Mindful Games for Students

There was a sequence that we’ve always used with the Inner Kids model and that’s “play, practice, share, and apply.” The play has always been important because any time you’re with kids, you know if this isn’t fun for them, then it’s not gonna work and it certainly won’t stick. You have to have some kind of play.

But the play is important for another reason that is, from a mindfulness perspective, practical but not as practical from a buy-in standpoint, which is if you’ve had a little bit of play first, if you’ve had a little bit of fun and you’re more relaxed, when you actually sit and look inside, you have a more expansive perspective. 

If you are all worked up or if you’re tight and concentrating and then start looking inside, you bring an element of tension and of concentrating the mind that is not as helpful as a more relaxed, expansive way of relating to your mind and body. Play has a way of getting you more into a relaxed and expensive headset, and from there all else can follow. 

Then as a practice, which is an inner practice, usually some sort of introspection, and then sharing, talking about it, which I think that anyone who’s bringing introspection into their classroom, we do have an ethical obligation to these kids to have at least a brief check-in after ask them to look inside because it’s not like adults. Kids are usually not asking to do this in the first instance. As you know as an adult, feelings bubble up sometimes. 

You can have a quick check-in. It can just be one or two words. How are we doing? What happened? Then if something bubbles up that’s painful, you know that while this may not be the moment to bring it up in the whole classroom, you can circle around and talk to the child independently and get help, if that makes sense. It’s play, practice, share, and the sharing is that check-in, and then apply is also really important. 

The application is really, “How does this help in real life?” That gives people very specific strategies that they can take out into the world with them, and it also helps with buy-in, because if kids think that this is just kind of airy-fairy, new age-y California thing, or if teachers feel that way, it’s not gonna have the kind of impact it has when people see that this is very simple, practical tools that help you navigate life’s ups and downs. 

The Five Skills Mindfulness Fosters

You know, for centuries there have been contemplatives who have practiced in traditions around the globe, and they have come up with a certain set of time-tested practices that actually do develop certain life skills. Now, especially in the last 30 years, western science has started to take a closer look at these practices and affirm and reaffirm things that contemplatives have known for centuries. These life skills really come out of that. 

These are the life skills. There are five of them with focusing at the center. If you’ll notice, focusing, that icon, I guess is what we would call it, is a little bit bigger than the other ones. That’s because focusing is so very important through mindfulness and through everything, and focusing is also necessary for these other life skills to really take hold. 

You’ve got focusing, and then you have quieting. Quieting, a really calming, games that help calm an overly heightened nervous system. Then once you’re quiet, then you’re able to see what’s happening in and around you more clearly, really tough to see clearly if your nervous system is all ratcheted up. 

Then from seeing, we go to reframing because everybody has biases, not just kids. Some of the biases are helpful, some of them not so much. But it is helpful to be able to have a broader perspective and reframe some. Then we always reframe toward caring and connecting, remembering that caring and connecting isn’t just caring and connecting with other people, which is what we tend to think, it’s caring and connecting to yourself. 

That’s it. It’s focusing, quieting, seeing, reframing, caring, and connecting. 

Quieting is a mindfulness-first strategy because when we see our children or our students or when we ourselves are all jacked up, then we can’t really get anywhere. Maybe the best and the easiest mindfulness-first calming strategy is just an understanding that a slight emphasis on the out breath has a way of settling us down. 

There’s two branches of our nervous system that are relevant to this conversation. One is fight/flight or flight/flight/freeze/forget it. Anyone who is a high school teacher and has seen this might say that forget it has a different F-word on it. That’s really just somebody shutting down because they’ve got way too much stimulation that they can’t handle. Or fight or flight, which is we get so worked up that it’s more stimulation than we can handle. 

When that wing of our nervous system that is responsible for fight/flight/freeze/forget it gets activated, there are mindfulness-based calming tools involving the breath that help you settle and that activate the other wing of the nervous system, the rest and the digest wing. Those calming tools, one of the easiest to remember is that a little emphasis on the out breath can go a long way to slowing down your heartbeat and settling you down. Meditators and yogis have known this for years with their different breathing practices. 

