Seriously Playing

Photo of Richard Burnett MiSP co-founder and chairGuest blog by MiSP’s Co-founder and Chair, Richard Burnett

There are many apparent paradoxes in mindfulness practice. You are being asked to apply yourself but without trying too hard; you have to learn to get out of the way of yourself; surely there must be a reason for doing it, but you are told not to have a goal.

When you are bringing mindfulness into the classroom there are similar paradoxes. It seems to me, this is especially true if you are working with adolescents in secondary education, the focus of this piece. For healthy evolutionary reasons, this group is learning to question what ‘adults’ are telling them. They are very unlikely to give us a second chance; if we don’t engage them quickly, we may lose them.

To hold the attention of teenagers, mindfulness has to begin by being playful, intriguing, even fun. They are likely to push back if they feel it is being forced on them, so we have to hold it lightly and not take it too seriously; on the other hand they have to feel like it has a point. To add to the challenge, what might be playful and fun for some, may not be so at all for others.

The importance of play and fun

That mindfulness in schools should firstly be playful and fun is an important, even foundational principle, and I sometimes wonder if we have drifted away from this slightly in the field. We have become obsessed with measuring things because we want to prove that ‘they work’. If we were using mindfulness in the classroom as a clinical or therapeutic intervention, then it could make sense to use similar metrics to those used when assessing Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), but that is not what we are setting out to do. As quoted in Barry Boyce’s helpful piece, using those metrics to measure whether mindfulness in the classroom ‘works’ is like trying to measure gas with a slide rule. What we are trying to do is to sow seeds. We are dipping teens’ toes in the waters of mindfulness in ways which are playful – sometimes fun, sometimes calming, sometimes silly, sometimes deeper – but broadly speaking they experience mindfulness as something which is, at the very least, ‘okay’.

Knowing there is a ‘parachute’

When describing his pioneering work in MBSR at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Jon Kabat-Zinn famously describes regular mindfulness practice as “weaving the parachute” so that when things go wrong and you begin to fall, it catches you. For some children and young people, it may do this, but for others we at least want them to know that there is a parachute, that mindfulness has value as something they or their friends might return to.

What we mustn’t do, however, is force them to wear the parachute when they really don’t want to! In the classroom, we have seen teachers putting teens off mindfulness, albeit with the best of intentions, when their pupils feel like it is being forced on them. Perhaps because mindfulness has grown and become more acceptable in mainstream culture, I wonder if we sometimes lose sight of this. It is not for everyone. It will not be every pupil’s choice of parachute, so making sure that mindfulness practices in the classroom remain invitational, playful, even fun, is a basic principle that we mustn’t lose sight of. Similarly, let’s remember that the mindfulness practice of ourselves, the teacher, may offer the biggest impact on the relationship and learning of the child, regardless of whether the individual is receptive to the teaching of specific mindfulness skills.

Diversity of mindfulness experience

Mindfulness comes in many different shapes and sizes. Certain principles can be taught via movement, via listening, via eating, via clapping your hands, scrunching your face or stamping your feet. But as Joseph Goldstein often reminds us: “If you want to understand the mind, sit down and observe it”. We sit quietly. We watch. We see what happens. And in the same way that mindfulness practice can deepen when we try less hard, we sometimes find that a classroom practice, even if begun lightly and playfully, can end up becoming a more sustained period of inner- stillness. And these are the moments we have to take seriously.

This may be less so in the afternoon. In my experience, longer periods of stillness in afternoon lessons are usually characterised by heads on desks and serious sleepiness; there can be a ‘sleeping lions’ feel to it, with even the higher energy and more boisterous of adolescents welcoming an opportunity just to stop.

But more typically in morning lessons, when your audience is typically brighter-eyed and more alert, even a short practice beautifully led, held playfully and lightly, may not be experienced in that way by everyone in the class. If it develops into a more sustained period of stillness then your pupils may begin to let go a little. For most, I would say the significant majority, this is a good letting go. It is a dropping of shoulders, a lengthening of breath, a loosening of tension, an unwinding and uncoiling of knots.

But for a few it might be a letting go of walls they have built to protect themselves, a removal of distractions they have needed, an opening into silences that quickly fill with worry and fear. Even if it happens infrequently, if we are taking our playful practices seriously, we know this is a possibility. We are reading the room as we guide and we are spotting the signs: the fidgeting, the doodling, the unsettled gaze, the awkwardness with being still. Of course, this might be fine – an attention-deficit diagnosed or otherwise – but what if it isn’t? What if that child is actually struggling, even in a short practice?

As we teach on our trainings, there are many ways to handle this. The chances are that if you have read up to this point in my article, you probably know them already. Fundamentally, it is about seeing your teaching as sitting within the safeguarding context of the school. Formally, this means checking in with your DSL before you teach so that you know who might be at risk; informally, this might mean checking in with relevant colleagues, form teachers or tutors who might know this group better than you.

If you know who to keep an eye on, you can usually tell how they are finding a practice by reading their gaze and their body language. You can then give ‘outs’ and ‘exits’ accordingly. Even knowing that they don’t have to ‘do’ the practice, and can fidget, doodle, sway or sleep to their heart’s content is often enough.

Giving all children an introduction

This all sounds very serious, as well it should. But if we are leading practices lightly and playfully, and if there is a good rapport with the children sitting in front of us, I would guess that for every one or two who might struggle a little and need options, there will be many more who have a little swim in the shallows of mindfulness and make their choices. For all children, we will have at least introduced them to the idea of mindfulness and given them a taste. We know from feedback over the years, that many come back to it one day, but equally we’ve learned it is important not to take it personally if it’s just not their thing.