The hidden creative impact of silence

Sam Woolstencroft, Creative Educational Practitioner and Forest School Teacher, argues for the benefits of silence in the classroom

In the past, silence has been given a bad name in education. We have all seen the signs on classroom doors, written in authoritative capital letters that tell us that even a murmur could be the difference between students learning or not. Silence is indeed conducive to learning, but it must come with an accompanying sense of relaxation to reap the benefits. Being reprimanded into silence can lead to a rise in cortisol (our stress hormone) causing a frantic mind, cluttered brain and even a sense of emotional turmoil. With a deep need for a renewed focus on wellbeing as a result of the pandemic, I believe fostering welcome silence in classrooms can not only vastly improve the wellbeing of students but critically, help to create the internal space for creativity in all students and ultimately equip them for future success.

The great outdoors: a space for silence

The Durham Commission on Creativity and Education recognises that creating a space for freedom of thinking is essential for creativity. When we take ourselves outdoors into nature, we can create a quiet space for thinking.

Picture the scene. A group of thirty children are sitting in a log circle, eyes closed, blissfully quiet. This is not a group of children who have been reprimanded into silence, they are relishing the opportunity to take an inward break from the hustle, bustle and stresses of the external world.

I ask the children to listen to the surrounding bird song. This gives students an opportunity to practice their listening skills but there is also a biological benefit here. Evolutionary scientists have shown that bird song would have been a signal to our ancestors that there are no predators and that we can therefore relax. Evolutionarily we are almost identical to our wild ancestors and multiple studies have shown that when we are relaxed, our cortisol (stress hormone) levels are lowered and our brain’s ability to process information, focus and ability to think more creatively becomes heightened.

Trees are our friends too in this respect. Yes, we know of our symbiotic relationship with the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. But furthermore, trees release hormones called phytoncides. When we inhale these naturally, our serotonin levels (happy hormone) are increased, and we immediately feel calmer and more at ease. The hormones also boost our immune systems which in the current climate, is yet another welcome side effect. A healthy and calm student is far more likely to think creatively than a stressed and unhealthy one.

Of course, British weather is not without challenge for teachers working outside! If there is even the smallest green space within or near your educational setting, the benefits of taking students to spend some time in it, even just 10 minutes, will bring a whole host of benefits.

If logistics simply do not allow, then getting some plants in the classroom and playing bird song will go a long way to fostering wellbeing and creativity in your classroom!

Silent competition

Healthy competition between peers is a great tool especially with a lively group. The Durham Commission noted that shared experiences with peers is an essential tool in building the characteristics of creativity. With this in mind, at the start of my sessions I often ask the class whether or not they would like to beat our ‘silent score’. I set a timer and ask the children to close their eyes and we share silence for an amount of time. Each time we have a moment of silence, we try to improve by five seconds.

It may not seem much, but when practised everyday this could add up to three minutes of quiet. But like with any skill, it needs to be practised. Playing a game of football as a vehicle for exercise and individual skill is often better and more enjoyable than practicing the skill in solace and out of context. As the children improve their ability to be silent, they become more comfortable and begin to hold positive associations with silence rather than it being an uncomfortable process.

Silence and breathing

The breath is incredibly interesting as it is the only biological process that we can control both consciously and unconsciously. The reason this is so fascinating is that by learning to control it we can use the breath as a tool to control various aspects of our body and brain. By helping our students to focus on their breath, we can help them to learn to de-stress and bring awareness to the task at hand. If we are trying to achieve a state of calm that is conducive to creative thinking, then it may be worth trying some silent breathing exercises.

Try this simple breathing exercise with a class and take note of the general feeling of calm before and after.

While they close their eyes and enjoy the quiet, they could imagine their stomach is a balloon. They should imagine that as they breathe through their nose, they are filling their balloons with air and as they breathe slowly through their mouths, they are deflating it. Three or more rounds of this will activate the parasympathetic system, calming nerves and quieting the mind. Creating the perfect state for calm and creative thinking.

Silence is golden

We know ourselves that when our brain feels de-cluttered, our mind is relaxed, and we feel happy we are far more likely to flourish than when we feel stressed or pressured. By applying the aforementioned methods consistently, we can truly create a safe, relaxing space for creativity both in our external space, classroom, and internal space, our mind and emotional state.

The end result? Blissful, golden silence. And not one where the children must be quiet because there is work that needs to be done, instead it is completely welcomed and enjoyed. The road to welcome silence may be rocky, it may be punctuated with laughter or meet some resistance, but if explored consistently, it can be a hugely beneficial tool to unleash children’s creativity.

We Are Adventurers is a Manchester based outdoor adventure and learning company providing unique and fulfilling outdoor experiences for children of all ages.

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