How do we help kids use the full power of their senses?
We have incredibly powerful senses and, ironically, a brain that's designed to turn most of them off. That's not an accident - if our brain didn't focus on just the most relevant info, we would be paralyzed by the amount of information coming in. But there's a problem with this: as kids grow up they constantly tweak their senses to match what the adults around them are sensing. In the very heady, visual world that our kids are growing up in, there's a real risk that they will turn off many of their physical senses and never notice they're gone.
They may not notice that they're taking shallow breaths from anxiety and thus losing focus during a test...or that after that second Coke they're starting to feel foggy mentally...or that they have a bad feeling in their stomach in a certain social situation because someone isn't treating them respectfully. All of these are important sources of information and insight. How do we help them maintain access? Here are a few ways I've seen work:
It's amazing to consider that breathing is a completely automatic function that we can, at any time, take control over, and if we forget about it our bodies will seamlessly resume control. A constant marker of our inner life, revealing if we're nervous or relaxed, and yet a direct way that we can intervene and change our inner state. So, it's no surprise this is one of the most useful and powerful ways to develop greater sensory awareness. Learning to follow your breathing is a time-honored way to teach meditation, to watch the constant rising and falling, to focus or calm the mind by paying concerted attention to the sensory bodies we live in.
In 2016 the New York Times published an article on resilience and stress, adding a fascinating dimension to this conversation. It discussed studies on how people handle stress, comparing average healthy adults with special-operations soldiers and adventure racers. The results showed that among those who coped well with stress, the key to their resilience was body awareness, not rational thought. When the going got tough, those who were unaware of the stress building up in their bodies until it became overwhelming ended up panicking and faring poorly. Those who were highly aware of how their body was responding were able to notice the stress and put in place strategies to calm themselves, thus maintaining focus even in very difficult conditions.
Almost as fundamental as breathing, our daily intake of food is one of the easiest ways to access greater sensory awareness. Like breathing, we can choose our level of awareness. I catch myself sometimes mindlessly eating food while reading email, oblivious to the content or taste of the next bite. Yet I know that with the simple focus of my attention, I could taste that bite in a hundred ways - the texture, temperature, the flavors, how they relate, the wider context of where I'm eating, if I'm sharing a meal with someone else. Helping our kids (and ourselves) tune into eating, even for just a moment, reminds us of this power to focus our attention and feel life more deeply. The simplest way I've heard of doing this is to say a "Silent Grace" - at your family meal, invite everyone to eat the first bite as slowly as possible, and in silence. Savor each morsel, texture, and taste of that first bite. You may eat the rest of the meal with or without awareness, but at least at that moment your kids can experience what's possible for them.
3. Sense Focusing
If someone were to put a blindfold around your eyes, you would probably notice almost instantly that your sense of hearing and touch increase in sensitivity, ready to help you navigate the world. This is an example of "sense focusing", a simple but powerful effect of attention; when we're deprived of one or more senses, we attend more to those remaining. This leads to all manner of awareness-building games and activities for kids. The story below describes an outdoor experience led by Back to Earth, a nonprofit leading nature-based experiences for adolescents:
The first student walked very slowly, no longer giggling, a picture of concentration. She was walking through the forest blindfolded. Her only guide was a thin yellow rope winding along the forest floor. All of her attention seemed to be in her feet, which were gingerly feeling for the rope with each step forward. Her mission was to follow the rope to its mysterious destination.
Behind her, feet crunching on the mulchy floor of a California redwood grove, two dozen of her peers followed in focused, blindfolded silence. They were not accustomed to being deprived of vision, or to walking barefoot through a forest. With vision gone, other senses began to activate. Bird calls were sudden and loud. A gust of wind seemed almost like it could push them over. Slight inclines challenged their sense of balance. Some yelped when they lost the rope for a moment, as it wound around trees, up and down slopes, under the tall redwood canopy.
In this brief exercise, these students were turning on senses that were always available but rarely used. They were learning something valuable: that your mind can turn its attention to any part of your body and amplify, as it were, the sensory information coming in. Likely they had not felt this much from their feet since they were learning to walk as toddlers. Probably they had never heard how loud a forest can be when you're silent. At the young age of eleven, they were learning that they had a world of sensory information and power around them, which could be of tremendous use.
As kids learn that they can tune into the sensory information constantly coming from their bodies, they can become more successful at adapting to the challenges of their lives. Now that they can notice anxiety building up before or during a test, they can apply a breathing technique to address it. Now that they notice how certain foods make them feel, they can gradually make better choices of what to eat. They can notice the precursors of becoming flooded with anger and apply a better strategy to dealing with a conflict before they lose their self-control. The list goes on. What's clear is that we serve our own children or students best when we help them access the full range of information available to them, and then teach them what to do with that information, and bodily senses are an essential part of that mix.