Chilled out by the ways of China

2nd September 2011 at 01:00
A Chinese Mind, Body and Spirit month has brought a new sense of calm to primary pupils in Kirkintilloch, writes Jackie Cosh

It is perhaps a sign of the many differences between Scottish and Chinese culture that a young boy comments to a teacher that he can't do one of the tai chi movements because of the gel in his hair.

But other than this, the group of P1-3 children at Oxgang Primary in Kirkintilloch are taking to the class very well.

It was Chinese Mind, Body and Spirit month at the school when I visited. The idea was inspired by headteacher Lorna Sweeney's recent visit to China. Fifty teachers from Scotland spent 11 days in China as part of Learning and Teaching Scotland's China Bridge for Scottish Schools trip.

There it struck her how calm the children were and how well schools managed to fit daily exercise into the school day. "In China, there is a strong work ethic in schools and high expectations of the children. I noticed that the emphasis was very much on five subjects and that included PE. There is an emphasis on being active and they have to do 30 minutes of exercise every morning," she says.

The month has been full of activities organised with the help of various outside groups. Active Schools helped develop the daily PE slots; Kirkintilloch High aided the school in developing expressive arts lessons linked to China, such as music and ribbon dancing; a Confucius Hub exchange teacher has been teaching the children Chinese crafts; and a Learning and Teaching Scotland (now Education Scotland) Confucius teacher has been teaching eye exercises and calligraphy. Tai chi and martial arts tutors have also taken classes, and the Rice Fields Chinese Cultural Centre took kite-making workshops

Tai chi teacher Linda Taylor notices the difference in the children as the month goes on. "They seem to be getting more relaxed because they are moving and using their muscles and bones," she says. "The teachers tell me that when they return to the class, they are very calm. The kids love it, and after a while I see their focus and concentration improve."

Over in Primary 4, Ms Brady's class is enjoying being taught calligraphy by Gina Fang. Nine-year-old Roisin Jamieson has trouble deciding what she likes best, but in the end decides that calligraphy comes top. She says: "I also liked the Tai Kwan Do, and the Chinese banquet. And the eye exercises were fun."

Miss Brady describes the reception from the children as fantastic, and they have been keen to experience a bit of Chinese culture. "What was amazing was that after two weeks of tai chi, when they did the class yesterday the atmosphere was very calm."

Next on the schedule is some Chinese singing with Primary 3. Ms Fang teaches English in Tianjin in China and is in Scotland for 18 months on secondment. She explains why the Chinese place such an importance on exercise: "In China, the children do morning exercises at 10.30am each day during break time. They do this because it is good for their bodies and helps them relax. They also do eye exercises in the afternoon, where different pressure points are massaged. This is done to protect their eyesight, particularly if they are studying for a long time."

I've missed today's exercises, but eight-year-old Orna Jamieson kindly demonstrates for me. "It helped waken me up," she tells me.

The P3 class already knows the words of the songs, including Happy Birthday in Chinese, and needs no prompting. Ms Fang then puts on a video and the children listen to a well-known Chinese song, which translated means "The Grateful Heart". She tells them about Teachers' Day, a day in September which is a national holiday, when children give flowers to their teachers and show their appreciation. The children learn that in China teachers are highly respected because they teach knowledge and help children do well in the future.

Carole McLay, the P3 teacher, does not voice an opinion on whether she would like a national teachers' day, but she is already appreciating the effects of having a bit of Chinese culture here. She says: "When they did calligraphy you could hear a pin drop, and after the tai chi sessions they have been really calm. The tai chi has helped them get rid of excess energy as well as helping their gross motor skills, while the calligraphy improved their fine motor skills."

Miss Sweeney, meanwhile, is keen that the events of the month continue and has plans to implement some aspects of Chinese culture permanently.

"Long term, we will work with a tai chi tutor to develop morning exercises for 15-20 minutes each day. Tai chi may form part of this or we may have it as a break in the afternoon. We will investigate continuing the eye exercises and perhaps the kite-flying. We want it to be an experiment and not just a tokenistic event," she says.

Tai chi and kite-flying give learners a lift

Headteacher Lorna Sweeney says: "I was so impressed with so many aspects of Chinese culture and the education system. With the push to develop emotional health and well-being already in place in Oxgang, I saw this as an opportunity to add another dimension.

"I didn't go with the intention of looking at this aspect, but it was so much part of Chinese life. When I went running in the morning, the city was just full of people doing activities like tai chi and kite-flying. There was such a sense of calm around what is a busy city.

In China it is quite striking how very calm the children are. They appear very good at centring themselves and calming themselves. I wanted to take this back to Scotland to see if this could calm our children and help them with stress."

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