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GuardianWhat can meditation do for your child?
By Joanna Moorhead

If you are one of those parents who insist on getting down on the floor to join in your offspring’s games, take heed: according to the American Psychological Society, which met last week in Miami, gatecrashing on children’s play stifles the very creativity you are probably trying to foster.

Parental involvement turns play into something structured, the researchers found, and the child’s primary concern then becomes pleasing the parent, rather than following their instincts. To foster creativity and imagination, leave the kids alone, the society was told, and give them opportunities to explore their inner feelings without fear.

This message didn’t surprise Christiane Kerr (pictured above with her children), a London teacher who has long believed that too much structure and interference puts a lid on children’s natural creativity. Her answer: meditation for children.

Kerr’s classes always start with a physical activity - a ball game, perhaps – after which the children sit or lie down for a 10 minute mediation. “I help them with ideas about what to focus on and how to do it, and it’s amazing how still and quiet they can become. The other day a class came in full of beans and I thought they’d never settle. But they did a breathing exercise, and then I got them to visualise being in a rocket going into space. They were incredibly silent, and the stories they came back with were really colourful and original: one had seen aliens eating marshmallow sandwiches, another had seen a king and queen in a golden palace. These days there’s so much emphasis on the spoken and the written word that it’s easy to forget that we can use our creativity in other ways too.

Given that most primary school children rarely seem to sit still these days, teaching them to meditate sounds a tall order. Or, looking at it another way, a jolly good idea. After all, we all need a bit of silence in our lives – and if children don’t learn the value of peace and quiet when they’re young, when will they learn it? What’s more meditation is a stress-buster – and with more than half of Britain’s under-11s now suffering from school-related stress, and one in five suffering a stress-related health disorder, it clearly has its work cut out. “Constant activity is very much the norm for our kids,” says Kerr. “They’re always at this class or that class, and there’s so much pressure on them. But almost everything they do is about the external world and there’s very little attention to finding out about yourself, on looking inward for a change.

“Meditation teaches children that it can be useful to be quiet and still sometimes. It can help them to learn to settle down at night and sleep better. It also makes them more self aware, which helps confidence – and it helps boost imagination, too.”

Learning to use breathing to keep calm and relaxed help children to deal with the unforeseen situations life throws at them, Kerr believes.

According to mother of three Helen Kemmitt, who’s son Alex seven and daughter Hannah, five, have both attended Kerr’s classes, even when children are initially reluctant, the can be drawn in and can benefit.

“The other day my son was really upset by some dispute over Pokemon cards, and I said we’d try some meditation. He wasn’t keen so I just went ahead with my daughter. We did one of those exercises where you tense up every part of your body and then relax it bit by bit. After a few minutes, Alex joined in and got really into it. His worries just floated away – it was something specific he could turn his attention to, it really took his mind off it.”

So should we all be signing our children up for meditation classes? According to psychologist Professor David Fontana, co-author of Meditation for Children (element), meditation appeals to some children and not others in the same way it appeals to some adults and not others – but he does think that many more young people could benefit from learning to listen to their inner voice.

“I think the time to introduce it is around the age they start school. There’s no doubt it can increase a child’s attention span and as a result, improve memory. It allows the child to recognise the value of silence and it teaches them to allow their body to relax and their mind to relax.”

But just as important as helping children with the here and now, believes Fontana, is preparing them for the future. Many of the tensions that beset adults, he says, first make their appearance in childhood, so teaching youngsters to deal with stress today could mean creating calmer, more relaxed adults tomorrow.

Given his enthusiasm for the benefits of meditation, it’s not surprising that Fontana would like to see trainee teachers tutored in its use, and schoolchildren taught is benefits: currently just a handful of schools have classroom meditation sessions. But, he advises, meditation isn’t something that has to be left to experts: anyone with any experience of it through yoga or time to read about its benefits, could start to meditate and learn alongside their child or children. Here are his tips:
  1. Never force a child to meditate, or use it to punish a child for disruptive behaviour (or anything else)
  2. Choose your moment: bedtime is often best for a child who finds it hard to settle at night. On the other hand, 75% of adults who meditate prefer to do so in the morning: some children are too irritable for it at night.
  3. Begin by concentrating on simple breathing techniques gradually progressing to visualisation.
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