When Mr. Jones suggested we all play “Night at the Museum,” I couldn’t help but cringe. I was spending the summer teaching for a nonprofit that helped students in underresourced communities who had fallen behind academically. The summer program was an attempt to close that gap. We were their PE instructors, and as such had the unique responsibility and challenge of trying to help them academically through engaging them physically.

“Night at the Museum” could be a hard sell. It is a game that requires the “museum guard” (most often, a teacher) to walk around and make sure all the “statues” (students) are frozen in place. When the guard isn’t looking, the statues can change positions without being caught in the act, otherwise they are eliminated from that round. It is silly and playful embodying, but as one of two instructors tasked with connecting with kids who loathed being at summer school, I feared Mr. Jones was doing a poor job reading the room. I braced myself for the mutiny.

I was a young teacher at the time, living in Cambridge and working at an independent school, and the opportunity to work with a nonprofit during my summer off seemed like a meaningful way to broaden my horizons. Yet that first week was a wake-up call. The heat blazed, there was no air-conditioning, the water fountains didn’t work, and the administrators were burnt out; the students themselves may have even suspected that their summer teachers were merely going through the motions. At first, Mr. Jones and I had naively figured our time with students in the gym would be thought of as a welcome respite from their classroom activities, but we quickly learned that was not the case. Aside from organizing loose games of pickup hoops, we struggled to implement many organized activities. 

Mr. Jones was unfailingly earnest, however, and seemed less fazed than I was by the dispiriting environment. I couldn’t tell if it was innocence or ingenuity. Yet as “Night at the Museum” began, I watched in awe as the students bought in, relishing the live-wire stillness that the game fostered, and cackling with glee when their buddies were caught moving by a slowly prowling Mr. Jones. It was a powerful moment for me as an educator. Mr. Jones didn’t just roll out the ball cart and punt on the lesson, as I might have suggested we would do. He created a framework that offered a way for students to be present and playful to whatever degree they felt comfortable with. Everyone in the gym was hyper-present for the duration of the game.

I took this lesson to heart. Now, at the school where I am currently PE teacher and mindfulness director, “Night at the Museum” is one of my favorite activities for fostering embodiment. This might run counter to many common conceptions about mindfulness. When I first began teaching in 2008, “mindfulness” was still a word that conjured a degree of mystery for students, and their interest was piqued by the potentially radical act of doing nothing. But as the years have gone by and they have been told time and time again to just sit there and not let their minds wander, a potentially dynamic and enlivening practice has instead become associated with the unshakable air of boredom.

A more equitable and impactful approach may be to stoke wonder and embodiment through playful activity

As I learned that one summer at the nonprofit, the surest way to turn off students, especially those that are frequently told to “sit down” and “pay attention,” is to tell them how they should be. All too often, our public examples of the impossible ideal of blissed-out quietude are white and blond, further alienating anyone who is not, and linking mindfulness in the minds of many with a whitewashed prim-and-proper obedience. As a coauthored piece in Psyche notes, “Within educational contexts, being well-behaved is seen as rational and ‘good,’ while resistance to authority is seen as irrational or ‘bad.’ Since mindfulness encourages young people to be calm, complacent, and attentive, it can promote these moral hierarchies.”

In addition, despite the fact that breathing and paying attention can ostensibly be done by anyone, anywhere, the subtle codes of conduct that reinforce such hierarchies are typically learned at programs or institutions that have an associated cost. Mindfulness programs and access to teachers can be prohibitively expensive for those with lesser means, creating a dynamic in which privileged students might have more familiarity with the expectations and unwritten rules of traditional practice. Neurodiverse learners who might struggle to regulate in settings that prioritize stillness might feel discouraged when a mindfulness lesson demands it.

A more equitable and impactful approach may be to stoke wonder and embodiment through playful activity. Teaching mindfulness through play increases its potential reach and resonance. Over the years, I have used my Rolodex of PE games to find alternative ways to bring mindfulness to life in unexpected ways. 

When I first work with a group of students, I often build a quick word cloud on the whiteboard of their associations with the word mindfulness, with the caveat that there is no wrong answer. Many expected words come up—“calming”; “quiet”; “relaxing”—and inevitably somebody says “boring,” and the students look at me to see if a line was crossed. Instead, I sympathize with this perception, and it can result in an interesting conversation about whether it is OK to feel bored. Nonetheless, the next thing we do is play a game. 

The One-Minute Challenge invites everyone to stand up and, on my signal, to attempt to identify when exactly one minute has passed without counting aloud or looking at a clock. Once you think a minute has passed, you sit down. Regardless of age or demographic, what follows is a minute of tension, giggles, and riveting awareness. I always announce who the winner is—the closest person to one minute—and then ask that person for their strategy. Sometimes they say something subtly wise. Sometimes they say something absurd. I take a few other shares. Regardless of previous perceptions, in the end everyone in the room practiced being present together in an enlivening way, and had a chance to reflect on it.

Mindfulness lessons can be full of such novel ways to invite rapt attention and joy without estranging students. By creating opportunities for embodiment that are playful and purposeful, we are planting the seeds for individuals who are engaged because they want to be, and not because they were told to be. From this more organic introduction to the power of presence deeper lessons may emerge. 

In The Way of Mindful Education, author and therapist Daniel Rechtschaffen writes, “Think of how many times your teachers and parents told you to pay attention as a kid, and then try to remember how many times they actually showed you.” Perhaps we can take this one step further, conceiving of attention not as a tax to be paid that the privileged can more easily afford by virtue of the opportunities they’ve been given but as a frame of mind we can cocreate. I am grateful to Mr. Jones for teaching me that lesson so many years ago, and have been on the lookout for sneaky statues ever since.