By: Cindy Green, RECE (with contributions from Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE). As an antidote to the last blog post where there was focus on ranting while reflecting on words that cause agitation Cindy offers some thoughts on being mindful, grateful and joyful. Then as promised there will be a return to the ranting as this past post was the second most read in the history of this blog (since 2012). It is obvious that there is an interest and desire to consider the language that we use as early childhood educators. Language matters and some words should be unpacked, repacked and sent packing! “Cute” was one such word that generated a boom in this blog’s statistics and plenty of feedback. That is food for thought and a rationale to keep this series going but let’s first hear from Cindy, in order to take some time to calm down from all this ranting!
I (Cindy), reflect back to early 2002 when my interest in the states of being mindful, grateful and joyful really propelled me to learn more about myself, both personally and professionally. At the time I was teaching ECE at a community college and living north of Toronto, Ontario on the Trent-Severn Waterway. The calm that I usually felt just from living on the water’s edge was no longer enough. I have never been one to sit idle, as I scurried around from one thing to the next, (a trait inherited from my mom). Being busy, both personally and professionally meant that I was happy and successful, right? But, something hit me. I was being consumed by my job and life in general. My house had too much “stuff”, drama cluttered my experience and my daily exercise regime was no longer enough to balance me back to calm. So, I uncluttered and enrolled in a six subject Holistic Health program at the same college where I was working. It changed my life. I learned about slowing down and its importance to one’s overall health and well-being. All these years later, I continue to practice slowing down to be more mindful, grateful and joyful in the present moment.
Together and independently, my friend and colleague Diane Kashin and I talk about slowing down to just BE in the moment with children so that nuances of experience can be observed, experienced and reflected upon. There are no doubts about it, working with young children is busy. There can be an abundance of noise, movement, smells, tactile and proprioceptive stimulation, and visual and mental images that one is bombarded with at any given moment. Processing and regulating in response to this vast abundance of sensory stimulation can be difficult for many of us. Early on in my career I had the tremendous opportunity to work alongside occupational and physiotherapists and I learned a lot about sensory integration dysregulation. This term was coined by Jean Ayres (1979), an occupational therapist “to describe atypical social, emotional, motor and functional patterns of behaviour relating to the poor processing of sensory stimuli”. All these years later, and thanks to Shanker’s research (2017), I understand sensory overload and underload more fully, through the self-regulation lens. When one’s central nervous system, prefrontal cortex and limbic brain are in an upheaval (fight, flight or freeze response) across biological, social, prosocial, cognitive and emotionally charged domains, the mind and body are not in the best state for learning, being mindful, having and showing gratitude nor feeling joy. Recently, with Diane, we had some moments on the beach being mindful and our walks lead to many “aha” moments as our minds were more open to be creative and critical.
To paraphrase the Ontario Ministry of Education’s How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years (2014), health and well-being are conditions and expectations for learning. This applies to everyone, children, their families and ourselves, educators. But, how do we know that everyone feels a sense of well-being? What does it look like in an early learning program? Is well-being the same as gratitude and joy? Or, does well-being encompass happiness, joyfulness, mindfulness and joy? Language does matter. What are our interpretations and perceptions of these terms? In his work, Shanker refers to Twenge’s theory that we are witnessing a generation that doesn’t notice things and this mindlessness is referred to as “cognitive blinders”. Our biases and assumptions dictate what we see, and what we see is influenced by our stereotypes. Langer goes on to say that “mindfulness is about removing these cognitive blinders” so one can be more aware, present and open. Shanker writes about reframing children’s behaviour as the first step towards understanding and then supporting and responding to the child. “Reframing is about mindfulness, getting past our assumptions, preconceptions and judgements in order to become more aware of children’s signals (their affect cues) and our subsequent reaction”. Siegel, in his book Mindset (2010), terms this as “getting ourselves off autopilot” which requires us to slow down, be more reflective and abandon “cognitive blinders”.
