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Denver Kids Learn Mindfulness Early

A new program teaches elementary schoolers how to breathe deeply and be present.

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It’s 12:40 p.m., and the 25 or so first-graders in Mrs. Durgin’s class at Creativity Challenge Community (C3), a public elementary school in Cory-Merrill, have gathered in a circle. No, this isn’t show-and-tell, at least not in the traditional sense. They’re ready to start their mindfulness class: 15 minutes every other Tuesday of belly breathing, contemplation, and discussion on a rotating topic. Today, in honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, they’re sharing what they’re grateful for.

“I’m grateful for my family. We help each other,” says Abigail, a brunette girl with bangs. “I’m grateful for my sister, Isabelle. I read to Isabelle. I’m grateful for my friends. I play with them.” She points to a picture she’s drawn, of a large green house with stick figures scattered around it.

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Abigail gets a big smile from Melissa Kaufmann, the only adult in the circle. Kaufmann is the brainchild behind this mindful curriculum, which launched a few weeks ago at C3 after being tested as a pilot program last year. A Denver native, Kaufmann used to work in international business but decided the industry was too fast-paced and turned to yoga and mindfulness training to reconnect with herself. Two and a half years ago, she began teaching others to do the same: She now offers mindfulness consulting everywhere from schools like C3, which is funding its program through a $2,000 grant and a $4,500 parent contribution, to tech start-ups eager to give their employees that distinctly Coloradan sense of work-life balance. “It deals with the human senses, emotions, and thoughts—it’s what makes us human,” Kaufmann says later, of mindfulness. “In a world where we’re always on our phones, where we’re constantly being beeped at, we’ve lost that natural innateness to stop and smell the roses, to look at something beautiful and appreciate it.”

Mindfulness education can be found far beyond Denver and Boulder. The staff at major corporations like Google and Nike receives mindfulness training as a work benefit. In September, Time released a special issue focused exclusively on the wide-ranging topic. Mindful Schools, a California-based nonprofit that advocates for a mindful curriculum, found that 89 percent of students who were taught in such a manner were better at regulating their emotions, an effect C3 assistant principal Brent Applebaum has seen in his 300 students as well. (Post-election, that seems like a useful skill for adults, too.)

Of course, mindfulness is an easier concept to grasp in theory than in practice—especially for energetic elementary-schoolers. At C3, there are some kids who refuse to “put their mindful bodies on,” as in closing their eyes and sitting up straight with their legs criss-cross, yogi-sauce (you’ve got to admit that it makes more sense than criss-cross applesauce). Some of them aren’t just squirmy. They’re young enough that they don’t like to shut their eyes; that signals bedtime or worse, an inability to see and make sense of what’s going on around them. But Kaufmann tries to make the experience short (30 to 45 seconds of silent-sitting at a time) and entertaining: The kindergarteners get to put on “mindful bodysuits,” including magic chapstick that helps them stay quiet. The fifth graders, on the other hand, delve into slightly more complex discussions—why they appreciate the feeling of soft fabric versus their dog, for instance.

In the future, Kaufmann hopes to expand her mindfulness program to more schools (she currently offers a variation at Steele Street Preschool as well) but also work more directly with the families in the community. “When I first started this, people didn’t know the word ‘mindfulness,'” she says. “They were asking for the definition. Now, they have a general understanding of how it can benefit their kids, how it’s relevant to all ages.”

Follow assistant editor Mary Clare Fischer on Twitter at @mc_fischer.

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Mary Clare Fischer, Assistant Editor

Mary Clare Fischer co-edits 5280’s Compass, Adventure, and Culture sections; writes for multiple sections of the magazine; and blogs weekly about health and wellness for 5280.com.

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