Achieving a calm, centered state of mind from time to time is essential to our health as human beings. In today’s increasingly digital and internet-centric world, our smart phones, tablets and Apple Watches trouble us with all sorts of notifications, reminders and messages, regarding all matters, large and small, at all hours of the day and night. As adults, once we settle in to rest for the day, a single text can jar us out of that state of tranquility. There are days we may never really settle down at all, falling asleep with phones in our palms, following a long day of checking in dozens, even hundreds, of times. If your child is not plugged in yet, he or she will be. Every year, more devices will find their way into their hands. This is the world they are born into.
Many of us as adults, are learning that now, more than ever, it is essential to slow down, unplug, and take time out for ourselves, perhaps through the practices of yoga, walking, and meditation. How do our kids decompress? How do we help them establish habits that keep them firmly grounded in analog experiences, noticing and living, fully present, in the real world?
When we were our children’s age, we may have been connected to televisions, radios, and for the youngest among us, cell phones that were primarily that: just phones. However, there were often times that nothing was on TV, and we would simply head out to the back yard to commiserate with a book, a sketchpad, or the sounds around us: the birds, the wind, a distant airplane diminishing into silence. That was my experience. Now that I live in an age where every moment feels as though it somehow belongs to technology, I can appreciate that to have been alone with my thoughts for long stretches of time as a child was great blessing.
Today, my sons’ favorite entertainment can be accessed 24/7. They can spend hours listening to their favorite You Tuber. Although we’ve dropped cable, Netflix always becons. The kids each have a laptop for web-based homework, and, since we’ve chucked the landline, there are cell phones for emergencies. The family iPad has somehow become Game Central for the kids as well, and, courtesy of kind relatives, they possess a Wii video game system, as well as countless handheld devices where electronic games are available to them. As soon as one screen is turned off, it’s little surprise that another one somehow turns up in their hands. While all these devices provide wonderful experiences in some way, unplugging certainly has its value.
To proactively give kids screen-free time, and I find that it helps when they have something positive to focus on, so art and music are a godsend. When it’s time to practice, they may lament the end of game time a bit, but they quickly look forward to playing their favorite song, or putting pencil to paper. This creative time provides a whole different experience, slowing them down, forcing them to exist in the real world for a while, creating rather than consuming, and working at their own, natural pace.
A few years ago, Art Steps families surveyed stated that the overwhelming reason their kids continue coming to classes was the wonderful feeling of peace and serenity achieved through the weekly practice of slow, steady focus. Why is does art class work so well as a type of meditation for kids?
Professor Ken Robinson, in his famous Ted Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?“, compares aesthetic experiences to anesthetic ones. An “anesthetic” – or numb – state of mind is one which is so over-saturated by stimuli, like loud, overlapping noises, a bombardment of images, dry, utilitarian presentation of information, or the unruly juxtaposition of too many disparate concepts – that the mind begins to shut down, taking in only what it needs to, and blocking most of the moment’s experience out. This inhibits critical thinking. A child taking too much in, (like when my son picks up the iPad to play a game smack in the middle of a movie) may not even be able to hear himself think, much less finish a thought, or listen carefully and attentively to someone else. The child may look okay, but if they are overstimulated, something in them shuts down.
An aesthetic experience, however, encourages the mind to take in as much as possible, though calm, unhurried beauty. Inputs are minimized, and the mind can focus, because it wants to. Music, if any, is lyrical and soft, voices are calm and pleasant, images are pleasing, no one is hurried, people feel safe, and one concept is introduced at a time. In art class, a caring teacher asks a student to do one, tiny task at a time. If a single task proves to be a little too much, that task is broken in half, until it is digestible. The student is not worried. He or she learns to look deeply, freely and thoroughly at something, and begin to see the beauty in shapes, lines and color .The beauty of the world opens up – for the first time, in ever deeper ways over time.
The student opens up, too. I have known many kids over the years who had been diagnosed with ADD, and found that art class was the one place they could calm down and follow along. At least every year, I happen to come across a student who lets me know that following their first experience of deep focus in art class, they were able to focus in one subject in school, then another, until they graduated high school with success.
Why not provide such an experience at home? Find a quiet place to work, free of distractions, play soft music, and have your child sketch for just 10-20 minutes a day. Choose a consistent time. Things which we make into a routine are most likely to get done. Your child will feel calmer and more centered, and besides, practice is essential to mastery.
Even if a child does not strive to become a career artist, the internal ability to savor the world around us, to be fully present during our precious moments on this earth, is the perhaps greatest gift a parent can provide.
Wishing you and your family an absolutely beautiful 2016.