Practicing Mindfulness with Children

For little kids, we tell them to put up their finger and to think of this as a flower when they’re breathing in, and to think of it as a candle when they breathe out. You smell the daffodil maybe. Smell the daffodil. (inhales) Blow out the candle. (exhales) That exhale is longer than the inhale. You’re putting more of an emphasis on the exhale and that has a way of calming you down. For a little older kids, you can have them try to blow out that candle, but control their breath so that they are trying to make the flame flicker. It’ll be (exhales). 

Older kids might think that that’s a little silly, so for them it’s just breathe in a little bit and breathe out a whole lot. Make a slight whooshing noise on the exhale. Breathe in a little bit (inhales) and breathe out a whole lot (exhales). Repeat that a couple of times, and that has a way of calming you down and quieting your nervous system. There are many others, too. The thing to remember in the quieting strategies is that they don’t always need to be still. That’s where a lot of people get confused, is thinking that all mindfulness-based practices need to be sedentary. 

But for many, many people, especially kids and our spirited kids, being still is the worst thing you could possibly do if you’re trying to settle. There are practices where we just move from side to side or practices where we shake our bodies in a controlled way, and then do some grounding with some breathing, and then shake to release that nervous energy, and then relax, and then ground with breathing, and that toggling between grounding activities and movement has a way of skillfully releasing nervous energy and it can be done sitting at desks in your classroom. 

Seeing and reframing is what happens when our nervous systems have settled a little bit and we’re able to actually see what’s happening within and around us more clearly. Remember, if we haven’t developed the focusing skills, remember we talked about focusing in general terms, which you need for all of these life skills, and then quieting. If you don’t have that capacity, it’s tough to see clearly. But once you do, once your mind settles, then you can take a look at what’s happening within and around you and reframe it a little bit. 

When we’re talking about quieting, we will take things like bobbleheads and we’ll say, “Does your head ever feel like this?” They’ll say yes, and, “What kind of times does your head feel like this?” “Oh, when my brother or sister bothering me” is usually the most reported time when people’s heads are going like this. Well, what happens if you just stop and feel your breathing? Look, it’s starting to settle and your head isn’t bobbling like that again. 

One of the ways that we can help ourselves calm down while modeling this for our kids or for our students is by picking up the snow globe. This just happens to be a Christmas one that I have around, but you can have all kinds of snow globes that can have anything in there from pretty architectural elements. I’ve seen them with the Eiffel Tower or some are just plain with nothing in them at all. 

But the idea of this is that if you’re all upset, maybe the kids are fine but you’re all worked up and you notice it because you’ve developed some inner awareness, through the practice of mindful awareness we start to notice, “Okay, I’m starting to feel in my body the kind of things that I know I start to feel when I’m starting to get agitated.” One of the basic lessons of mindfulness and awareness is that minds change bodies and bodies change minds. 

How am I going to try to settle these butterflies in my stomach or this feeling of anger that’s coming up? I don’t think I’m gonna be able to do it in my body right now, but maybe I can do it in my mind. You’re not gonna tell all this to the students, but you still have a classroom of students sitting right there and you can feel yourself starting to get worked up. You can say something like, “This is what my mind feels like right now. Look, do you think I can see clearly? No, I can’t ’cause all of the snow is in there and I can’t really see through to the other side.” 

“But can you help me? Let’s all together put one hand on our tummies. Watch the snow and feel the breathing. Keep your eyes on the snow. Relax your shoulders if they’re tense. See what happens. Look at all of that snow is settling. Can you see through now? You can see clearly.” Now, there’s a couple of things I wanna tell you about this, though. You see that snow? It’s beautiful, right? I mean, it’s absolutely beautiful. 

Often we think that the stress or the strain or the thoughts or the emotions that get in our way so we can’t see clearly, we think these are bad and we try to get rid of thoughts and thoughts are no good and we just wanna clear our mind. But no, a lot of the thoughts and a lot of emotions we have are absolutely beautiful. It’s not that we’re trying to get rid of them, it’s just that we’re learning this strategy that if we just focus on one thing and nothing else, the feeling of breathing or watching the snow fall, that has a way of calming our minds and bodies. That’s that quieting strategy so that we can see clearly. 

