Tune in and listen to the sound of silence

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Finding inner peace is an essential life skill in the chaotic modern world, which is why Montessori methods teach pupils the value of being quiet. Su Clark reports

Teaching children to sit silently, even for a few moments, is fundamental to Sathya Sai education, but Lesley Ann Patrick, headteacher of the Sathya Sai Montessori School in St Andrews, admits it is tough.

"It's something they have to learn," explains Mrs Patrick, who gave a seminar on Creating a Quiet Place at last month's Early Years and Primary show in Glasgow. "It will start with a minute or less, but we build it up over time, so eventually they can sit silently for at least five minutes.

"We believe teaching children to find a quiet place within themselves is crucial. The modern world is such a chaotic, noisy place and the children are daily bombarded with images and sensations. They need space to develop intuition and a sense of consciousness."

In her small school in St Andrews, where there are fewer than 15 pupils each day, everything is organised around helping children find peace within themselves. The age range is 3 to 10, with around 20 children of school age. Most of these are currently home educated, and only attend the school two or three days a week, though plans to move to a new building next summer will allow Mrs Patrick to offer 50 pupils full-time education.

The school uses Montessori methods (which look for spontaneous self-development, with the teacher deciding which needs are to be addressed) to deliver the Sathya Sai values of truth, right conduct, peace, love and non-violence, which have been developed by Sri Sathya Sai Baba, an Indian social reformer. His child-centred approach to teaching has been adopted by schools across the world.

Every morning before snack break, which is always organic, Mrs Patrick sits some of her pupils down for circle time. A talking stick is passed around the class to prompt discussion, but like all early years classes, the children have difficulty understanding that unless they hold the decorated stick they are not supposed to talk. Gentle reminders are given and many of the children watch their teacher avidly, trying to live up to her expectations. This is the precursor to silent time.

"The talking stick is a tool to help develop ways of resolving conflict peacefully," says Mrs Patrick. "We want children to learn to react to situations by drawing on their positive emotions. We want them to recognise these emotions and process them rather than react in an angry way. We hope they will be able to access the sub-conscious brain and act with conscience, discrimination and intuition."

Talking time is just one step on the path to creating a quiet space. The next is silent time, even more difficult for very small children to master than talking in turn.

After the snack, the children retire to a large room, where they sit on the carpet in a circle. In the centre are some rocks, shells and a small candle. The natural world features heavily in Sathya Sai and many of the resources are simple found items.

The children are then "prepared" for silent time through a variety of games or exercises, which Mrs Patrick has developed during her 30 years of teaching. Sometimes these involve simple yoga exercises, with visualisation. The children may take part in balancing games, or play on tiptoes, or take part in whispering games.

"Balancing on a beam brings control to the physical body, while whispering helps them find calmness," says Mrs Patrick, who worked for a year in mainstream schools after graduating before moving into Montessori teaching.

One game involves the children sitting with their eyes shut, quietly listening for a tinkling bell to sound near their heads. When they hear this they can open their eyes. Even the 3-year-olds try to keep their eyes closed, although one little girl sitting on Mrs Patrick's knee can't resist keeping one eye open to watch the teacher with the bell.

But this game is only preparation. The key part comes next, when the children are asked to close their eyes again and to listen to their breathing. They manage for less than 30 seconds before eyes open and limbs are swaying. But this is fine by Mrs Patrick.

"I wouldn't want anyone to think we spend the day trying to make the children sit quietly," she adds. "At a very young age they are only learning to find silence. You can't expect them to sit still for a long time. And they know that immediately after silent time, they can go outside to play in the large garden."

Upstairs, the older children prove it is a skill that can be learned. They begin with breathing exercises, then sit for five minutes listening to the sounds around them, guided by their teacher.

Silent time occurs every day at the same time, even when the children have "nature school". Out in the woods, time is allocated to sitting quietly for just a few moments.

"I believe these games and techniques could be developed in a larger group, although I admit it would be harder," says Mrs Patrick. "But it is a life skill worth trying to pass on to small children so they can find some peace."

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