The Gift of Silence

January 6, 2014

We came across the following article in a past issue of Montessori Life, Vol. 23, Issue 2, Summer 2011, written by Cathleen Haskis and felt it would be perfect timing to share portions of it with you. As we head into the new year, full of promise and opportunity, remember to take time to find daily silence and peace in your day.  Also give the gift of silence to your little ones as this article reminds us how necessary it is to work it into our lives each and every day. Enjoy!!

I live in a small fishing village in Wisconsin, a state often alluded to as the land of cheese and beer, grazing dairy cows, waving wheat fields, and towering sunflowers. It is a place of amazingly beautiful lakes, bountiful parks, and persistent, enduring cold and snowy winters. My neck-of-the-woods is the northern part of Door County, a string of quaint little villages bustling with tourists during summer months, then vacated by all but the locals and occasional winter visitors the rest of the year. People from all over the world make Door County their vacation destination, referring to it as the Cape Cod of the Midwest. They come to enjoy the natural beauty, Lake Michigan, inspiring sunsets, and all of the renewing, restorative powers offered by the simplicity, charm, and natural wonders of the area.

Last November, my niece Amy and her two young children visited us for Thanksgiving. They arrived late on Wednesday evening. “Ohhh,” Amy whispered as she breathed in the still, crisp night air, “It’s sooooooo quiet.” We paused, wrapped in the beauty of the moment, looking up, listening, when 4-year-old Nora added her unsolicited approval. “I like it,” she said in her soft voice. “I like the quiet.”

We moved here, in part, for the cycles of activity and solitude that the seasons offer. The vibrant summers (the shops and restaurants reopening, the tourists arriving, the music and art communities expanding), and then the change and calm that descends each autumn: the putting away and closing up, the emptying out and shutting down. And with winter comes the great gift of quiet, spreading like a blanket over the peninsula, humbly offering silence, the serenity of solitude. I need this slowing down time. We all need some slow, silent time because it brings a peace that anchors us to our essential selves, to that inner place of stillness, self-reflection, creativity, and calm. Paradoxically, we human beings tend to feel uncomfortable, if not fearful, in silence. This is understandable when one considers how our lives have been stripped of silence and solitude with and replaced by noise, restlessness, entertainment, and action.

Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote about solitude and silence, spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh teaches about it, Mother Teresa spoke of it, spiritual guide and author Eckhart Tolle addresses it, Jesus spent 40 days in it. From Christianity to Buddhism, Hinduism to Judaism to Quakerism, the practice of silence has held particular significance. At the same time, engaging in times of silence or practicing periods of solitude are not born of, nor do they belong to, any particular religion, but are rather of a spiritual nature.
Slowing down, quieting the mind and body, and experiencing silence nourishes the spirit. Montessori educators are mandated to cultivate not just the intellect but the whole child.
We recognize that nurturing the spirit of the child is part of what makes this form of education work so well. Thus, it seems important to ask:

  • What are the benefits of stillness and silence for children?
  • What do exercises in stillness and silence for children look like?
  • What about a place in the classroom designated for practicing silence? What would that look like?

How Silence and Stillness Benefits Children
When I was teaching I created a poster that read, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” Those words were not my own, but I liked the concept because that message suggested a shift in my active, poductivity-based life towards the notion that non-action has merit. It is a radical movement away from the widely held belief that has taken deep root over the last half century, in which activity and productivity are the true measures of success and promote busyness over rest, and efficiency over craftsmanship. This is the same paradigm that values output more than inward-focused attention, and values intellectual progress over inner growth. Yes, we do want to see children engaged in purposeful work, but introducing them to the benefits of non-doing will serve them as well.

