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Listening to my son yammer on about school is a welcome relief. As we jump over cracks in the sidewalk, my heart fills to bursting with each story about a lunchtime revelation or a recess reverie. My open-hearted kindergartner is open again — a far cry from the closed off kid I was parenting a week ago. The simple act of slowing down, being mindful, and walking together is changing him and changing us. 

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“At its core, mindfulness is taking a pause. It’s building a more constructive relationship with yourself from a place of non-judgment,” says Jessica Sharpenstein, mindfulness educator at Fairdale High School. I hadn’t intended on starting a mindfulness practice with my 5 year old, but in essence that’s what began happening with our after-school walks. 

When my son started kindergarten, I was prepared for changes. My days went from having a little boy glued to my side chatting about whether or not Chewbacca loved cheese crackers to having a panting dog glued to my side only when I opened a box of cheese crackers. This was a big difference. I can only imagine what it was like for my kid. His whole world expanded to include new faces, friends, and concepts. I was looking forward to hearing his heartfelt school stories, but those stories didn’t come easily.  

An awkward silence began to take over my kid’s usual chatty personality. I was getting one word answers to questions regarding school, and the replies were filled with an irritation I’d never witnessed. My son had always been open with his feelings. Our family worked through emotional challenges together, and this shut down version of my kid was a clear indication he was overwhelmed. My heart hurt for all his struggling. 

 I wanted to find a way to keep our lines of communication open without forcing him to talk. That’s when I remembered our walks. As soon as my son took his first steps, he was going places — for him it was around the neighborhood. Early on, my family and I made walks an evening tradition. Something about the combination of walking and being outside proved the perfect backdrop for my kid to open his heart and let us hear what was in it. As he grew, the walks fell away and daily life took over. 

“Taking walks and being out in nature helps with that mind/body connection,” Jessica says. This is why I thought I’d try walking again. That simple act produced an instant change. “Mindfulness creates a space to be able to tune into yourself,” Jessica says. The space we shaped during our first walk allowed him to talk about a kid in class who’d hurt his feelings. We talked through it, and I felt his heart become lighter. I’d found a tool that could help. 

“There’s no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness. Being in nature, coloring, journaling, reading, practicing gratitude — anything can be mindful,” Jessica says, and it can be introduced to the youngest of practitioners. “Starting at a younger age can help with tension and focus and allow a child to thrive in school.” I’d love for my son to be able to add this mindfulness to his box of emotional tools. 

Slowing down and walking is bringing out the feelings in my kid. “Mindfulness helps develop compassion and empathy. When we start to have empathy and compassion for ourselves, we can also return that for others,” Jessica says. I’m relieved that I found a way that helps my kid speak his heart, and I especially love that on our walks he still lets me hold his hand. 

P.S.  A school nurse whose compassion for kids is heartfelt. 

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