When God made the world, he crafted light, seas, land, vegetation, sun, moon, stars, and animals (Genesis 1). He also crafted humans, blending us into the environment of this carefully balanced, “very good” natural world. This means that we are part of creation, and if we care about all of creation, we must care for ourselves. Self-care is part of creation care.
[I]f we care about all of creation, we must care for ourselves. Self-care is part of creation care.
Caring for ourselves does not always come easily. As infants and young children, we are quick to let our physical and emotional needs be known, but it gets harder as we grow older. Our responsibility to care for the physical and emotional needs of those around us increases, and we become more cognizant of the moral restraints that keep us from being driven mindlessly by our appetites. Unfortunately, in the midst of this maturing process, we often lose touch with the innate self-monitoring mechanisms that God created to help us know when we are hungry, tired, or sad. We forget to practice the adjustments that support our wellbeing. In the same way that we fail to notice the impact of our thoughtless actions on our planet’s wellbeing (pollution, resource depletion, and climate change), we also stop noticing the impact of our thoughtless actions on our personal wellbeing (exhaustion, relational strain, and neglect of physical health).
Educators (along with parents and other adults) have a unique opportunity to teach children how to stay in touch with their divinely-created mechanisms for self-monitoring and self-care. Our words and examples contribute to each student’s ability to see themselves as a beautiful creation of God, worthy of care. As you teach about the importance of caring for our shared environmental landscape of plants, water, air, and animals, you can help students include themselves in the narrative of creation care so they can learn to honor their own bodies and minds in the way that God calls us to honor all that he has made. Here are some ideas about where to start.
[Y]ou can help students include themselves in the narrative of creation care so they can learn to honor their own bodies and minds in the way that God calls us to honor all that he has made.
Good assessment (whether formal or informal) forms the foundation of any effective intervention, and so it is with self-care. Students will only be successful in caring for themselves if they notice when and how they need care. Fortunately, God provides a plethora of messages through our bodies, thoughts, and emotions that provide this type of information, and we can use that data to make adjustments if we notice the messages. Noticing, however, can be surprisingly challenging.
[M]indfulness exercises can also include awareness of God’s presence moment to moment, a practice consistent with the spiritual discipline of centering prayer.
Students can practice noticing their experience through guided mindfulness exercises in the classroom, during which they are invited to get quiet and pay curious attention to their present-moment experience. Mindfulness exercises in the school context typically include noticing physical sensations (such as contact with surfaces, breathing, temperature, or smells), thoughts (such as memories, expectations for the future, and judgments), and emotions (such as excitement, sadness, anger, or fear). Within a Christian school context, mindfulness exercises can also include awareness of God’s presence moment to moment, a practice consistent with the spiritual discipline of centering prayer. Many free mindfulness guides are available online for educators to use in the classroom.
Another approach to self-awareness in an educational context is to guide students in structured conversations or written check-ins about what they notice in their present-moment experience, using the same categories of physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions described above. Scaling questions or visual aids often provide helpful frameworks for increasing awareness. For example, young children can be provided with a drawing of three empty thermometers that signify how they feel in their body, mind, and heart, with encouragement to color up to their level of wellness in each area. Older children can be provided with scaling questions, noting their sense of wellness in each area on a scale of one to ten. Then in pairs, small groups, or large class discussion, further exploration can occur to indicate what specific observations contributed to these assessments. Reflecting back to students (without interpretation or analysis) supports them in non-judgmental observation that sets the stage for working skillfully with any difficult experiences.
Describing these awareness-building exercises as part of creation care provides a framework for students to value self-care while also strengthening their sense of belonging with the rest of creation. They can learn that just as we honor other parts of God’s “very good” creation with attentiveness and wonder, we can also honor ourselves with that same type of attention. Caring for creation means pausing to pay attention with awe to created things like mountains, oceans, forests, and also ourselves.
They can learn that just as we honor other parts of God’s “very good” creation with attentiveness and wonder, we can also honor ourselves with that same type of attention.
Nurturing Our Bodies
It is commonly observed by mental health professionals that many emotional challenges among high school and college students could be significantly reduced through the practice of healthier sleeping and eating habits. Unfortunately, by the time adolescence rolls around, many students are out of touch with the body-brain connection. This is a lost opportunity for creation care.
Creation requires upkeep and nurturing, with God’s creative design inviting ongoing human partnership, and our own bodies are no exception. We can teach students to notice the impact of their behaviors on the environment, including on themselves. In age appropriate ways, this can include basic education and student-led research about the role of sleep hygiene (such as conditions for good sleep, consistent bedtimes, and duration of sleep), intentional eating (such as fueling throughout the day, incorporating unprocessed foods, and celebrating a variety of flavors), and movement (such as exercising for pleasure, releasing tension through stretching, and participating in sports) in human flourishing.
Caring for our bodies may seem obvious, as we hear from the apostle Paul: “No one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body” (Eph. 5:29–30). Our natural instinct is to care for our bodies (as Christ does the church)—to feed and care for ourselves. But losing touch with this natural instinct is not uncommon in a modern world that seems increasingly cerebral and critical of our bodies’ natural features and needs. Poor body image and poor self-regulation are both rampant in an age of smartphone saturation, as we are all bombarded by a stream of idealized human images and demands for our attention. Our children need training in getting out of their heads so they can care for their own physical needs and celebrate their bodies as created by God. These patterns set them up for effective self-care moving forward into adulthood.
Irene Kraegel, PsyD, is Director of the Center for Counseling and Wellness at Calvin University. She writes and speaks about the integration of mindfulness and Christian faith (www.TheMindfulChristian.com) from her home in Grand Rapids, MI, where she lives with her husband and son.