it may take a long time to gather the statistics to support this kind of approach in schools. Young children, especially, are hard to test. But if Grants’ stories are an indicator, teaching mindfulness to preschoolers may have some very practical applications.
The mindfulness song at the beginning of this story comes from Betsy Rose.[via San Francisco Chronicle]