Janet Etty-Leal

Janet Etty-Leal is a Mindfulness consultant for Geelong Grammar School, helping lead the School’s embedded mindfulness programme. Here she writes about the impact and importance of mindfulness education in the Early Years of schooling.

My journey of sharing the skills of mindfulness and meditation with children began at home nearly 20 years ago.   Spontaneous mindful opportunities and intimate moments with my young daughters started the ball rolling.  Our favourite time was pre-sleep.  Lying together in bed, hands would become stars, softly ascending with each gentle out-breath to find a soothing landing place on the tummy or heart. 

My girls loved these practices.  They helped grow both a sense of awareness of the gifts at their finger-tips, and a sense of agency to discover their own personal ways to feel centred and calm. 

As I began to introduce school-based mindfulness programmes to Year 11 and 12 students, I soon realised these programmes needed to start much earlier. This realisation took me into primary schools and ultimately Early Learning Centres. The more time I spent on the floor with little children, the more I became passionate about the potential to develop Mindfulness skills with children in early years. 

The American poet Mark Van Doren said, ‘’The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery’’.  Mindfulness offers a rich palette of possibilities for children to make their own discoveries.   The brain loves novelty … and so do young children!  All kinds of resources, concepts and activities can be used in a mindfulness programme.  All sorts of approaches can help fully engage children, light up neuronal connections and build positive neural networks.

A 2013 Melbourne University study revealed the difference between not attending preschool and being taught by a qualified teacher was highly significant.  Positive outcomes in reading and numeracy were clearly evident in NAPLAN scores by Year 3.  These studies remind us that early learning is a crucial time: a unique opportunity to create a strong foundation for children in life and an opportunity to foster building blocks of literacy and numeracy, as well as vital social skills like communicating, cooperating and nurturing relationships.

Mindfulness brings rich opportunities to contribute much more to this foundation.  Precious experiences harness children’s innate ability to be present and to be curious, and nurture emotional and social learning.  Young children have an insatiable delight in exploring the outer world and find playful, engaging experiences irresistible!

Mindfulness helps to amplify and extend this beam of focus. The mindful beam of focus can also illuminate what is happening inside the body;  a whole new inner world. Working with this age group offers a vital opportunity to engage children in noticing without judging, to notice with an open mind, with wonder and curiosity.  This creates a precious foundation for life.  The vital life skill of nurturing awareness with kindness, curiosity and care is engendered, to create a wholesome, healthy relationship with the self. 

ELC student with glitter jar

Bostock House ELC3 student with a Mindfulness glitter jar.

A Mindfulness programme in Early Learning Centres begins with baby steps, simply by cultivating opportunities to pause and notice.  

Practices can be simple and dovetail effortlessly into Early Learning Centre programmes.  Children’s bodies provide the basic resource.  Hours have been spent in my classes having such fun exploring what shape the body is in - enjoying all kinds of shapes that our feet and legs, hands and arms, torso and head can create, noticing all kinds of different ways that the body can move and how different shapes and movements outside change the state we are in on the inside.

Simple aids and props to support Mindfulness skills can include:

  • A speaking stick, to promote active listening, focus and taking turns
  • Chimes, a bell or bowl as a signal for quiet, focused attention
  • A glitter jar, as a symbol of clearing and calming
  • Assorted gifts from nature; textures, shapes to enhance still sensory focus
  • A range of calming music
  • A simple quilt or piece of material to create a special place for practices.

A natural progression of inner focus is to notice the breath.  To notice how the breath responds when we change shape, move quickly or slowly, and what it feels like inside when the breath naturally slows down with the body when we become quiet and settled.

Somatic-based inquiry activities create the perfect segue to learning more about the body and the magnificent, interconnected orchestra of parts that serve us inside.  Psychiatrist and researcher Dr Norman Doidge reminds us that the brain’s way of healing is via the body.  Through creative, playful practices children can discover this, feeling for themselves the messages travelling to the brain from their feet and legs, hands and arms, tummy and heart.  They begin to realise that they can choose where to direct their attention and literally make up their own minds, with a growing sense of agency to care for their beautiful bodies and minds.

Mindful rituals can become part of the day, with opportunities for playful ‘Mindful punctuation’ - to bookend the day, with greetings and farewells or transitions from activities and moments to refresh attention and awareness.  Mindful rituals enhance a gentle sense of pattern and rhythm throughout each day. 

In time, mindful pauses can gradually be extended to create meditation practices.  Children can begin to discover the pleasure of taking time, slowing down and creating quiet spaces; to shift from doing to being, from thinking to sensing and feeling, and from busyness to stillness.  Simple rituals before and after the practices instil a sense of how special these Mindfulness practices are - practices to make the most of precious inner gifts, and build respect and bonds in groups.  

Simple investments into a Mindfulness programme at Early Learning Centres bring about positive outcomes and great rewards to support happy, focused children, harmonious communities and truly provide a heart-head start for life.

Janet Etty-Leal
Janet Etty-Leal

For the last 8 years, Janet Etty-Leal has been the Mindfulness Consultant for Geelong Grammar School, helping lead the School’s embedded Mindfulness programme. Janet Etty-Leal is also a published author and speaker.  Her consultancy, ‘Meditation Capsules’ has provided Mindful life-skill programs for a diverse range of sectors; including education, health, the corporate sector and sport.  She continues to work with a range of schools, designing and delivering Mindfulness programmes for staff and students. She is Secretary for the Board of the Meditation Association of Australia and a member of the ‘Confluence’ committee to promote dialogue between meditation traditions.