“. . .Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet . . .
so that your blood with bring the color of love to your face,
so that the wonders of life will appear,
and all anxieties will be transformed into
peace and joy. “—Thich Nhat Hanh
“Oh no! We’re going to have to do one of those mindfulness walks again; I can just tell! I hate those!” declared one student, voice filled with indignation
“I kinda like them,” added another student sheepishly.
Though I had not announced a mindfulness walk to the students of a class in which I co-teach with another dear educator entitled, “Move into Health,” a few attentive students must have sensed my intention. After all, I had asked them to line-up to head outside on a weekday we typically spend inside. What the students did not yet realize was that our class-size was going to be nearly double on that day due to another elective class joining us as their teacher was sick; thus, we would not all fit into one classroom. Besides, it was the end of the day, the weather was surprisingly pleasant, and it was the week of Trick-or-Treat—a week in which all K-8 students, it has been my experience, hit a wall, become cranky, tired, and much less focused. Fresh air would do all of them some good, and frankly, benefit my colleague and me too.
Our students have completed a total of four mindfulness walks this school year–one in August, one in September, one in October, and now, one in November. Furthermore, our school is blessed to have a small walking path that loops around one of our playgrounds and the staff parking lot. Unfortunately, most students do not use the entire path. This is because half of the trail is out of the view of teachers supervising their recess time. However, through our supervised mindfulness walks, students in our class can take advantage of the entire peaceful path.
Long ago, I discovered the joys of this path as a transition between work and home. It began after one particularly noisy, stressful, and busy day. I stepped outside into the bright sunshine, took a deep breath, and sighed trying to release the anxious tightness that constricted many of my muscles. I continued walking, but took several more deep breaths, noticing the rich scent of warm earth, dead leaves, and the smell of sun-warmed asphalt as I headed to my car. Once at my car, my eye kept being drawn to the trees and shrubs surrounding the part of the path that loops around our parking lot—the section in which our students do not regularly play during recess. Placing my school parcels in the back of my car and without really thinking, I headed toward the path.
Underneath my feet, leaves crunched, then faded as my footsteps quietly padded over a mossy spot. Inhaling once more, the scents became more earthy and fragrant than the parking lot area. This shaded section of the path was observably cooler, the pigments more vivid and less washed out: asparagus colored green moss, interspersed with rusty amber leaves, dotted with leaves the color of garnets, margarine, and oranges like the skin of a Clementine that was turning brown with age. All the while, I could hear the flow of the end-of-work-day traffic, joined with birds in song, and a nearby church’s bells chiming to the tune, “He Leadeth Me,” a long-ago song I once learned to play on the piano and had not heard in years.
Leaving the shaded area of the path, seemingly harsh sunlight, once again, pierced my vision. Sounds under my feet changed to the grinding-crunch of gravel underfoot which was soon softened by sand underfoot, which then turned into the firmness of concrete, and finally to the uneven tones that accompany walking over lumpy ground, tree roots, and mulch. The sun warmed my skin with a kiss of heat on my cheeks as the moving air slightly brushed my hair. Inhale, scents of concrete, mulch, and dirt. Exhale, muscles relaxing, face and eyes softening. While, at the time, I did not think of it as a “mindfulness walk,” this less than ten-minute excursion became the seed of experience from which the students’ current activity evolved.
The instructions to the students are fairly simple. No talking until after the walk; and instead, simply walk and observe. What do you smell? What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? What do you notice? What has changed since we last walked? What do you think? Usually, we walk full two full loops, then circle up as group, and sit, often basking in ample sunshine, discussing our observations.
On this particular walk, a Marshall University P.E./Health major and future educator joined us. As we gathered the nearly 40 students of grades 6-8 together, he joined my co-worker and me as we led a dialogue of what the students noticed and/or felt. When the MU student was asked to share his thoughts on the experience with our middle school students, he boldly shared with the kids that he could feel the presence of God embracing us as we walked, surrounding us with beauty, peace, and love. This led me to ask the students if any of them felt closer to God as we walked. One brave 6th grade, freckle-faced boy raised his hand and earnestly stated,
“I felt prayful, like God was right here listening to me.”
Beside one section of the student accessed path is a “peaceful bench” for students, or teachers, who need to sit and feel the peace of God.
What seeds are planted in our students during our walks, I may never know. What I do know, is that for 20-plus minutes of time, none of us are plugged into devices, chattering, or participating in any number of typically distracting activities. And, while I cannot state that every student who participates in the mindfulness walks goes home feeling calmer, closer to God, more mindful of the seasonal beauty, or filled with a grateful heart, just knowing that one middle school student and one college student felt that way after one walk was enough. It was certainly enough.