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Mindful Walk Activities Take Students "Places"

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Jeffrey Pflaum, blogger on BAM, is also hosting CREATIVELY SPEAKING on the network's new show, PULSE (category: "Classroom Innovation").  Please check out the 12-minute podcasts on creativity, creative thinking, EI, social-and-emotional learning, and more.


Mindful Walk Activities Take Students Places


If you are looking for a way to crank up students’ concentration, visualization, recall, reflection, experiencing, motivational, and writing skills, try this: “THE MINDFUL WALK. Focus, concentration, and mindfulness are key learning and emotional intelligence skills children need, or why are you standing there and teaching in the first place?  Here’s an activity for grades two to six to develop kids’ abilities to be aware, observe, focus, and concentrate, when their only “distractions” come from the world around them.  So take a “mindful walk” with them, where the aim is to walk-and-look in silence.  It could be around a school block or the area near the school, a park, or a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood.  Students pretend their eyes are cameras snapping pictures of whatever appeals to them and makes them feel—and it doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary. And “no talking, please”: that will distract them from experiencing, noticing, seeing, feeling, imagining, and thinking about things.


I walk in my Queens, NY, neighborhood on a walkway by the water leading to Fort Totten, a public park, that also houses the army (reserves), coast guard, firemen, emergency medical teams, and police.  I have tried to do a “walking meditation” while there, which means to walk and focus totally on the physical act of walking, something like: “lift, move, step, lift, move, step,” and so on.  If thoughts, feelings, and mental imagery interrupt, the idea is to gently bring your focus back to walking: “lift, move, step…” For me, it doesn’t work; there are too many distractions.  I find myself bombarded with the park’s beauty and am constantly taking side-journeys, and wind up meditating on nature.  Even if I keep focusing ten feet in front of me, to avoid the “distractions,” I still lose concentration.


Ft. Totten Park is a tranquil environment—believe it or not—where you can look out at the Long Island Sound and the sailboats gliding along, not to mention the lovely Japanese maple trees and seasonal flowers, the pinks, whites, and yellows.  You can see huge open fields, once used for military training, and now are soccer fields for team competition.  There are other occasional walkers, bikers, and runners circling the park.  I once met a meditator who said she sits on an old wooden bench and meditated on an abandoned storage area that was “scenic” enough to be used to film a scene from a movie (something they do regularly in the park).  On those days you see huge trucks rolling in and big white tents set up for the actors with delicious food smells coming from them.


Parks are not the best place to do a walking meditation, or looked at it in another way, they can be seen as a “test” of your meditative powers, that is, to keep your concentration on walking with all the “natural distractions” going on around you.  The walking meditation proved too difficult, so instead, I started walking, looking, focusing, feeling, experiencing, and meditating on the environment.  My eyes became a camera that mentally and emotionally photographed what I saw.  My mind “processed the film,” the pictures, recorded by the eyes—or camera.  The walking meditation morphed into a “mindful walk”: I looked all around to find what made me “pause and record.”  This was the new meditation, shifting from the walk to concentrating on things I observed around me while walking.


However, this mindful walk eventually changed, because, as a nature photographer for over forty years, I began taking a real camera along and shot the maples, pines, and what I call, the “cherry-vanilla” and “white propeller” flowers in the park.  I photographed the leaves that were lit up by the sun: they became abstracts of greens and yellows that created an image that seemed to move, and broken windows on dilapidated buildings inundated with red and green leaves.  There were also impressionistic photographs of the dazzling red, orange, green, and yellow maple leaves.


I shot upwards from the base of the pine tree trunks to show, as I call it, “The Almighty Pine,” draped in yellow and green pine needles.  As I looked up the pines, I saw the cool wave of blue sky above me with the moving white clouds.  I focused on them and started “seeing things”: so many dogs, profiles, portraits, caricatures, and cartoons of sad, mad, and glad faces, thousands of eyes looking in all directions, birds flying up to the heavens and down to the earth, kids riding dragons, and a few elephants.  There was a whole imaginary world up above, and as my focus or concentration got stronger, I could see more and more.  The silence in the park connected me with seeing just what was there, on the ground and in the sky.


Instructions for “THE MINDFUL WALK”:


I have come a long way from a walking meditation into my version, “the mindful walk.”  For this fun and self-entertaining exercise, take your class outdoors and give these instructions:


  • “We’re going to take a walk around the school block—or in the neighborhood—and your job is to: look around, see, and observe things.  Pretend your eyes are cameras, and let your mind record whatever appeals to you, what catches your eye, what stands out, what causes you to make a mental picture, and what you remember.  It doesn’t have to be something fantastic; it can be something ordinary that you see differently or appreciate more at that moment.

