Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

The Power of the Pineapple: Helping Kids Learn Self-Regulation

Observing nature can be an effective method for young students to discuss and understand their emotions in a calm learning environment.

September 14, 2023
_laurent / iStock

Educators know how important it is for students to know how to self-regulate. In our school, we call it being “learning ready.” 

Most of the information and tools available for teachers about self-regulation center on strategies like breathing, naming feelings, movement, drawing, or music. All of those are great, and we use them at our school too, but our experiences with Patricia have shown us more. She’s teaching us about the power of passion, positivity, and nature by helping kids learn how to self-regulate. 

The Story of Patricia 

Everyone at my school knows that I’m obsessed with gardening. I’m especially interested in growing food from seeds or propagation, which saves money and is a fun challenge. Many years ago, I learned that you could grow a pineapple plant from the top of a pineapple that you buy from the store, so I had to try it. After 25 years of failure after failure, I was finally successful in growing one and getting it to bloom. I was over the moon excited, so I hauled this huge, awkward, heavy plant to school, so that my fourth-grade students could share in the excitement of watching the pineapple grow. 

My thrilled students welcomed the pineapple plant into our class and named her Patricia. They added caution tape around her (after being jabbed by her sharp, pokey leaves), made name tags for her, and even wrote stories about her. We also invited other classrooms to come in and meet her. She became quite famous.

More interesting, though, is the fact that she had a way of helping kids self-regulate. She cheered people up when they felt sad, calmed them down when they were upset, and was a great conversation starter for kids who didn’t want to talk. Our school counselor often brought students in to visit Patricia, and they always left our classroom feeling happier and more regulated. 

After some reflection, we now realize that the power of the pineapple was not really just about the plant. Patricia helped create an environment filled with passion, positivity, and nature. This type of environment feels really great for everyone. It’s calming for our nervous system, which leads to self-regulation and enhances learning.

The Power of Passion

Teachers who share their passions with kids connect with students on a more personal level, which gives them something to talk about together. As I walk down the halls, kids often smile and ask, “How’s Patricia?” As a result, I’ve formed relationships with many kids outside of my classroom. We know that building trusted relationships helps kids feel more secure and enables them to self-regulate more easily. 

This has also been the case when other adults have shared their passions at our school:

  • A third-grade teacher who loves soccer tracked the World Cup results in real time on the wall in the middle of the hallway.
  • A paraeducator who loves animals gathered pictures of our staff pets and created a bulletin board to share the joy. 

When we share our passions with kids, it’s inspiring. We model all the different ways to enjoy life and the idea that everyone has a gift or strength to share. Exposure to a variety of interests and abilities helps kids find their own passion and develop a stronger sense of self—be more regulated.

Here are some ideas to encourage and celebrate students’ passions:

  • A talent show highlighting skills and hobbies
  • A wall showing pictures of students’ skills and hobbies (artwork, Lego creations, dog training, mountain biking, etc.) 
  • A genius hour during school that allows students to explore or work on their passions 
  • After-school enrichment programs, exposing kids to new ideas and interests (cooking, art, chess, coding, guitar, etc.)

The Power of Positivity

Students often engage in negative self-talk or may feel stuck when dysregulated. Something unusual or intriguing can sometimes help redirect these negative feelings into a more positive direction. Often, when I’ve encountered a student in the hallway who was stuck or shut down, just mentioning Patricia’s name elicits a smile or a giggle. Joy releases endorphins, which immediately help kids to feel better, so that they can self-regulate.

Here are some other ideas that can bring positivity into schools:

  • Fun assemblies
  • Schoolwide art projects or murals
  • Buddy rooms that connect older and younger students 
  • Teaching students how to give and receive authentic compliments

The Power of Nature

There’s something magical about connecting with nature and watching something grow. Because of today’s busyness and persistent screen time, kids are less connected with nature than ever before. Students love watching Patricia grow and change, which somewhat mirrors how they also change and grow.

Studies show the many benefits of exposure to nature for kids—including improvement in mental health, physical health, and even intelligence. If your school doesn’t have easy access to nature, you can still help students experience the magic of nature in many ways:

  • Raise and study the life cycles of various insects or animals (e.g., butterflies, walking sticks, guppies, crabs).
  • Read Pumpkin Jack; grow a pumpkin plant from a pumpkin.
  • Grow an avocado plant from its pit (or any plant from a seed). 
  • Start a school garden, with calming aromatic herbs like lavender, lemon balm, and chamomile, as well as food to harvest and eat.
  • Plant a school tree each year that students can observe over time. Kindergarten classes could adopt a tree and take yearly photos with it as they grow up. 
  • Create a bird feeding and watching station, including binoculars and bird identification books.

To support self-regulation in schools, let’s continue breathing, stretching, listening to music, taking breaks, and creating cozy, calm spaces in our classrooms. We and our students benefit from these experiences. We can also bring more of ourselves to school to encourage regulation through passion, positivity, and nature. What piece of nature could you invite into your classroom or go observe? Share something with students and see where it takes you.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Mindfulness
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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