Valuing Stillness

The experience of stillness is a key part of Total Education.

The value of stillness for children is that it provides a contrast to excitement and stimulation. It provides a time for their true selves to emerge. It is both a reference point and an experience. When we are explaining to the children the idea of Quiet Time (a twice-weekly session for all primary students) we say that it is good to have fun and excitement and stimulation in our day but it’s also good to have some time each day when we are quiet, a time when we allow ourselves to be settled and peaceful.

In Quiet Time we use quite a number of techniques to help children experience stillness. Mostly we use storytelling, usually a folktale, a story from one of the religious traditions or a fable. At the conclusion of the story we ask the children to visualize something about the story in their minds for a couple of minutes. For example, I might use the story of the Hare and the Tortoise and then ask the children to picture the Hare and the Tortoise in their minds. It might be the Hare sitting by the path waiting for the Tortoise to catch up or perhaps the Tortoise crossing the finish line just ahead of the Hare. Sometimes we ask the children to listen to the sounds that they can hear around them. This is a passive exercise and they just absorb the sounds they can hear inside and outside the classroom without judgement or filtering what they like or don’t like. This exercise really allows them to settle.

We also use the technique of listening to music. Of course some music is more conducive to the experience of quietness. For example, the music of Bach and Mozart seems particularly compatible with feelings of quietness and the experience of stillness. There’s one particular piece of music that always seems to leave the children very settled and almost floating out of the classroom — Bach’s Where Sheep May Safely Graze. It’s a beautiful piece of music. On the other hand, there is music that has an agitating effect and this can be used to contrast feelings of settledness. A good example is The Hall of the Mountain King from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite.

Other schools also recognize the value of stillness and I would like to share a piece from Aline Wolf on the approach of Maria Montessori:

“A very important step in nurturing either one’s own spirit or a child’s spirit, is to prepare an environment where stillness can be cultivated with some regular frequency. It is almost impossible for one’s spirit to thrive in the constant din and hubbub of daily life. Some special places and special times must be set aside for quiet — for one to be open to one’s inner voice. ‘Silence’, says Montessori, ‘often brings us the knowledge which we had not fully realized — that we possess within ourselves an interior life. The child by means of silence sometimes becomes aware of this for the first time.’ ”

There’s also a link between quietness and concentration. This was discussed at a Combined Parents Meeting earlier this year by psychologists Jan Gudkovs and Jan Dugan in their presentation on children’s concentration. Jan Gudkovs observed that, as against focused awareness, a deeper concentration relates to other qualities such as ‘absorption, relaxation, openness and flow’. Indeed concentration can be kinked to ‘state of being’.

For children it’s not always easy to make the transition from activity to stillness. Some children even find quietness threatening, as if they find it difficult to be in their own company. In this case, children need something to focus on rather than just quietness or nothing. This is where music can really help because it gives the mind something to focus on, and yet the music chosen can be such that it is a settling kind of music. An example of this could be that of Gurrumul (the indigenous musician) or as previously mentioned the music of Bach or Mozart.

At home, parents need to find opportunities for children to be more settled or quiet. Turn off the TV. Turn off the computer. Go outside. Do something that involves getting into nature.

Children’s involvement in nature can provide wonderful experiences of stillness. It is almost as if the natural environment itself encourages one to settle and get more in touch with that interior life. On the Outward Bound camps, in which the Year 11 students participate each year, they do a solo walk and reflect on their experience of the camp for an extended period (between 3 and 24 hours). Here is an extract from one of the students after his solo walk from last year:

“…as I lay here looking at the sky and trees, I feel so free. My mind can think of anything. This tree caught me, so I started thinking. It has experienced hardship and struggle much like we are now. It has survived droughts, like we are now. But not of water, we are in a drought of what we are used to – electricity, technology and the normal routines. The tree has had its ups and downs and injuries, like us on this trip. But when you look at this tree, it is magnificent. It made it through the hard times, and is now stronger and prouder than ever. Like us — once we finished our epic journey.”

Stillness experiences play a preventative role in stress management. If one can cultivate the habit of regular quietness and reflection it can be a buffer for stressful experiences that we experience throughout the day. Some of the students have used the techniques of listening to sounds or watching their breathing, which they practice at school several times a week, just before exams or music or drama performances to settle their nerves. This kind of preventative approach is really future-proofing the children against stress.

Here is what educator and author Rachel Kessler has to say in her book, The Soul in Education, where she has a whole chapter on silence and stillness. It is one of her “seven gateways” to the soul in education:

“It is no coincidence that most of the world religions have devised the rest note into the symphony of the human day, week, or year. Practices such as prayer, meditation, spiritual retreats, Quaker meetings, and the tradition of the Sabbath — all cultivate the capacity for tolerating stillness and create the spaciousness for the soul. Brief periods of silence and solitude in school can also give students a tool for cultivating rest and renewal — rest for the nervous system, the mind, the body — which traditional cultures provided routinely. For many of our students and their families, solitude has become a lost art.

“We could view silence as a vehicle to go through other gateways: deep connection to the self, transcendence, creative expression, or the search for meaning and purpose. The silence itself can nourish the human spirit, and we should explore its value as a separate gateway.”

Encouraging quietness in children does eventually sink in and they express it in different ways. This doesn’t always happen while children are still in school but may evolve and develop as they mature and grow into adulthood. In his song “Me and the Sun” Robin Waters (graduated 1997), from the band The Boat People, expresses it this way:

“Now, it’s quiet.
I’m yet to get my keys and go inside.
I can tell,
That this thing I’m in
Is grateful to be still.”

From my observation of many children growing up through the School over 30 years, I can confidently say that the experience of stillness is intimately connected to creativity. As the mind is quiet, ideas and inspiration get a chance to automatically bubble up to the surface. The talents that you see emerging in the graduates from this School are from this source. So, as a result of their experience of stillness, quietness and reflection at school, creativity has the chance to emerge and flow in all sorts of directions.

Like everything, stillness is best learned by imitation. So if parents can understand this and model settledness and show they value the experience of stillness, the children will pick it up just as easily as they learned to walk and talk. What a valuable quality that would be.

A capacity for quietness, built up from the experience of stillness will lead to greater concentration, creativity, peace and contentment, and these qualities will enrich the children’s lives.

About the Author

Richard Waters has been principal of the School of Total Education since 1978. He has taught at both primary and secondary levels and has a particular interest in parent education and the training of teachers. He is also a teacher of senior Study of Society and History.

This article is adapted from an address to a Combined Parents Meeting at The School of Total Education on Friday October 7th 2011. (Published on web site: November 2011)