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Labyrinths in the Classroom: Cultivating Mindfulness in a Montessori Setting

Primary teacher Ashley McLean has been integrating labyrinth activities into the classroom to teach children mindfulness and self-calming strategies. On Saturday, she led a session on this topic at the Montessori Schools of Massachusetts conference. Here are some highlights from her talk.

How is a labyrinth different from a maze?

The words ‘labyrinth’ and ‘maze’ have a tendency to be used interchangeably, but they are actually quite different from one another. Labyrinths are made up of one path without obstacles whereas mazes are specifically designed to confuse anyone who enters one. The path of a labyrinth creates a calming sensation because you cannot get lost. A maze, however is stressful and makes you think. Labyrinths allow you to be present in the moment—mindful—because there is no risk of becoming lost.

What are some benefits of using labyrinths in the classroom?

By placing labyrinths strategically in the classroom, teachers prepare the environment as a place for mindfulness. The peace corner is an excellent start; children who spend time there usually need a moment to stop and think about what is going on. Tracing a labyrinth can help the child center and discover the root of his or her problem. In the Practical Life area of the classroom a handheld labyrinth with a stylus gives the child the chance to practice tracing a labyrinth while strengthening his or her pincer grip.

There has been a conversation on the Learning and the Brain blog about the “Spacing Effect:” the phenomenon, outlined here by Andrew Watson, refers to giving the brain enough time to forget new content and skills in order to recall them again. Rina Deshpande suggests that practicing mindfulness can help that cognitive process. In this line of thinking, labyrinths can be useful in helping children to retain information. After an academic lesson, time with a labyrinth is an opportunity for a child to step away from the new information, then return to it later with improved memory.

How can labyrinths be integrated into the classroom?

Labyrinths can be set out in the classroom on the Practical Life and Sensorial shelves and in the Peace Corner. Older Primary students, typically in their second and third year, can make their own labyrinths with a template of a 3-circuit Cretan labyrinth glued to a piece of cardboard by carefully putting glue along the outline of the labyrinth and then mindfully placing yarn along the black line. Labyrinth coloring pages on the Art shelf can encourage younger Primary students to participate in the mindful exercise of tracing a labyrinth.

Labyrinths and other tools used by Primary teachers help students practice gaining awareness of their emotional needs and managing "big emotions." In the Elementary program, students have the opportunity to take 10-minute independent "brain breaks" outside the classroom. One "break station" offers a mindfulness activity, another offers a creative challenge, and another is a movement activity.

Being able to calm yourself down or take a quiet, peaceful break between learning activities gives students a feeling of self-control that leads to greater self-confidence. At our school, students learn to recognize their own needs and develop strategies to help themselves succeed.

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