Most of us have experienced times when an ocean, river rapids, a waterfall or a very cold swimming pool has demanded our attention or inspired awe. Water is indeed a powerful force of nature. However, it’s not commonly thought of as part of the educator’s toolkit (unless perhaps you’re teaching Montessori or marine biology).

This article may change your mind.

Oceans and water in general can be used by educators to benefit student learning both as a mindfulness tool and a boost to brain functioning. The importance of finding ways to incorporate mindfulness and social emotional learning into the educational realm can’t be over emphasized as student mental health, already a top concern pre-pandemic, worsens.

Why water?

Water is tangible.

Water is calming.

Water is universal.

Water is accessible.

Like meditation, attention to water can be used as a focal point to provide a mental break. The physical, tangible nature of water allows it to be experienced by the senses which can help young people who find meditation or mindfulness exercises like breath awareness overly challenging or too ephemeral.

The calming effects of water are well documented. Viewing a body of water, or what’s called blue space has been shown to significantly lower psychological distress. Similar to green space studies, researchers have discovered that viewers of photos including urban landscapes gravitated to those with water features such as fountains.

Being in water is even better. Submerging yourself for a swim or dip in water has scientifically proven neurological benefits such as improved blood flow to the brain and

Water is elemental. Like air, it is universal. While it’s central to many religious practices, it can be claimed by none. While other tools regularly used to help reach a mediational, mindful or introspective state like mantras, chants or even yoga postures may have some distant or not so distant religious affiliation, water is cross-cultural and secular.

Water in some form or another is accessible for most of us. It’s in nature and a part of our daily lives. We use it to take showers or bathe, to wash our hands and to drink. With internet access, you can find a huge selection of digital water sounds and videos online.

What is blue mind and how one student uses it

Here’s how learning to bring attention to water has significantly helped article co-author Ayla reduce stress and stay focused on academics.

In eighth grade, one teacher introduced our class to the concept of red mind and blue mind, developed by marine biologist and researcher Wallace J. Nichols. Red mind is fiery like anger, frustration and short-temperedness. When you’re in a red mind space it’s easy to overreact, feel stressed out and maybe do something you’ll regret. Blue mind, like water, is flowing, cool and refreshing. In class, we did fieldwork near the ocean and learned how to use real water to get into a peaceful blue mind state.

Now as a high school student studying remotely, there are times I want to quit school or I get stressed working on math or biology alone in my room. One way I use blue mind in these moments is to jump in the shower. The feeling of water on my skin is soothing and helps me relax. It gets me refreshed and back on track. I go back to the problems with a more positive mindset. If I’m on a video call or can’t take a break, I drink a tall glass of cold water.

I’m lucky to live near the ocean and go nearly every day to swim, hang out or watch the sunset. It really helps take the edge off, especially now that I’m basically using my phone all day with school and social media.

In a recent Soho House article, Nichols explains how we get overstimulated when there’s a lot of technology and screens or when we are anxious and there’s uncertainty. He adds that while it’s normal for our moods to flit between “blue” and “red” mind and stimulation can be useful when harnessed for good, it can go too far and turn into burnout, breakdown and even mild depression. He calls this “grey” mind, a state best avoided.

How to integrate water?

Beyond coaching students to practice blue mind individually, teachers can integrate whole-class water experiences. In the Blue schools blog, Nichols highlights ideas shared by teachers working on a green schools initiative. These included exposing students to water by bringing a fountain into the classroom, getting kids outside to nearby ponds and creeks, and taking inner city kids on field trips to state parks with lakes. Others talked of connecting water with the curriculum to inspire a consciousness of awe, connection and conservation.

One PE teacher who was already giving canoeing and kayaking instructions said, “After today I plan to build in more time for play and solitude, and to touch the water and splash and to just ‘be present’…without correcting their cross draw stroke!”

Whether you’re a student, an educator or a parent, connecting with water can help you process dire situations as well as everyday frustrations. Nichols urges people to discover their personal way of making that connection. “Find your water. It could be digital, domestic or wild — if you live in NYC, go get next to a fountain.”