Today I got to interview Mark Pallis and Christiane Kerr, authors of the new mindfulness children’s book, Crab and Whale: a new way to experience mindfulness for kids, which tells a story of a crab that helps a whale make it through a tough day by using calming breathing and awareness of his senses. When the whale is washed up onto the shore, the crab tells him, “I’ll stay with you until the tide comes in.” It introduces the power of being aware of the breath, as well as teaching kindness, acceptance, curiosity and patience.
Please tell us a little about yourself, what drew you to mindful education, and your personal mission.
Mark: I used to be a type of lawyer called a Barrister, with a white curly wig! I worked on human rights and set up a refugee legal aid charity. I also got involved with the Children’s Media Foundation, based in London and started to get more into stories for children. I wrote some episodes for kids TV shows. At the same time, I started to hear about mindfulness. I was really drawn to it – there was something about being ‘in the moment’ that really resonated with me. I engaged with it more and more, had kids of my own, and then realised that I could bring together my love of kids stories with my passion for mindfulness. But I wanted some real expert input, which is why I teamed up with Christiane, who has been teaching mindfulness and meditation to kids for almost 20 years.
Christiane: I went to pregnancy yoga classes in 1994. The slow and mindful way we practiced helped me feel calm and centred during a stressful pregnancy. About a year later I attended a 6 week mindfulness course at my local Buddhist centre and definitely had a case of ‘beginners luck” as I instantly felt a deep and lasting sense of both calm and possibility. When I was working as a Montessori teacher I began adapting elements of my practice for children. I was amazed at how well they connected with meditation and realised what a valuable resource it could be for kids. Much of our behaviour as adults is influenced by the habits we form in childhood and with mindfulness practice we can help children cultivate healthy habits such as kindness, patience and acceptance. My personal mission is to engage as many people as I can with mindfulness in the hope that it will have a life changing and positive impact on their lives.
Where did you get certified on mindfulness? And why do you write books about it?
Christiane: I trained to teach mindfulness with Bangor University’s Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice. As a yoga teacher I’d already seen how mindful movement and yoga is a great way for kids to experience their bodies and come into the present moment. I’d written and produced a range of CDs to help children relax through multi sensory guided visualisation but I was very happy to write the book with Mark so that young children would have a gentle introduction to mindfulness at the same time as cultivating positive qualities such as kindness, which was the theme of Crab & Whale.
Mark: I have three main reasons. One, the Dalai Lama’s quote really struck a chord with me: “If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” Two, I want kids to be able to experience a moment of being with their breath, and being aware. I think that just getting them to experience it even once is enough to make them stop and think, hey, this is a sensation i’ve never felt before, I want more. And three, I wanted to help parents. Trying to explain mindfulness to kids is hard and can be quite abstract. That’s why in the book we deliberately don’t try to explain it – we just do it.
How has mindfulness helped you personally, and how do you think it can benefit others, especially kids?
Mark: I was first introduced to mindfulness and meditation by a 34th generation Shaolin monk when I was writing a movie. He gave me some great books to read and helped me understand the core ideas. But then I met a friend who actually ran mindfulness lunch breaks at work – I tried some and loved it. Now, with two young kids, I build it into my day when I’m washing dishes, making food or doing anything – it’s taught me to savour the moment, and that’s a fantastic feeling.
Christiane: Mindfulness has helped me in many way, particularly as a parent. It allowed me to slow down and be more aware and responsive, coping with the challenges of parenting as well as enjoying the precious moments too. I love working with children and it’s been wonderful to share the joy and power of mindfulness and yoga with them. Not only does it help deal with difficult emotions and decrease anxiety, it also promotes happiness and well being.
Do you tour schools with your books? Or teach classes on mindfulness to kids?
Christiane: I’ve given a few readings of the book in schools, introducing the breathing elements and mindful movement and yoga poses to tell the story. The kids have loved both the story and experiencing mindfulness for themselves. At the moment I’m teaching regular mindfulness classes to kindergarten and year 6 students as well as training teachers to bring mindfulness into the classroom. Mark: I’ve read in schools too.
How can we get all the companies with similar missions to understand that we will make more positive change in this world for the next generation if we work together? What ideas do you have to scale up to get these programs in all schools in the country?
Mark: Good question. Getting people to work together is hard. For me, it’s about helping people see the common thread that runs through what they are already doing and what others are doing – they are already working together, they just need someone to help them see it like that. For schools, there is a great study being carried out that I hope will really bring forward our understanding.http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2015-07-16-large-scale-trial-will-assess-effectiveness-teaching-mindfulness-uk-schools But, in the short term, I think it’s about making sure teachers know that they are not being asked to do ‘yet another thing’ but have the chance to use a really powerful tool that can improve the classroom experience. It’s a bit like those viral videos of life hacks – once you can see that it works, everybody’s going to be doing it.
Christiane; In the UK there are “All Party Parliamentary Groups” for both mindfulness and yoga which I’m involved with through my company Calm for Kids. I’ve been training school teachers and yoga teachers to bring mindfulness and yoga into schools since 2003 and it ‘s heart warming to see everyone working together to benefit the well being and mental health of our children and young people.
What advice do you have for teachers, administrators, healthcare practitioners, and especially parents as it relates to mindful learning?
Christiane: The best way to teach mindfulness to children is to embody it yourself. By developing your own practice the children around you will instantly benefit by your calm and grounded presence. Young kids in particular tune into the nervous systems of their carers so if you’ve learned to activate your own relaxation response in stressful situations, kids around you will be calmer too.
Mark: For parents, I’d say focus less on ‘mindfulness’ as an idea and more on the experience of breathing, and sensing. Kids really relate to that, and it’s fun – which is why we wrote our book like we did. We want the kids to want to try it for themselves, without even being asked.
If you had to pick one mental exercise for parents and kids in early learning, middle school, and high school to learn, what would it be and why?
Christiane: My favorite exercise is a combination of mental and physical which works for all ages. I call it stretching and counting and it’s a great way of letting go and bringing focus. Having your hands on your body can also be soothing and help you connect with the breath.
Standing (If you are sitting, you can count to 4 and then rest your hands on your tummy for 4 breaths).
Become as still as you can and find your inner balance.
Imagine you are very tall, growing up from the ground beneath you. Your body connects the ground to the sky. Follow the line of gravity and count as you go.
Breathe in as you stretch into the movement, breathe out as your hands rest in each position. Count the numbers on the exhalation.
- Interlink the fingers and reach the hands up in the space right above your head.
- Place your interlocked hands gently on the top of your head.
- Place hands on chest.
- Place hands on tummy.
- Place hands on the ground on each side of your feet
(bending knees if you need to).
What’s next for you? What book are you working on now?
Mark: Christiane and I are getting ready for the next book in the Mindful Storytime series, and I am about to publish a book called How to Have a Mindful Pregnancy, which I have written with Dr Sian Warriner who is a Consultant Midwife and Associate at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre at Oxford University.
Christiane: As well as working on the next book on the Mindful Storytime series, I’m developing an online mindfulness course for teachers and parents which will be available in September.
A big thank you to both Mark and Christiane for agreeing to be interviewed for my Partners for Peace series. Everyone check out their book for the kids in your lives.