  • “I want to see how powerful your concentration is: What do you see in front of you that makes you stop?  When we get back to the classroom, write about what you saw.  Describe whatever made you really stop and look at it.  Your description should give your classmates a good idea of why you focused on a particular thing, object, place, person, or event.  What made you pause for an extra second to look at it?  You can draw quick pencil-sketches of what you saw and appealed to you.”


  • “Also, in the writing, describe your ability to focus on the world around you. How good or bad was your focus?  Was it better at times?  Why?  How long could you hold your concentration or focus?  Did you lose your concentration at any time?  What distracted you or took your mind away from concentrating?”


Please note that a “walk-in-the-park” is an alternative to the neighborhood walk-and-see trip.  Emphasize to kids that this is a “walking-and-no-talking” mindful outing.  Explain that, although they might want to talk to classmates, it will distract them, and cut down on their concentration.  Instead of walking outdoors (30 to 45 minutes), the “mindful walk” can be done inside the school for 30 minutes or more.  The instructions for the activity, appropriate for fourth through sixth grade students, should be adjusted for second and third grade children.


Step-by-Step Procedures for “THE MINDFUL WALK” Activity:


(1)  Give students the above instructions for the activity.


(2)  Emphasize (after the walk): “Recall, reflect, visualize, write, and describe what they saw and focused on.  What did they like?  What appealed to them, and made them stop and look closely?  Any things that they imagined while on the walk are also acceptable and appropriate in their writings.


(3)  They can draw pictures, quick pencil-sketches or drawings using crayons/markers along with their written descriptions of the experience.


(4)  Teacher reviews and evaluates overnight the writings plus pictures according to students’ descriptions, content, structure, and drawings.


(5)  Teacher uses basic questions to discuss several student writings.  Sample questions are:


  • What is described in the writing?


  • What is interesting or appeals to the writer?


  • Did you write about the same or similar things?  Why?


  • Describe the drawing or sketch: What do you like about it?  What stands out?


  • Talk about what made you stop and look at a thing, object, person, place, or situation happening in front of you.


  • How would you rate or grade your focus and concentration?  Was it good, bad, or scattered (all over the place)?  Why?


  • Did you lose your focus at any time?  What caused you to lose your focus?  What were the distractions?


  • If you lost focus, how did you bring it back to looking, seeing, and experiencing the world around you?


  • Did you become aware of things that you normally would not notice while taking a walk?  Things that might be boring; but became more interesting because you concentrated harder.  Give an example.  Why did you notice it and pause?


Exercises to expand “The Mindful Walk” to other areas:


In the upcoming exercises, see if students can take the focusing skills from their “mindful walk” and use them for both external and internal experiences.  Examples are:


EXERCISE 1: Have students take a mindful walk inside their apartment or house and write about what they see, what makes them stop and look a little closer at things.  Ask them to describe what they notice and add the connected feelings, thoughts, and imaginings about their look-and-see experiences.  (Note: This activity would work for grades 2 to 6.)


EXERCISE 2: Ask kids to find pictures, drawings, artworks, and/or photographs and say: “Okay, let’s try taking a mindful walk into this picture, and see what you can see.  Focus on the picture: concentrate carefully on everything in it.  Write a brief description of the picture.  Describe whatever feelings, thoughts, and imaginings you experienced while concentrating.  This is just another mindful walk, only now you’re doing it with, or walking into, a picture.  You can draw quick pencil-sketches of the pictures.”  (Note: This activity would work for grades 2 to 6 and beyond.)


EXERCISE 3: Memories, memories, I remember a place in the Catskill Mountains with all sorts of memorabilia that take you down memory lane.  Ask students to try a “mindful walk” into a recent or not-so-recent memory, a recurring memory, a happy or an unhappy one.  Let them to concentrate on, recall, visualize, reflect, re-examine, and re-view the past experience.  They search the inside world with the mind’s eye to find the images and connected feelings and thoughts.  The exercise is another mindful walk, only now it’s internal rather external.  Please note: You can do the same activity using daydreams and fantasies.  Have them draw the residues of images they see along with their written descriptions. (Note: This activity would work for grades 2 to 6.)


EXERCISE 4: One reason why sports teams have coaches is to explain to the players what they’re doing and not doing well in a game.  At times they don’t realize what’s happening on the court or field.  The purpose of the “mindful walk” into sports activities is to help kids become aware of what they’re producing on the athletic field, to help them discover their abilities and inabilities, and to examine how they perform.  Students become participants and observers simultaneously.  Ask kids to look at themselves as they play basketball, kickball, tennis, or whatever gym game, contest, and sport they’re involved in and give an honest, objective commentator’s “play-by-play” description of their performance.  They have to recall an event, visualize the different mind-pictures from it, reflect on and re-examine what they did, write about it, and draw a key image from the event.  In the end, the question is: Can kids use the ability to focus/concentrate inwardly to evaluate an external experience?  (Note: This activity would work for grades 4 to 6 and beyond.)


