Updated: Feb 6, 2019
Mindfulness has become a modern buzzword. It stems from ancient Buddhism, and it's become a hot topic in education in recent years. It can practiced without the need for religious or spiritual context, and it can be incorporated into classroom and out-of-classroom education with relative ease.
But it's also become riddled with misconceptions and a sense of mystical ambiguity that risks putting educators off mindfulness as a dynamic learning tool for students and teachers alike.
So What Exactly is Mindfulness?
So what exactly is mindfulness? Well, thankfully Psychology Today has done a pretty good job of defining mindfulness and breaking down some of the common misconceptions as follows:
1. Mindfulness is letting go of taking things for granted.
2. Mindfulness means to return to the present moment.
Each of these definitions is broadly true, but it's the last one that really hits the nail on the head. Scientists use the word “self-regulation” to refer to how we can take control of our attention and regulate our focus. For example, you might deliberately shift your attention to a beautiful flower, to the body language of your friend as she speaks, to a memory, a future goal, or to your in-breath.
"...is [mindfulness] New Age nonsense or a useful tool for young people to develop as part of the education process inside and outside of our classrooms?"
The second part of the definition refers to the approach of being open to whatever you place your attention on, being interested and curious of what you might discover. It might be something pleasant, unpleasant, exciting or boring, but in any case, your openness, curiosity, and acceptance can be employed.
Is Mindfulness New Age Nonsense?
So is mindfulness hippie nonsense or a useful tool for young people to develop as part of the education process? Well, as a scientist by training, I don't champion any educational approach unless there's a wealth of credible evidence-based research to support it.
And in this instance there is. A review paper of current peer-reviewed research, which examined two existing systematic reviews, and twenty individual studies of mindfulness interventions with school aged children, all with reasonable participant numbers, has recently been published by Katherine Weare of the University of Exeter's Mood Disorders Centre. The interventions involved all age ranges, included both volunteers and ‘conscripts’, children without problems and children with a range of mental and physical health needs, and took place in school, clinical and community settings.
"...mindfulness can help encourage children to experience the world with their senses, encourage curiosity and an openness and acceptance of all living things."
They concluded that the weight of current available evidence shows that:
Mindfulness for young people is easy to carry out, fits into a wide range of contexts, is enjoyed by both students and teachers, and does no harm.
Well conducted mindfulness interventions can improve the mental, emotional, social and physical health and wellbeing of young people who take part.
Mindfulness practice can reduce stress, anxiety, reactivity and bad behaviour, improve sleep and self-‐esteem, and bring about greater calmness, relaxation, the ability to manage behavior and emotions, self-‐awareness and empathy.
Mindfulness can contribute directly to the development of cognitive and performance skills and executive function by help young people pay greater attention, be more focused, think in more innovative ways, use existing knowledge more effectively, improve working memory, and enhance planning, problem solving, and reasoning skills.
They pointed out that compared to research on mindfulness among adults, studies of youth mindfulness are in there infancy, but the results are nevertheless encouraging.
So perhaps we should give it a try - particularly when teaching in outdoor settings, where mindfulness can help encourage children to experience the world with their senses, encourage curiosity and an openness and acceptance of all living things.
For a modern twist on achieving mindfulness using nature photography with kids, check out my recent blog post: A Quick Guide to Nature Photography for Children.
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