Today’s children have inherited an unbalanced childhood agenda and lifestyle, too often consisting of perpetual daily activity and fraught with adult oversight and omnipresent technology (and lacking quiet moments). Lured by such cultural icons as large screen TV’s and vehicles with DVD players , children become dependent upon external devices to fill what might otherwise be quiet moments of observation or contemplation. Rushed from one event to another, shuttled off to summer classes and camps, or immersed in adult-structured tasks, there is little time to do nothing or just to be. But children, just as adults, benefit immensely from non-doing. When children engage in non-doing, it isn’t so much about emptying out (as it may be for some adults practicing specific forms of meditation) as it is about making room and slowing down for inner experiences. Children need to have time to meander, to observe, to wonder, to stroll along a trickling stream, to lay beneath a shade tree on a warm day or to ponder the night sky!

Exercises in Stillness and Silence
Teachers can help children experience the benefits of balancing doing (activity) and being (stillness and silence) by preparing a space and offering opportunities to engage in stillness and silence activities during the school day. Maria Montessori developed the Silence Game when she recognized (and sought to understand) the love and desire children feel for silence. She described how she discovered “accidentally” children’s extraordinary love of silence while holding a tiny baby wrapped up in blankets, surrounded by children. The baby lay peacefully in her arms, and when Montessori asked the children if they could be as still as the baby she held, she was amazed at their response. “I should never have believed that children could love this mysterious, simple thing called silence so much!”

Montessori understood that stillness is the precursor to silence, and she explored this further by providing opportunities for children to become still and create silence, helping them to pay attention to each part of their bodies as they worked together in this endeavor. She emphasized collective effort and cooperation, necessary for group silence, and she found that the children expressed great interest and delight in achieving silence.

It is important that the teacher integrates into his/her own understanding the value of non-doing. If she does not fully accept the benefits of taking time for silence, most likely she will urge the child onward to get busy with “real work.” By doing so, the message is sent to children that moments of stillness and silence aren’t a valuable use of time. I once worked at a public elementary school where some of the faculty did not want benches or picnic tables because they feared the children would sit and do nothing. And yet, “just sitting” is beneficial! The task of the adult is to understand silence and stillness in a different way—not as a demand from adult authority but as a doorway to the sanctuary of the inner self.

Inner Awareness
As technology has advanced and the world has gotten progressively noisier, it is more difficult to find places where silence can be found. Montessorian Aline D. Worlf captured this topic in her little book for children,          I Want to Hear the Quiet, in which she brings the child’s attention to all of the noises in an ordinary house on an ordinary day — the television, washer and dryer, radio, video games, vacuum cleaner, and more — making it hard to think. It’s important, she suggests, sometimes to turn everything off in order to “listen to the silence” and to hear one’s own thoughts. With simple language, Wolf reminds the child to turn inward.

It is true that, from the time they wake up in the morning until they go to bed at night, children’s environments are awash in noise: dishwasher, garbage disposals, coffee grinders, blenders, music, computers and cell phones. Going outdoors, we can add lawn mowers, leaf blowers, snow blowers and rototillers, as well as car alarms and noise from traffic, aircraft and trains. This storm of noise poses an obstacle to looking inward. “Silence,” says Montessori, “often brings us to the knowledge which we had not fully realized, that we possess within ourselves an interior life.”

From personal experience we are aware of the elusive nature of concentrated attention, the ability to focus exclusively on one subject. Our attention is easily split by distractions. External noise is not the only barrier to attaining focused states of mind. Our own internal chatter also acts as a roadblock to concentration. For example, consider a time you were reading in a quiet environment, yet your mind was distracted by other thoughts.  You realized that because your active mind interfered with your ability to concentrate, you didn’t really know what you just read. Although inner silence is the more difficult silence to cultivate, it is the more important kind of silence, because even when our environment is quiet, if the mind is turbulent, it is nearly impossible to achieve deep or lasting concentration. Montessorians want to help children achieve normalization, which is dependent upon concentration obtained through work. Experiences in stillness and silence can be launching pads in the elementary classroom for further discussion on the role of internal silence on focused attention and concentration.

