Stress can seriously affect a child's imagination and concentration. Meditation could be the answer, reports Carolyn O'Grady
Every week classes of four and five-year-olds at Charter county primary school in Wiltshire sit in a circle, close their eyes and take a journey in their heads. They are led by Diana Grace, a former nursery school teacher, who runs workshops for children and adults using meditative practices.
The children concentrate on their breathing for a short time. Then they are led gently on an inner journey where they explore different scenes, a garden, a river or a valley, for example. At some point they might focus on people they love and who love them.
After the session they discuss what they have been thinking of and use it as a base for classwork. They might, for example, draw or paint insects after a makingjourney to a garden.
Headteacher Stella Paul introduced the "time for reflection" sessions three years ago. "We feel that children are very stressed," she says. "Life is very busy and we have some children who are unable to sit still and concentrate."
Although there has been no scientific evaluation carried out, Stella believes that children attending the sessions are calmer.
"We also had grave concerns about diminishing imagination," she says. "Children are spending less and less time in make-believe worlds of their own and this shows, particularly in their writing. When Diana worked with some older children they did some of their best creative writing."
Initially some parents objected to this meditation, fearing the imposition of a particular philosophy or religion on their children. But the school organised workshops at which Diana explained that the sessions were not attached to any particular belief system or religion, and since then they have been accepted by parents.
"They open the door to the imagination and provide a step towards the inner life," Diana says. "It can also be a way of developing higher values, compassion and caring, for example."
Increasingly, schools are looking for ways to focus children's minds and imaginations, and many are being drawn to some form of meditation. Though usually associated with Eastern religions, meditation doesn't belong exclusively to any one philosophy, and many schools, like Charter county primary, are using it without the trapping of any particular sets of beliefs.
Caroline Mann, a specialist teacher of dyslexic children, is doing a PhD on the role of meditation in education. As part of her study she ran a 10-week project with 12-year-old pupils at a Wiltshire comprehensive school. She combined meditative practices, such as focused breathing, concentration on a word or mantra and guided visualisation. The sessions were 45-50 minutes long and included training in each meditative technique. By the end the children were meditating for about 20 minutes at a time.
Before and after the project, Ms Mann gave the children tests, including IQ tests, and found that most scores improved after the children had meditated. It may have "allowed cognitive processes to function more clearly", she says. She also saw improvements in memory.
"A lot of children are not in a state in which they can learn," says Caroline. "They are coming to school with all sorts of emotional baggage. This is a way of bringing them into the present moment and into a state in which they can absorb information."
Steve Beer, who is a chemistry and biology teacher at Solihull School, a Birmingham independent school for children aged seven to 18, introduces sixth formers to meditation through a voluntary course. He looks at the historical, philosophical and cultural background of different sorts of meditation and some basic techniques. The course also covers the physiology of breathing and the application of meditation to sport.
His approach is down-to-earth. "I don't want them to become obsessive," Steve says. "Students take from the course what they want. Some will use it for relaxation while others will look more deeply into the spiritual elements."
Some students who worry over grades and can't switch off after their studies find they sleep better after meditation, he says.
Four 10-year-olds at Charter county primary are still using some of the techniques they learned from Diana two years ago to help them when they feel anxious and confused. "I like to do it before an exam or test, when I'm worried," says Emily. "It gives me confidence that I can cope."
* The Meditation in Education Network (MIEN) is a group of educationists who have produced an information pack on methods of meditation. It contains Teaching Meditation to Children, a book by David Fontana and Ingrid Slack, published by Element Books; a contact list of people who can offer advice and training and a resources list. It costs pound;9.95 (cheque payable to MIEN) and is available from Meditation Packs, Element Books, the Old School House, The Courtyard, Bell Street, Shaftesbury, Dorset SP7 8BP.
* MIEN can be contacted through Gina Levete, 64 Archery Steps, St George's Fields, Albion Street, London W2 2YF
* Following the breath Meditators focus gently on the natural rhythm of the breath. It helps to calm and focus the mind.
* Connecting to the body The instructor guides the meditator on how to connect with differ-ent parts of the body and then how to be aware of the whole body.
* Walking meditation Total attention is placed in the action of the feet as they move and connect with the ground, harmonising the action of walking with the breath.
* Meditation on a sound or word - mantra meditation Attention is given to a sound or word, which is silently repeated until the mind is focused and quiet.
* Meditation and visualisation Under the guidance of a teacher meditators visualise or imagine things, for example, journeys or the body filled with light, the warmth of the sun or with positive qualities.
* Observing the mind The meditator sits observing the flow of thought passing through the mind without interventionor judgment.