Moody Cow and Tools of the (Meditating) Mind

Mindful meditation is gaining traction with children, or more precisely with parents and educators, as evidence mounts that mindfulness training can improve children’s self-control. The trick, of course, is in figuring out how to teach this to children, who are not widely known for their love of sitting still and paying attention to things they cannot see.

One book that I think does very well is Moody Cow Meditates; not only does it have the entertaining touch of having cows as the main characters, it also features a jar with glitter-filled water. When you shake the water, the jar becomes clouded with a furious swirl of glitter, representing the agitated mind Moody Cow will try to calm with meditation. This tool gets my personal Developmental Psychologist Seal of Approval, because it matches very closely with scientific theory and studies into how children’s minds work.

The mind jar fits in well with Lev Vygotsky’s theory of social learning, called the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD), which is a rather fancy name for a familiar idea: training wheels. There are things a child might not be able to do on her own (ride a two-wheel bicycle) but can do with a little assistance (provided by the parent holding the back of the seat, or more practically by training wheels); if she can do it with assistance but not on her own, it’s in her ZPD, distinct from the things she can’t do even with assistance (pilot a jetliner, perhaps). The key to development is to have adults provide scaffolding to guide children so the things in their ZPDs become things they can do without help.

Vygotsky’s theory was in turn the origin of one program geared at improving the cognitive skills of low-income preschoolers, called Tools of the Mind, which has shown in one famous study and some lesser-known replications to improve children’s cognitive functions (although at least one other study found the program wasn’t helpful). There’s more too this particular program than I can fit into a single blog entry, so we’ll focus on just one thing: The use of visible tools to help keep kids on task. In a “buddy reading” setup, for example, the reader gets a picture of a mouth, and the listener gets a picture of an ear; the idea is that the listener has this reminder of what they’re supposed to be doing that will help keep them on task, and ultimately improve self-control (and, with any luck, make them a better listener – every parent’s dream).

From Diamond, Barnett, Thomas, & Munro (2007); ©Science Magazine.

The parallels between holding an ear while buddy reading and holding a mind jar while meditating should be pretty clear: In both cases, the child has something external they can focus on, that reminds them of what they are trying to do. Just like training wheels, these help make the task at hand just simple enough that it’s possible, and after some practice, the training wheels can be discarded.

It’s not just helpful for children, either; I’ve tried a few tricks used with kids for my own meditation, or guiding my students’ meditation (such as lifting one hand when a thought is about the past, and another when it’s about the future), and they do make the task a little easier for the adult mind too. At least, that’s what I’ll tell myself when the Moody Cow series finds its way onto my bookshelf.


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