The world can be a noisy place. From the sounds of traffic in the streets, neighbors through apartment walls, Zoom classrooms, and streaming videos to the internal voices that populate our heads with advice and our hearts with doubt, noise is a part of everyday life. Learning to tame both internal and external noise is a skill that children can learn from a young age and use the rest of their lives
One tool for cultivating intentional silence is centering. Its purpose is to help us deal with all the noises that distract us when we want simply to find a few moments of peace. It is structured with four movements: 1) preparation, 2) centering, 3) dealing with distraction, and 4) returning.
Preparation involves selecting a particular word or phrase that serves to focus our attention. It might be an affirmation, such as “I am beautiful and can do great things”, or an aspiration: “Be the change the world needs”. It can be a simple two-syllable word: “thankful”, “shalom”, “mercy”. Some kindergarten and first-grade children I taught a few years ago decided that a line from a children’s religious song (“Jesus loves me, this I know”) would be a good phrase for them to use.
Centering means closing our eyes and repeating our chosen word or phrase silently and slowly for a period of time, using the rhythmic simplicity of the words to focus our attention. Young children can repeat their word or phrase in a quiet voice if they are not quite able to say it internally.
Inevitably, distractions arise: an itchy nose, competing thoughts, and external noises such as people talking in the next room or dogs barking outside. We deal with distractions by gently recalling our chosen phrase whenever we notice our attention straying. Think of how toddlers repeat parental instructions to themselves – “no touch stove, touch toys” – and remind yourself to redirect your thinking in the same way.
Returning from our inward center to the world around is the final movement. If we try to shift gears abruptly from the stillness of our mind to the noisiness of the world, we are likely to feel disoriented by the sudden stimulation. Instead, slowly let the sounds of the world penetrate, opening your eyes when you are ready to take in the external scene. Try shifting your body or stretching to awaken relaxed muscles.
Children as young as three or four can practice centering. Start with 10 minutes of quiet sitting, Pick a phrase you can share and repeat it together softly. If your child is fidgety, kneading a small ball of pottery clay inside a baggie can help with relaxation and concentration. Lighting a candle (real or electronic) can also help focus attention.
To summarize, here’s a shorthand version of the four steps to guide you and your children through the process:
- Preparing: choose a word or phrase to repeat
- Centering: repeat that word or phrase several times silently (softly) and slowly
- Dealing with distraction: As you become aware that your attention has wandered, remind yourself of your word or phrase
- Returning: slowly bring yourself back to the world by stretching, opening your eyes and beginning to focus on the space around you