On Thursday, April 19th, a very special—and very familiar—visitor came to The New Century School to see TNCS 1st- and 2nd-graders. Johns Hopkins child psychologist Carisa Perry-Parrish joined Mrs. Krysta Jenks’ and Sra. Barbara Sanchez’s homerooms to talk about mindfulness.
Dr. Perry-Parrish has formerly given presentations to TNCS families, to TNCS faculty, and to Chinese teachers visiting TNCS, and she has even contributed as a guest blogger to Immersed, but workshopping with students was a first.
Lower Elementary Mindfulness Workshops
Mrs. Jenks explains that she invited Dr. Perry-Parrish in to talk in order “to begin integrating mindfulness practices in the school day. There is a growing body of research on the benefits of practicing mindfulness. It helps students regulate emotions, develop coping skills, and increases curiosity,” said Mrs. Jenks.
For this age group. Dr. Perry-Parrish needed a point of entry that would grab and hold their attention. That way in was through their senses—touch, smell, taste, seeing, and hearing: “I came today to do some activities about how we can notice different things around us and in ourselves,” she explained. Next, she introduced terms and asked the group to define them, beginning with “psychologist.” “Brain doctor” was the agreed-on definition. Next was “meditation”:
Dr. Perry-Parrish: Has anybody heard of meditation before? What is it?
Students: It’s something that you do in yoga. It’s a way to calm your mind.
Dr. Perry-Parrish: Why would we need to calm our mind?
Students: Stress, angry, crazy. Sometimes stupid.
Dr. Perry-Parrish: Does anybody get angry? We have all different kinds of feelings and maybe we want like [a student] said to calm our minds down.
After setting the scene in this way, Dr. Perry-Parrish let students vote on in what order they would perform three activities: A tasting thing, a feeling thing with the hands, and a listening thing.
Not surprisingly, given that these activities were happening pre-lunch, both groups opted for the “tasting thing” first.
The Tasting Thing
After first verifying that no one had a dairy allergy, Dr. Perry-Parrish asked students to form a circle on the classroom rug and sit criss-cross with one hand open on one knee with eyes closed. While placing a single yogurt raisin in each child’s open palm, she explained what she was doing:
I want you to keep your eyes closed until I tell you to open them. I’m going to give you one little thing that we’re going to taste, but, before we do that, we’re going to use another sense, our hand sense. I don’t want you to use your eyes because I want you to be curious like a scientist. We’re going to practice using different parts of our senses and we’re going to start by just holding this thing. As I put it in your hand, I want you to start feeling it, and I want you thinking about what it feels like.
She then proceeded through a series of questions with various answers, a sampling of which are given here:
Dr. Perry-Parrish: Does this thing feel light or heavy?
Dr. Perry-Parrish: Does it have a smell?
Dr. Perry-Parrish: What does it smell like?
Students: A jelly bean..
Dr. Perry-Parrish: Does it feel smooth or rough?
Dr. Perry-Parrish: Does it feel like it fell off a tree or came from a store?
Students: A store.
“Now I want you to put this thing in your mouth and just hold it there for a couple of seconds—no biting,” she instructed.
Dr. Perry-Parrish: Does it taste sour or sweet?
Dr. Perry-Parrish: Take one bite and tell me what it tastes like.
Students: A yogurt raisin.
Dr. Perry-Parrish: Who knew as soon as I put it in your hand?
Dr. Perry-Parrish: How?
Students: I felt it before.
Finally, she brought home the mindfulness message in a way that they could really grasp: “Before you put it in your mouth were you feeling super excited to eat it right away? Do you ever have that feeling of I want to do something really fast but I have to slow down? It can be super hard to wait sometimes.”
The Feeling Thing with the Hands
The second activity involved placing an ice cube in each student’s hand and making all kinds of observations about it. Several children commented that they didn’t like it when the ice made their hand cold, and one had a very strong urge to eat it. This led to a very rich discussion about “sticking it out” (the hand eventually became numb, so the “pain” was no longer felt) as well as about self-restraint. “Does that happen sometimes when you have an uncomfortable feeling, and then we wait a little while until we get used to it?” asked Dr. Perry-Parrish.
In closing, she asked what surprised them about the ice experiment to get them to see that being mindful shows you things you might otherwise miss. They found that the ice melted at all different rates (why?). “Did you have any different emotions that you weren’t expecting?” “Hungry!”
The Listening Thing
The final activity involved the Fiona Apple song, Extraordinary Machine. “Everybody sit down and put on your listening ears. You guys do music class right? I bet you know all kinds of different instruments. So this is what I want you to do. Every time you hear a different instrument I want you to put a finger up. I want to see how many we count.”
At the end, the number of instruments discerned varied widely. Dr. Parry-Parrish explained: “I think we all heard different kinds of things. Were we all listening to the same song? Did we all hear different kinds of things? Why do you think we counted different kinds of things? People have different ear drums so they might hear different things.”
Dr. Perry-Parrish: What if I stopped listening for a minute and started thinking about how hungry for lunch I am? Do you think I could have missed some? Does that ever happen when we’re talking to people?
Dr. Perry-Parrish: Does that ever happen to you guys when you’re listening to a lesson from your teacher?
Students: Yeah, a lot, like when my mom asks me to do something.
Dr. Perry-Parrish: What can we do when that happens so we’re paying attention? Sometimes it’s just noticing when we’re listening and when we are not.
She then played Extraordinary Machine again while students made their counts a second time, and they compared results. The number of instruments discerned rose dramatically. “Was there something different about how we were listening the first time compared to the second time?” she asked.
Paying Attention to What’s Happening Right Now
After the three activities with each class, Dr. Perry-Parrish brought it all home:
The thing that we did today has a special funny word called mindfulness. Have you ever heard of that word before? All it means is that we’re paying attention to what’s happening right now. Another mindful thing to do with your body is just notice what parts of your body move when you’re walking compared to when you’re going down the stairs. It’s a little bit different. Maybe the muscles feel a little different. Maybe you’re looking at things a little different. So, anytime you’re noticing something that’s happening right now, that’s a way to do mindfulness.
The underlying message is that children can use mindfulness to help cope with negative feelings. “Remember how we talked about all those different feelings that we have like happy, hungry, nervous?” she asked. “Something that can help us with those feelings is by asking ourselves what’s happening right now. There’s all kinds of things that we can notice, and that can help us feel less sad or not too excited.”
“The kids were really into using their senses to observe their experiences,” said Dr. Perry-Parrish of her visit to TNCS. “It was really fun helping them learn that they could have different observations during the same experience. Hopefully, teaching kids mindfulness gives them another tool to learn from their experiences,” she said.
Mrs. Jenks agreed. “We were fortunate to have Dr. Perry-Parrish lend her skill set in leading students through mindful awareness practices. I am hoping we can continue to use mindfulness at TNCS to help foster emotional growth in students.”
The other side of that coin is that mindfulness can also promote happiness. Developing self-regulation, awareness, and patience skills opens children up to the world around them—a feast for the senses, and the mind.
Want to try some mindfulness activities at home? Check out Mindfulness Activities for Children And Teens: 25 Fun Exercises For Kids from Positive Psychology.