Zen gardens are amazing. I have witnessed profound concentration and focus from my students of all ages and energy types when used in the peace area of my classrooms. I have one in my home, I have gifted them to close friends with children, and I have never gone without when setting up classrooms for myself or other educators.
The word zen actually means meditation. Despite it being categorized in the west as new age, it’s not. In fact, the concept of zen gardens is over a thousand years old and originates in Japan.
Typically, a zen garden (sometimes called a Japanese rock garden) features an enclosed area of sand or fine gravel, large or small rocks to place throughout, and a rake. There may also be other pieces of nature such as moss or trees, sometimes even a creek.
The sand or gravel is used to represent the ocean, and the rocks and other natural objects are used to create scenes of sea islands. The rake is used to create beautiful, rhythmic waves or ripples in the metaphoric water, while also giving oneself a profound sense of peace and meditation throughout the process of raking – even if just for awhile. I don’t know about you, but I honestly feel a sense of calm just observing these works of art.
I LOVE bringing this concept of active zen to children, especially because the tabletop version is so attractive yet simple…
Children of all ages are oftentimes immediately drawn to this small zen garden even without my having to introduce it. Of course, the lesson must come first. Observation of how to use it and of the respect that it deserves must be viewed by the child before he or she can have their first go. I also like using the zen garden as part of a cultural lesson on Asia and specific countries such as China and Japan.
One of my favorites tabletop zen gardens is from Montessori Services (also known as For Small Hands). The wooden sand tray is a great size for any shelf or table, and it comes with fine white sand, two types of bamboo rakes, small stones, and a neat little booklet of zen meditations. This is the direct link: Japanese Sand Garden.
Here’s how I give the lesson, and I always ensure the child understands that it is a one person work. If another child is waiting to use the zen garden, he or she must wait patiently and quietly.
Objective: to promote a sense of peace while raking sand.
Deeper Objective: to create a sense of peace and meditative contemplation while instilling respect, care of the environment, and cultural awareness.
Before presenting this lesson, pour only half of the provided bag of sand into the tray. This helps to ensure that the sand stays in the tray. Save the rest as a re-fill if needed.
These are the objects provided, minus the ginger and wasabi bowl.
Sometimes I like to place all of my materials on a tray. This also helps to keep any sand from spilling onto the floor – just in case.
Begin by taking a couple slow, big breaths. Sometimes I exagerrate this a little with a child to show emphasis. Then deliberately choose one small stone from your container.
After meaningful consideration, carefully place the stone in the sand.
Give a moment to contemplate your next move. I exagerrate this a bit, too just to show emphasis on contemplation and consideration of stone placement.
Set your stones in a simple manner. You can even try to stack them as an Inuit inuksuk. Here’s a great children’s book on stacking rocks: Make Your Own Inuksuk.
Admire your work… you’re about to use the rake.
I personally prefer the long-handled rake, but you can choose either one. Place the prongs gently in the sand where you’d like to begin your raking. I normally choose to start along the edge, but it depends on what my design is. Be creative.
Gently glide the rake through the sand to the other side. The sand is fine enough to where you barely need to press down on the rake to achieve the lines.
Pick the rake up and start raking from one side to the other. Here’s the trick… once you get to an obstacle such as the stone, you can try to create a flow around the object. I personally love the flow and creating curves.
Continue this process until your raking is complete. Don’t feel like you have to cover all of the sand with raking. You’re allowed to leave blank spots! Admire your work… take big breaths… and remember the feeling of peace while creating your scene.
To start fresh, you can erase your lines after removing the stones. Make sure to brush any remaining sand off of the stones into the tray. Take the flat end of the rake, and slowly run it on top of the lines you created. This flat end will give the sand a smooth appearance.
You can either allow the child to leave his or her zen garden creation until the next person uses it, or the child will need to erase the creation right after he or she is finished. I normally feel out the classroom’s vote on this or make a personal executive decision if needed.
Here is another attempt from a child’s point of view:
I included two small objects as additional options.
She thought the bridge could be a rainbow.
I’ll leave you with these thoughts from the Book of Meditations:
Until next time…