“Stop and smell the roses” a metaphorical mantra about appreciating life is one that we have heard many times, but is it being applied in our daily lives and practice? I’m assuming that we all buy into the validity of this statement, sometimes without pausing to truly think more deeply about its importance and relevance in one’s personal and professional life. I wonder why roses are the highlighted flowers as sometimes they don’t have much scent! From flowers to food. Going back to that holistic health course, I studied the link between food and its connection to overall health, wellness, happiness, positivism, focus, resilience and physical and mental energy (creation, maintenance and restoration). I completely changed my practice. I now love everything about food (especially local and organic); growing, harvesting, shopping, cooking, consuming and sharing the experience by myself and with others. I have learned a lot about the culture of food from another colleague, Rosalba Bortolotti (just thinking of Italian food makes me long for our time in Italy during the Canadian Study Tour to Reggio Emilia). Sharing a meal in Reggio with friends who first crossed paths at Seneca College many years before was a dinner to remember.
In our fast-paced North American culture, eating has become a grab what’s quick and easy phenomenon. Many of our foods are overly processed. Fast food is an epidemic and I worry about how this is impacting children’s health and wellness and their relationships with food. In my workshops with teachers about food and how it is meant to nourish the mind, body and spirit I boldly ask others “are these fast foods even food? The nutritional levels are more than questionable as they relate to fat, sodium and sugar content. One’s daily caloric intake can be consumed in one sitting! Our bodies and brains are fueled by nutrients in food, exercise and sleep (to mention a few) and the brain has to regulate the body’s energy just to keep going so we can breathe, pump blood, walk, digest and maintain a healthy immune system. In his book Spark (2008), speaks to the brain and body connection and invites us to ask ourselves, is the food we eat replenishing our energy stores or is it causing us to dip into our energy reserves as it responds to the toxins in the bloodstream, accumulated through processed and chemically laden foods? (This being only one source of toxicity). Eating mindfully is a practice that I try to remember to follow. In my experience, sometimes meal times are very rushed in early learning programs. Sometimes it looks like an assembly line where the feeling is let’s just get it over with, so the children can have their naps. Children need time, to enjoy and eat their food safely. Children have the right to have their teachers sit with them to eat together to share stories about food, its origins and healthfulness and all other topics of interest.
Compare this with experiences that we witnessed at the infant-toddler centres in Reggio Emilia. The people who grow, harvest and prepare food for the children involve the children and there is such a display of pride when it comes to food. People working in the kitchen are referred to as teachers and not “just the cooks”. Each centre welcomed us with a beautifully arranged array of foods. We could taste the love that went into the preparation of each recipe. What atmosphere are you creating for yourselves and the children during meal and snack times? Are the children relaxed? Is the environment calm in terms of noise level? Are the children eating with authentic and beautiful dishes?
Is there a fabric tablecloth, rich in beauty; colour and texture? What about a centrepiece? Are foods presented so the competent and capable child can serve themselves? Are the children sitting comfortably, whatever that looks like for each child? Are you honouring the children by inviting them to sit with whomever they want to that day? We are more than thrilled about the back to nature movement in early childhood. When I hear an educator refer to this as “the next fad”, I feel disappointed. Children being out in nature and with nature builds bodies and minds that set the stage for holistic development and learning. Our DNA is coded to move, dating back to the times when hunting and gathering consumed most of humankind’s waking hours. Being in nature is an opportunity for restoring and expending energy. Movement and learning are so integrated, “our moving brain is our thinking brain. Physical activity makes us smarter, raising BDNF, dopamine, serotonin and norephinephrine” (Ratey, 2008; Shanker, 2017). Children need to feel trusted to engage in play in open spaces that invite physical, intellectual and social-emotional risks and challenges. “Going beyond the fence”, as Diane Kashin says, sparks so many wonders, curiosities and theories.
During outdoor play, children, families and teachers are developing relational connections. Relationships need nurturing. Taking children back to a special and familiar outdoor space creates and sustains a sense of place, an emotional connection. It’s so different from being within the confines of a fence! Fences are safety barriers and they hold children and their teachers back from full exploration of their communities.
Outdoor Play. Indoor Environments. Food and Relationships. Slow down. Be more mindful (aware). Share gratitude (thanks). Be positive and joyful.
Make it all meaningful.