More key questions to ask during class/small group discussions:


  • After focusing on and re-viewing an event, whether it was a walk around the block, in a park, or a photograph, artwork, memory, dream, daydream, fantasy, or playing a sport, did you become more aware of the experience?  Were things “lit up,”  “illuminated,” or “clearer” to see?  Explain your answer.


  • Did you discover or find out something new that you did not realize before?  If so, give an example by describing your new understanding and knowledge.
  • What did you learn about your ability to concentrate and focus?  Was it easier to concentrate on inner, outer, or both experiences?  Why?
  • How would you improve your ability to concentrate?

  • What would you do to increase concentration, especially if you find that you’re constantly distracted?  How do you decrease the distractions and increase your concentration?

  • What are the biggest “distractions” to: your concentration during classroom lessons,working on homework assignments, studying for tests, taking tests, and playing sports?

  • Give an example of another way to use the “mindful walk” activity.  Name another “place” where you can take a “mindful walk”?  How would you apply the “mindful walk” to experiences that don’t include “walking”?  Describe how the activity would work.


Notes: The above questions are applicable for students in grades 4 to 6.  For grades 2 to 3, you would have to modify the language.


Other sources, references, and ideas for “The Mindful Walk” activity:


If you are a walker yourself, you might very well enjoy, The Walk by Robert Walser, published in paperback by New Directions (A New Directions Pearl).


To find out more about The Walk, check out the following articles, summaries, and reviews:

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Jeffrey Pflaum has been an inner-city elementary school teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, for thirty-four years (NYCDOE, retired in 2002). He worked as a creative writing, whole language, social studies, gifted/talented, physical education, and mentor teacher in grades K – 6 and special education. Pflaum coached middle school boys and girls basketball teams and one of his players became coach of the Pace University team. Tennis was also taught on the elementary school level to lower grade kids as part of the NY Junior Tennis League Program founded by Arthur Ashe.

Pflaum considers himself a teacher-developer-researcher experimentalist who created successful education projects in emotional intelligence, social and emotional learning, reading, writing, poetry, thinking, creativity, vocabulary expansion, concentration, and intra- and interpersonal communication skills. He has written articles for professional newspapers and publications about his curricula. Various programs appeared on web sites such as ERIC and CASEL/Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (“Experiences, Reflections, and Insights”).

One program was featured at the International National Council of Teachers of English at NYU as one of the best examples of English Language Arts in the NYC Public Schools, K – 12. His students’ poetry and prose have been published in college, writers’, gifted secondary, and children’s literary journals, magazines, newspapers, and by major commercial book publishers; read on public radio (Poetry-In-The-Morning, WNYE-FM, sponsored by the Teachers & Writers Collaborative/NYC); and, won honors and awards from PBS, Channel Thirteen/NYC. One student, Noel “Speedy” Mercado, became a top NYC disc jockey on WKTU-FM.

Pflaum published an inspirational book about adolescent reading lives titled MOTIVATING TEEN AND PRETEEN READERS: HOW TEACHERS AND PARENTS CAN LEAD THE WAY (Rowman & Littlefield Education). For book reviews, go to http://www.examiner.com/review/motivating-your-kids-to-read to see Kecia Burcham's response to the book, and also, The Teachers College Record for Karen Polk's insightful article. For Karen Polk's review (8/24/12), from the Teachers College Record, google "MOTIVATING TEEN AND PRETEEN READERS - Teachers College Record."

Go to www.JeffreyPflaum.com for more articles on "Contemplation Writing," Meditative Writing Ideas, Internet radio interviews, published student poetry, and newspaper articles about his book on motivating adolescent readers and Inner Cities Arts Project. His recent interviews on Contemplation Writing can be found at these "Pure Imagination" links: http://prn.fm/2012/07/14/pure-imagination-071312 and Pure Imagination - 07/13/12 | Progressive Radio Network. A second interview on "Connect With Julianna" (Toginet Radio Network) about "Contemplation" or "Music" Writing can be found at these links: http://bit.ly/iTFbk7 and http://bit.ly/t5FA0W; or, Connect with Creative Educator and Author, Jeffrey Pflaum.

Pflaum is currently a regular blogger on The BAM Radio Network's blog, ED Words, where posts about a plethora of his projects can be found at: www.bamradionetwork.com/edwords-blog/blogger/listings/jeffpaul. Also, he is a contributing writer for EDUCATION VIEWS at: www.educatnviews.org/author/jeffreypflaum/

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