Mindful Awareness and Presence
Concentration is a single-point focus, to the exclusion of all other thought or surrounding activity, whereas mindfulness, as described by author Jon Jabat Zinn, is “….paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”  This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity and acceptance of present-moment reality. By paying attention to our own breath, we can become more mindfully aware. In The Mindful Child, Susan Kaiser Greenland shares an activity she devised called The Clear Mind Game in which she adds baking soda to a clear glass container of water and stirs it up until the water is no longer clear. “This is like your mind when you’re all jazzed up and feeling excited,” she tells children. “But by focusing on your breathing, you can settle your emotions down and see things as they really are, just as when the baking soda settles to the bottom of the container and you can see through the water again.”

In silent mindfulness exercises, children focus on their own breathing, learn to pay attention to the sensations in their bodies, and become more aware of themselves and their surroundings. Mindfulness is an experience in slowing down, increasing clarity and heightening sensory awareness. Simply put, mindfulness is about being in the present moment. For children, exercises in mindfulness have the potential to increase calm, reduce stress, improve attention, act as a natural conflict resolution tool and cultivate compassion. (

Creativity and Problem Solving
Artists, authors, painters, poets and scientists have long extolled the virtues of silence in the process of creating. Author Anne LeClaire was already an established writer with a lifestyle that was fast-paced and frenzied when she became interested in the study of solitude and decide to engage in 2 days of silence every month. “Stillness centered me and allowed me to focus…this kind of attention to our work —complete and without interruptions, and undisrupted concentration—enables us to tap into a groundwater of creativity not readily available when our attention is fractured.”  Children, like adults, need quiet time to mull over ideas, to contemplate and reflect. If creativity rises up when the mind is still enough for ideas and visions to surface, then children need time to be quiet or “bored” enough to let in their own creative thoughts. When the surroundings are quiet and the mind slows down, their is space available to organize thoughts and for new ideas to germinate. “Solitude,” wrote Ester Bucholz, “is required for the unconscious to process and unravel problems. Others inspire us, information feeds us, practice improves our performance, but we need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers.”

Time for Silence and Creating a Silence Place
Making a space for a Silence Place can be as simple as a small table in a corner, a comfortable chair near a low window or a cushion on a rug in an out-of-the-way area. Choose a quiet place away from foot traffic. A low divider or shelf partitions can define the area. If space allows, include a shelf for aura of peacefulness. Students should have free access to this place with a reasonable time frame agreed upon for a visit. An exact amount of time need not be stipulated but sometimes it is helpful to give students a general idea of how much time they may spend in the space. Consider a small clock for older children, or a sand timer for younger children.

Activities to Enhance Stillness and Silence

Following are some items that may be available in a Silence Place.

For centuries, the Japanese have created gardens of harmoniously arranged rocks and white raked gravel, creating silent retreats for peaceful contemplation. This ancient process of arranging stones and raking sand is a calming activity and even very young children enjoy using the miniature rakes to create paths in the sand around pebbles. This activity can be purchased or handmade.

Although more expensive (available through Montessori Services or local toy stores), the brush painting activity is a welcome addition to the Silence Place. Using tapered brush and a small amount of water, images can be created on a special board that sits on a large sturdy easel. The design that appears as black ink slowly disappears as it dries.

A pendulum set on a small table provides a quiet, restful activity. Put a small amount of sand in the base and watch the designs created as the pendulum swings back and forth.

Beautiful multicolored beads representing the diverse colors of life and earth are arranged on several silver rings that represents the continents and the oceans. The peace ring is used by gently manipulating the rings to create different shapes. Originally created as an aid in Buddhist meditation, it is a natural fit for the Silence Place.

The individual Silence Game is a simple, easy-to-put-together activity that is a must-have in Montessori classrooms. In a basket place a small rug (different from work rugs), a 3- or 5-minute timer, a doily for the timer to sit on and a sign that reads SILENCE. Present this to the children by removing the items carefully and slowly from the basket, placing the doily on the rug, the timer on tops of the doily and the SILENCE sign facing outward as a reminder to the other students not to interrupt. Sit in a cross legged position, still the body and begin watching the sand run through the timer. Encourage children to observe the sifting sand until it has all fallen to the bottom. Remain sitting for a minute or so more, then place the timer, doily and sign aside. Roll the rug and return the items to the basket.

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