Beat stress by nurturing the silence within

Children's need for stillness is rarely met, and the first step is to show them what it means, argues Ruth Ward

Stillness offers food for the soul, clarity for the mind and rest for the body. But in our fast-paced, achievement-driven society we run the risk of overlooking a need for stillness - in our lives and our education system.

Our society is plagued by stress and the illnesses it spawns, with large amounts of money being spent on medication and stress management. High levels of pressure affect our schools and teachers too: is this the sort of model we wish to set for our children or the kind of future we want for them? Doesn't it make sense to introduce pupils (and teachers) to the benefits and joys of relaxation, and to teach them how to nurture themselves with periods of quiet?

In summer 2004 I attended an Earth Education Workshop at a centre specialising in environmental education. The favourite activity during the week-long courses involves the children sitting outside in silence in their own "Magic Spot". Here they observe, listen to the sounds around them and commune with the natural world. At the beginning of the week, the children find this hard to do for even 10 minutes, but by the end of the week 25 minutes is not long enough.

What does this show? I think it demonstrates that this opportunity to be quiet and close to nature, and to experience stillness, touches a deep need in children. It also shows us that it is a need that is neglected, so that it takes the children a while before they are comfortable with silence. We are bombarded in our daily lives with stimuli and information and need times when this input ceases, allowing us to integrate and absorb what has gone before.

Much as we cannot eat continuously, but need periods between meals in which to digest the last meal, so we need times when we are quiet, or focused on one thing, so that our subconscious mind is able to assimilate our recent learning and experiences.

Periods of calm and stillness are essential to clear thinking. How often have you come up with the solution to something when you have stopped thinking about it? Or maybe you are a crossword aficionado and know how elusive answers emerge at such times.

There is the famous example of the 19th-century chemist Kekule von Stradonitz, who solved the puzzle of the structure of the benzene molecule as he sat dreaming in front of the fire and saw pictures of creatures holding on to each other's tails and forming a ring.

When conscious mental striving ceases, the highly creative subconscious reveals itself. Some children these days do not even experience the focus and stillness that listening to a story read to them at school or home offers.

Sadly, I have come across primary teachers who due to pressures of the national curriculum have been told not to devote time to reading stories to their class. When adults or children are under excessive stress they become less resourceful, more aggressive and less compassionate. Let's provide a less stressful environment for everyone at school by ensuring that there are periods of stillness and relaxation.

In doing so, we could create greater tolerance and compassion in our school communities.

Ruth Ward is a primary teacher and a qualified instructor with the Massage in Schools programme, based in Buckinghamshire

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