Then here’s my last question for you. Did the snow go away? I wish I could tell you that mindfulness would get rid of all of the stress and strain in our lives, but it doesn’t. The snow is still down there at the bottom, but it does give us a way to handle the ups and downs of daily life and still go about our day and feel more calm and see clearly. This is one way that not only we can use the quieting strategy we talked about. 

I mean, this used almost all the strategies. Focusing, you were focusing on one thing and nothing else. Quieting, the nervous system regulation piece, then seeing clearly, and also a little bit of reframing. You got a lot of those things. Then when we get to now, caring and connecting, when you use this with the kids in this way, you’re really exercising self-care. You’re noticing you’re starting to get riled up and you pause, you practice mindfulness, and then that’s a beautiful way of exercising self-care. This is a great exercise for almost all of the life skills. 

This is the kind of visual aid. We use this and the snow globe and the glitter balls and that sort of thing to show how when we’re upset, our minds are a little bit crazy. But if we just stop and focus on one thing and nothing else, then our minds tend to settle. That’s a good quieting strategy right there, too. 

Seeing is, when our minds are settled, we can see some of these aspects of the worldview I was talking about before, the worldview that makes mindfulness more alive and more interesting than just a self-regulation strategy. 

One of the things is just this idea of duck/rabbit. If you work with young kids, there’s a great Amy Krouse Rosenthal book called “Duck! Rabbit!” The idea of this is that you look at this picture and you ask the kids, “Is it a duck or is it a rabbit?” What do you think, a duck or rabbit? 

There you go. That’s exactly what happens. You have a conversation. If somebody says it’s a duck, are they right or wrong? If they say it’s a rabbit, are they right or wrong? Can things be more than one thing at the same time? That’s why this is a powerful game.

Those kinds of really specific tools are great jumping-off points for how different people have different opinions and how we can’t ever really know all of the causes and all of the conditions that lead up to absolutely every moment. We just have to make the best guess we can and let the music play out. It helps us have a more realistic sense of what we know, what we don’t know, what we can know, and how not everything is exactly the same to absolutely everybody. It depends on your perspective and where you’re sitting. 

This is a game I learned from one of my very first meditation teachers. Her name was Yvonne Rand. It was just three good things. I used it all the time when my kids were young. If somebody was upset about something, if they had lost their balloon, for example, you’d say, “Oh man, pal, I’m sorry.” You acknowledge the feeling. You don’t ever sweep the feeling under the rug. But then you say something like, “Oh man, I’m so sorry, buddy. But let’s think, are there good things happening right now, too? Oh, yeah, we’re having macaroni and cheese for lunch, that’s your very favorite thing. Oh, yeah, you’ve got a play date this afternoon. Oh yeah,” and you come up with three things. 

It’s a way of not denying anybody’s feelings, but also emphasizing the positive. This is another game we’re gonna play right now, which I like to call the Whining Game. But it’s called Life is Good and the kids absolutely love this. It’s with a ball. You can either throw it or sit on the floor and roll the ball to each other. That’s a more controlled way of playing it, but this we can do, just a couple of us. 

I would say something that I’m annoyed about right now and then I end it by throwing the ball and saying, “But life is good.” Traffic was really bad today in LA, but life is good. 

You get the idea, and you go back and forth throwing the ball back and forth, and people start recognizing the commonality of the frustrations that we all have and then at the same time, you have some fun while you’re doing it. You’re able to reframe things and they’re just regular, easy reminders to put in that life is good even when things look a little rotten. 

There’s another one that’s a variation of this game called Still I Feel Lucky. It’s more for as kids get older and they need a little bit more, so it would be something like, “Traffic was really bad today, but still I feel lucky that I made it here to see you.” 

The idea of caring and connecting is being more in touch with yourself, more aware of your own habits of mind, and also caring and connecting for other people.

That more playful, more experiential, and this wonderful circle that emerges of co-teaching and co-learning, that really happens in mindful games that I’m sure happens in all kinds of teaching, but there’s something about it that’s very alive with mindful games 

The more we have play here, the more fun it is, the more lighthearted it is, the less serious it seems. It just completely breaks open our mind in a way when we actually go into the introspective practice. That open spaciousness we talk about is more accessible. But if you go into these practices feeling like, “Oh, it’s hard work and I gotta grind it out” and that kind of stuff, it’s hard to access that open spaciousness. Play is so important.