Stories from my personal journey learning about and delivering Nature-rooted programs across three different countries
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I'm really excited to share Forest Schooled's second Guest Blog! I love guest blogs because they help me gain fresh perspective and ideas about concepts I might not be so familiar with myself. This one is written by Molly McConnell, a good friend of mine who has experience working on mindfulness and yoga with kids in both indoor and outdoor settings. She writes about the benefits she's witnessed for the children she's worked with as well as gives some advice on how to take some methods into the outdoors! Really looking forward to using these tips in the future, thanks Molly!
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“Close your eyes… feel your body resting on the ground… now, imagine yourself in a beautiful place…”
We would do this meditation often in the classroom. The kids loved it. Can you imagine – preschoolers begging to lie down? The class was a mixed group; half affording full tuition, and the other half paying $50 a month, if they could. You see, The Community Montessori is more than a classroom, it is a movement to revolutionize high-quality education by making it accessible to even the lowest socioeconomic families. As a classroom assistant, I have seen the manifestation of the emotional burdens put on these fragile children. Living on the verge of poverty can create a very unstable home life, which is especially challenging at an early age; they have not developed the emotional tools to understand why mom’s anger, or the hunger of their own growling bellies, is not their fault. As much as I wanted to take them all home; to hold them safely in my arms, look into their eyes, and tell them that they are special and important, I couldn’t. It became clear that my best option would be to give them as much support and compassion in the classroom as I possibly could, in order to help them develop their own tools for understanding and coping with the world.
So, we started practicing yoga; designating a special space with two yoga mats and a full-length mirror (to increase body-awareness). I purchased a deck of yoga cards and then printed corresponding pictures of the students doing the poses themselves. We created our very own, personalized deck of classroom yoga cards that were great for mixing and matching. I would invite groups of 3 or 4 children at a time to practice with me; each week making more yoga cards available, after a series of poses had been learned and internalized. The transformations were unbelievable – some of the rowdiest children were actually taking the time to breath and balance, to look and listen, both on and off the yoga mat. After several weeks of basic poses, I started to incorporate meditation into these little practices. As it began, I would cue them to visualize a beautiful place:
“…it might be some place you know, or it might be some place that you imagine, but it should be somewhere that is beautiful to you.”
Next, prompting them to notice the air, the ground, and other people they might like to have with them in this special place. Afterwards, when everyone’s bodies were feeling calm and peaceful, I would invite them to share some of the things that they had imagined. While the responses varied, they were typically describing lots of animals and loved-ones under sunshine skies.
There was one, however, that I will never forget. It was one of those moments when you wished you could drop everything in your own world to put the pieces of someone else’s back together. For me, that someone was a former student – we will call him Derek. Almost four years old and still one of the smallest in his class. No child has ever asked more questions than Derek did. He was always longing to be looked in the eye, to stand near someone, to feel loved. He lived with his grandparents most of the time, constantly over stimulated, surrounded by strangers and chaos - - constantly resetting his mind to make sense of this reality.
On this particular day, Derek and I were practicing yoga, just the two of us. He really thrived during one on one time. When it came time for meditation, he lied down and closed his eyes. I walked him through it, just like so many times before, and when he was finished he sat up and looked me right in the eye.
“Would you like to tell me about your beautiful place, Derek? What did up you imagine?”
“I imagined my home…” he went on, “there’s bad things there.”
I could have cried. This amazing, compassionate, curious little soul was dwelling in such a stressful home environment that he could not successfully imagine a beautiful place without being distracted by unpleasant recollections. Most of the other four year olds were spending their days frolicking in a dream world of imagination and joy, a luxury that this sweet child did not have.
Although it is not always easy, I am so grateful for the opportunity to help children like Derek discover an outlet for communicating emotional distress and gathering support. Yoga has proven to be a powerful mechanism in the personal growth of each and every student I have had the privilege of working with, especially those seeking a means of stability. It can easily be incorporated in both indoor and outdoor classroom settings. After assisting in Montessori preschools for several years, I have come to understand that the ability to communicate with children and share the joys of mindfulness is an incredible gift. Yoga has reinvigorated my passion for teaching. Being able to share a practice and inspire greater tools for personal awareness in others is truly amazing. We, as teachers, take on the duty of synthesizing our own offerings in order to share them in a way that serves humanity at large. This is an incredibly potent responsibility. It is our privilege to help children learn about themselves and hold a space that supports the development of a healthy foundation, both within and far beyond the classroom.
Looking for advice on how to incorporated mindfulness techniques into your outdoor or indoor classroom? Try a breathing technique!
1) Give each child a sweet, small feather to be responsible for. Gently invite them to hold the feather several inches from the mouth and nose. As they breathe in different ways, they will notice the feather moving. These children are literally having the experience of WATCHING their own breath. You can guide different qualities of the breath by challenging them to breath slowly or quickly, soft or hard, through the nose or through the mouth. This practice brings deeper awareness and is a great medium to lead into wind-down activities.
2)Volcano breath is another exceptional tool for quickly and effectively enhancing mindfulness & group attention. To guide a volcano breath, have each child stand tall like mountain, with their arms at their sides and their palms facing forward. Encourage them to take a big, full breath in through the nose and then to exhale out through the mouth, blowing ALL of their air up to the sky like a volcano. Sometimes before we even begin the breathing, I walk them through the process of REALLY grounding down through their feet (stomping right and then left) and reaching up TALL through the crown of the head as if it were the tippy top of a mountain. Once we do one breath, I like to add in a challenge and ask the students how many breaths we should try IN A ROW (fewer than 10 is preferable). By the end of this exercise, everyone is well oxygenated, more grounded and standing proudly in his or her own space.
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Molly McConnell is the founder of Cultivate Balance, where she is dedicated to exploring the healing wisdom of Ayurveda, while sharing practical tips to live a more balanced life. In addition, she sources inspiration from the intersections of feminist theory, Montessori methodology & sacred spirituality. As a 500 RYT, Molly has found a home for herself guiding yoga classes at Earth Yoga Boulder, working with private clients & facilitating mindfulness for kids! She strives to create a nurturing environment where students feel both supported & challenged to connect to their most authentic selves. After spending several years wandering the globe, she is grateful to have grounded into the Boulder community as she pursues study of Ayurvedic medicine at Alandi Ashram.