WITHIN three minutes of returning from their morning recess, Scott Chudley has his class of Grades 3, 4 and 5 students mostly quiet, with their eyes closed, envisioning life on a sandy stretch far away.
“I want you to imagine you’re standing on a beach,” he says.
“Try to be in the present. We’re not going to be in the past. We’re going to let what happened in recess, fun or not fun, just slip out of our memories.”
Chudley tells the students to focus on their breathing — “In through your nose, out through your mouth, feeling your body relax every time you take a breath”— and they cool down considerably.
The meditation techniques being used at Ralph Brown School in the St. John’s neighbourhood are part of a pilot project in 18 classrooms at seven Winnipeg schools, which started last fall.
Thrival Kits are being introduced by the Manitoba children’s advocate and the Canadian Mental Health Association as road maps to mindfulness, aimed at eight- to 12-year-olds.
It’s the first project of its kind in Canada, said Ainsley Krone, acting deputy children’s advocate. The kits are part of the second phase of a multi-year study the children’s advocate is doing into the causes of youth deaths by suicide in Manitoba.
In the past seven years, 99 youth died by suicide in the province.
The preteen years, Krone found, are an important time for positive intervention and doing so in an area where children are already comfortable — like school — can have long-term benefits.
“There’s a lot of solid evidence that mindfulness practices in the long term increase healthy outcomes for young adults, decrease self-harm, suicidation, as well as increase the academic outcomes for sure,” said Terra Johnston of the association’s Manitoba and Winnipeg chapters.
Catherine Siller, a Grade 5 teacher at Champlain School, is hoping her students will take the Thrival Kit lessons with them beyond the classroom.
“This isn’t just a school practice, this is a life practice,” she said in a recent interview.
Each of her students has a dedicated shoebox-sized activity kit, filled with a journal, copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, breathing exercise cards and more mindfulness prompts. Yoga mats were also donated to her classroom.
Siller worried the students wouldn’t buy into the notion of mindfulness and was surprised to find the contrary. “I wasn’t sure on how the meditation would go, just because of the silliness sometimes. You know, kids are kids,” she said.
“When we started the meditation, it blew my mind.”
Two boys in her class began crying after the first round of meditation because they were so moved, Siller said.
Her students also love to journal, curling up in classroom nooks and crannies to have a private space to write their thoughts, without being judged on spelling or grammar.
“Everybody participates — I don’t have any kids who resist. So it really is one of those times in the day where we’re really (working) as a community,” she said.
At Ralph Brown, the students moved from meditating to working on an exercise that’s about superheroes — at the surface level. Self reflection is at the heart of the matter.
Each student is asked to jot down some of their favourite characteristics about themselves and then create a superhero based on their own strengths. What would their super powers be? What is their mission?
Kate-Lyn, a Grade 5 student, wants her hero to shoot slime. Jonathan, in Grade 3, was dreaming up someone who speedskates like he does.
“My superhero, he’s a male. He’s a human and his powers are teleportation and he shoots fireballs,” said Justice, a Grade 3 student.
Once the exercise is over, Chudley plans to get the superheroes created by students placed on trading cards the children can swap.
Siller is planning to do the superhero demo with her class next. The children are always begging for more time to meditate and sprawl out on their yoga mats, she said.
“I do have students that have some pretty big trauma going on (in their lives) and it’s really important for them to understand that it’s like taking care of a cold. It’s the same thing and even sometimes more important,” Siller said.
“Because if your mind’s not healthy, it can really have an effect on the whole body.”
This article appeared in the March 1st edition of the Winnipeg Free Press
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