OREGON, Wis. - Friday afternoon, before starting their weekends, a group of girls takes an extra hour in school for the Mindful Kids Club.
Like every week, Kelly Petrie starts with a game. This time, the players hop, skip and run down the big steps of the Prairie View theater room before writing something they're thankful for on a clipboard at the bottom.
"We can't really expect children to sit necessarily for long periods of time," Petrie said.
The next step Petrie takes the group through is a practice, using more light-hearted terms like "balloon arms" or "tick tock like a clock" to disguise techniques of getting the kids focused and centered.
"We want the kids to feel as though mindfulness is fun because if it's not fun, they're not going to want to do it, they're not going to want to join a club or a class," Petrie said.
Petrie eventually takes the group outside and said she's trying to incorporate more nature into the program when she can. In the end, the independent contemplative educator is all about children approaching mindfulness with kindness.
"I really want kids to discover for themselves the benefits of mindfulness rather than really offering expectations of what they should feel or what they shouldn't feel, but really allowing for whatever they observe to be OK," Petrie said. "Because if they're tuning in to their experience that way and they're able to observe something, then they're practicing."
All of the participants in this first-time club have gone through mindfulness courses before, allowing them to dive right into the practices.
"I think overall, what I notice to some degree is that kids are just having a greater sense of agency over their thoughts, their feelings and even their actions," Petrie said.
Instead of totally tuning out, the goal is to check in and notice what's going on in their bodies and minds. The concept of mindfulness can look very different the younger the person is, but experts say it's beneficial to start the practices early.
Lisa Thomas Prince leads a middle school mindfulness class at the UW Health Mindfulness Program, and her colleague, Heather Sorenson, leads a similar group for teenagers. Like the Oregon-based club, their approach is less about sitting and meditating for long periods of time and more about using the practices in small moments throughout their lives.
"It doesn't have to be major crises or life events," Thomas Prince said. "It's how do we work with these challenges that we have every day?"
In such a fast-paced world where kids have packed schedules, Sorenson said being mindful isn't really welcome in our culture. That said, teaching kids to be kind to themselves and recognize emotions makes a difference.
According to Thomas Prince, there's even research going on in Madison on the topic of mindfulness and children. She said prior research proves kids who can tap into their thoughts and feelings and "check in" can better focus their attention, lower their anxiety and maintain good physical health. In addition, adolescents who have participated in the Center for Healthy Minds courses have had an easier time sleeping and navigating social situations.
"Just having more compassion for themselves in the situation that they're in," Sorenson said.
"The more we can provide kids with skills that help them build resiliency for whatever challenges could be coming their way, I think, the better," Thomas Prince said.
If your child is engaging in mindfulness practices or is at least curious about pursuing a practice, Thomas Prince and Sorenson said parents need to take the judgment out of it and recognize it might not look quiet, still or obvious.
"Let them have their own experience with it and not turn it into, like, piano practice, like one more thing, go do your mindfulness," Sorenson said. "Because you can't force someone to practice mindfulness or that backfires."
"It's sort of like a subtle shift, but I think one that kids really appreciate," Thomas Prince said.
The instructors also suggest parents take up their own mindfulness practice to support their kids.
For more information on mindfulness courses at the Center for Healthy Minds, click here.
For more information on Petrie's classes, click here.
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