The Art of Paying Attention

“What we call chaos is just patterns we haven’t recognized. What we call random are just patterns we can’t decipher.” ~Chuck Palahniuk

Paying attention is the first step to intellectual development. It is what all of our outdoor school days have as their foundation. Paying attention is not about listening to a teacher and following rules, but for us, it is about a conscious awareness of being in and of nature, and how that is experienced in each child and the adults that guide them.

Our last nature school day for the academic year took place at Beck Lake Park. I wanted the kids to experience the Braille Trail in Cody, WY. Being in nature should be a time of play and discovery, and as nature guides, it is our mission to pay attention when this time of play and discovery is interrupted.

I know for me as their guide that I learn much more through the art of paying attention to and from them.

I chose the Beck Lake Braille Trail today to remind the children that we can see with our senses just as those with challenges of sight allow their other senses to “see” nature.

The Braille Trail was one of my first nature walks with my family when we moved to town. It’s accessibility with a smooth concrete path, and trail markers allow anyone to experience nature. There are bathrooms, and shelter from the sun.

NaturehikeWe began our nature experience with an exercise I call Soundscapes.

Soundscapes are the process of paying attention to your sense of hearing. I brought quilts for the children to sit or lay on so that they could drop into their hearing sense. As they lay back and close their eyes, I give them gentle prompts.

  • What do you hear above your head?
  • What do you hear below your feet?
  • What do you feel on the ground?
  • What do you sense in temperature and movement above you and below you?

The last question is asking the children to feel for vibrations and the wind. We have already explored how animals communicate in a previous outing, and how animals or humans can experience the vibrations. This dropping into the senses of feeling and hearing are the basis for the Soundscape exercise.

We could take this soundscape further, and ask the children to draw the sounds on a map, but that would wait for another day.

After we experience the sounds, we ask the children what they know about Braille. A discussion that leads to a curiosity of reading by touch takes off. That is our cue to begin our walk through the Braille Trail. I do recommend smaller groups for sensory walks and hikes. Ideally, 3-4 children max per adult is best. Smaller groups are better because you can stop and pay attention to everything around you. Wagons are great for any tired little ones on the trail.

Before we started down the trail, I talked to the children about patterns in nature. I asked them to notice patterns in the bark of trees, rocks, leaves, and anything else they could see. I also reminded them of their felt senses, and we talked about the patterns of the wind at different points on the trail.

The children discovered a small snake in the grass just off the trail. I reminded them to observe, but not intrude on the snake’s sense of space. The lessons of the language of senses in nature are always within reach.

As we completed the trail, we returned to the tables, and we broke up into groups. One group began work on a Zentangle. I reminded the children of the patterns they saw and showed them how to create their coloring patterns. This is an enjoyable activity with many therapeutic benefits including self-regulation and paying attention.


Some of the children got up from the table to explore the nearby nature and then began drawing their repetitive patterns. A Zentangle is a type of doodle created by filling in sections of an image or shape with designs. We chose our models in nature.

As children learn to self-regulate, they often need to find a way to escape their circling thoughts or actions. A Zentangle station can be a place of refuge for a child and only requires some paper and pens. Keeping a tote bag with pens and paper in the car is a great on-the-go tool.

Our other group began a project of paying attention through touch. If you have mixed ages with you, have your older children gather 3-4 similar objects, such as twigs, rocks, or leaves.

Mark one of the objects in each group with a marker, and then have each child get to know the object. As they explore the objects, let them know that they will be asked to identify the one that is marked without seeing it. This activity was great fun and a challenge for many of the kids. The art of paying attention was taking hold, for them and for the adults with them.

The last exercise was a gloved experience, and the children that were attracted to do this activity took part. Now that the children have experienced their heightened sense of touch, they were asked to put on a pair of garden gloves. Touching nature through a glove creates a barrier between you and your senses. Not unlike, not being able to see the forest or the trees.

We had a beautiful afternoon filled with tree climbing and some lawn games. The key to any outdoor school time is to allow the kids to explore with their senses and redirect them when their stronger senses might lead them away from the group. Doing this as a family is one of the most rewarding ways to pay attention to your children. We learn so much by following their lead, challenging them, and helping them expand what they have learned through their senses.

Children all have unique abilities, and it is up to us to see the patterns in the chaos and guide them as they grow.


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