A Play-Based Solution To Reducing Stress In The Classroom

classroom management  emotional intelligence 

By Guest Author

Play-based solutions to reducing stress in the classroom

By Kati Knaup

“Who wants to play a game?” I playfully ask my restless first-grade class. The students erupt with huge smiles and their hands stretch so far in the air they almost touch the ceiling. 

“Me!” they all joyfully shout. 

I continue, “Our brains have been working hard. My brain and body are telling me it is time for a mindful minute. Let's play together!” I go to our MindFUN bucket that is filled with our playful mindful minute ideas.

Cultivating a mindful environment that invites students to pause, pay attention to their experience and reflect is a powerful practice. Play-based, mindful experiences take this a step further by interlacing connection and play. A recent panel from the Harvard Graduate School of Education agreed that every child stands to gain from playful learning (October 2019). The science behind this is clear: a child’s whole brain is activated when engaged in play. This supports cognition, thinking, and understanding.

I started a personal mindful practice after I noticed that my productivity and mood were positively impacted when I took a mindful minute. Anytime I felt stressed, overwhelmed, angry, tired, or distracted I practiced a one-minute mindful activity. I always experienced a positive outcome from my brief exercise. I had a list of my favorites and would rotate through them each day as needed. 

Practicing mindfulness on a daily basis helped me become more aware of my moods in addition to being more in tune with the moods of my classroom. We were experiencing the same feelings: stressed, overwhelmed, angry, tired, distracted. I decided to empower my students to use their inner resources in a playful way. 

I began by modeling my mindful minutes for the class. Whenever the situation arose, I named my feelings out loud and then practiced my mindful activity. I always invited my class to do the same. Soon, they all wanted to join. 

Next, we voted on our favorites and developed a collection of classroom mindful minute activities. We have them written on pieces of paper inside the MindFUN bucket. When we recognize the need for a mindful minute, we pull one out of our bucket. Within that minute we focus, play, and connect. We help regulate one another and it is transformational.

One of our favorites is called Animal Parade. We start with a deep breath to flood our brains with that needed dose of oxygen and imagine our animal of choice. Within the space of one minute, we transform into a new species, changing how we walk and move to show who we are. Animals have whisper voices only and they are to connect to at least one other animal without touching. 

The creative interactions always amaze me! For example, a student pretending to be a seal will swim around the room until they connect with another animal by making a quiet seal bark while flapping their flippers. If the other animal is an elephant, they might playfully stomp and raise up their trunk in response to the seal. For the last fifteen seconds, we are still and visualize being a peaceful version of that animal. We finish with one or two more mindful, cleansing deep breaths.  

Bringing mindful minutes into your classroom

1. Empower students to collaboratively choose mindful, play-based activities in a purposeful way. Help them process why they like a particular activity, and assist them in setting the intention behind what they are doing.

2. Model this behavior as much as you can, and join your class during the activity. 

3. Focus on play and connection. When students have the opportunity to play and connect with one another, they practice social and communication skills, creativity, enhance positive sensory experiences and bolster self-confidence. 

4. Practice them often. It only takes one minute.

5. Understand and clearly communicate your boundaries. This is important. We all must recognize our boundaries. If too much talking is a trigger for you, communicate those boundaries to your students.

Several educational goals are achieved by using play-based, mindful minutes in your classroom. First, you help create cohesion, allowing students to feel supported and connected. Additionally, as you lead by example, children learn to recognize stress signals from their body and are given tools to practice healthy ways to reduce that stress. You are also demonstrating to your students how you value their hard work and focus. Finally, by supporting the social, emotional, and physical wellness of your classroom, you are joining the powerful mission of raising an emotionally healthy world.

Other ideas in our MindFUN bucket

  • Feel the Rain - Students practice making the sound of rain with their hands and feet. Guide them through changing the intensity.
  • Blast Off - Students pair off and face each other. They hold their hands up and touch corresponding fingers while whispering, “one, two, three, four, five, (switch directions) five, four, three, two one...blast off!” While their fingers are still touching they blast off into the sky. This is repeated on the other hand, then both hands at the same time.
  • Humming Chorus - Students practice three songs that they all know the words to, and we hum in unison to the three songs.
  • Beating Hearts - Teach students the different ways to find their heartbeat. Once they find their heartbeat, they can tap to the beat. Challenge to sync the beat with another student.
  • Quiet Move with Me - Assign different cues to certain movements. If the leader touches their nose, students jump up one time. If they point to their foot, they spin around, etc. After three movements, the leader chooses another leader.

** Kati is a Professional School Counselor with over 10 years of experience in the classroom. She began her teaching career working with kindergarten. She then moved into teaching physical education and computers to kindergarten through eighth grade students. She holds a MS.Ed in school counseling and an Ed.S in education and school counseling. Kati is also trained in trauma-informed practices and play therapy.

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