Guest Blogger: Emma Tempest – The Play Coach
The science behind gratitude has shown that, like in play, our brains light up and send positive neurotransmitters when we are thinking about things we are thankful for. Being grateful is an intentional choice – but a simple one.
Last month I wrote about how we should strive to have a play-life balance – interweaving play into our work day so that we can reap the benefits while still doing our jobs. One of these playful activities you can do either on your own or with the children/staff/families that you work with is a gratitude practice. And let’s face it, with all the stress, busy social lives, work commitments and responsibilities we sometimes forget to be more grateful for the things that are right in front of our faces.
Gratitude has been found to help people feel more positive emotions, remember good experiences more vividly, improve health and general wellbeing as well as strengthen relationships. Gratitude is the act of being thankful and appreciative of what you have – whether material or otherwise – instead of always looking for something else that will FINALLY make you happy. It can be applied to things that have happened in the past, present or future which means it is a great tool that can be built upon no matter how you are feeling in the present moment. It is a practice in the true sense of the word – the more you intentionally practice gratitude, the more grateful you are! Makes sense, right? It can sometimes feel a bit silly when you first start actively seeking and expressing gratitude, but research has show that when we feel gratitude we benefit from the thoughts and when we express gratitude to others it strengthens our relationship with that other person.
The science behind gratitude has shown that, like in play, our brains light up and send positive neurotransmitters when we are thinking about things we are thankful for. Being grateful is an intentional choice – but a simple one. There are lots of different ways to start a gratitude practice – you could start a daily journal, meditate, write thank you notes or even just spend a minute thinking about somebody else. I am going to share with you how I think we could weave gratitude practices into our work day in order to give ourselves more of a play-life balance as early educators. If you have any other ideas, leave a comment and let’s be grateful for the opportunity to share the good work that is happening for children in Arkansas!
The first activity is something that Dr Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, calls the What-Went-Well Exercise. He explains that although we sometimes have to analyse the bad events that occur in our lives, in order to find out what went wrong and how we can prevent it from happening again, we often spend too much time focusing on these sorts of events rather than the good times. We have to work on getting better at thinking about the good stuff – and the key thing being, “Why did that good thing happen?”
Before you go to bed, write down three things that went well today and WHY they went well. Don’t just think about it, write it down. You can put pen to paper, write on your computer or even make a note in your phone. The three things don’t have to be life-altering events, but they can be if something huge happened. After you have written the what, answer the why. Really think about why the good thing happened – who was involved? Why did they do that? What happened to cause the good thing to occur? Perhaps to start off, you could write about one thing that happened at work, one thing that happened at home and one thing that you are grateful for in general (perhaps an event from the past or upcoming future). Dwell on the good moments of your day and use these to cultivate more of these moments in your tomorrow – you might even find that when you look at the ‘why’ more closely, it gives you answers to problems you’ve been stuck with.
Dr Becky Bailey, founder of Conscious Discipline, has a mantra that says, “What you focus on, you get more of.” This applies so well to our work with children, so let’s use it to transfer our thoughts about our day (work or otherwise!) to a gratitude practice at work.
In your work with children, you could start this practice by talking about something that went well in the day. Perhaps you have a closing circle time or a storytelling time at the end of the day. Discuss three things you are grateful for – the more you model this to your children the more they will be able to pick up on what you are saying but you must remember to add the why! It could sound like, “Johnny helped Meghan put her coat on when he noticed she was struggling with her zip. That was so kind because Meghan was getting frustrated and Johnny wanted to be helpful. Then they were both ready to go outside and have lots of fun!” Before you know it, your children will want to start sharing their gratitude experiences with the rest of the group as well as at home!
And that leads us nicely into how you can incorporate gratitude with your families. How often do we say thank you to families? I mean, REALLY say it. Express it. Feel it. Genuinely. A heartfelt note of gratitude to a parent will not only strengthen your relationship with them, but it will have a knock-on effect on their children, When we all work together, we do better. If you are thankful and enthusiastic about their kid, your optimism will spread like wildfire. You can show your gratitude in many ways – a heart-to-heart conversation, a coffee bar set up for parents to use as they wish, an open-door policy that not only invites parents and other family members to attend but that actively encourages people in to the room on a daily basis. Share some ideas for gratitude practices they could start – maybe discussing what they’re grateful for on the walk/drive home from school, filling up a jar or notice board with gratitude notes that you can look through any time or even being thankful for what you have by giving to others. This doesn’t have to be an expensive or laborious task. It can be as simple as picking a flower on a walk and giving it to the next person you see at the park (BONUS: give it with a smile too, it’s free!), paying for the person behind you in the coffee shop line or even going around the local neighbourhood spreading gratitude notes.
Whatever you decide to share with your families, it’s important to let them know that an attitude of gratitude starts from a playful place. Think about how much joy children feel when they are deeply engaged in play. They don’t express how grateful they are through words or gifts, they simply are in the moment. If we can encourage more people to embrace those playful moments (like asking parents to let children play and the family follow their lead) then gratitude will follow.
Joy is the simplest thing that brings us gratitude. Let’s get out there and look for the joy in every day! As I said earlier, you might feel a bit silly at first, but stick with it for a week and see how your mindset changes. And remember, you can keep these thoughts privately to yourself and they will STILL have an impact! Let me know in a week how you get on…