OCEAN TOWNSHIP – Most 10-year-olds spend their recess playing ball, jumping rope or hitting the swings.
But these four township youngsters are using that breaktime to teach stress relief, mental health awareness and calming tactics.
Relax Club, created by a group of fourth graders, has become the hottest lunchtime activity at Ocean Township Elementary School, officials said.
Classmates Riley Olson, Addison Marra, Savannah Passerelle and Kaitlyn Barnes launched the volunteer group in late December and it’s as popular as the newest video game or YouTuber channel.
“I think we offer a different support system,” said Passerelle, who leads the bi-weekly sessions on Fridays after lunch. “I think the kids feel freer working with other kids.”
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Each 30-minute session, held in the school gymnasium, begins with a large opening relaxation session averaging between 35 and 40 students. The club is open to third and fourth graders with parental permission required.
The four student leaders welcome participants with opening stretches and positive messages, then break them into four groups – yoga and meditation, creativity, crafts, and discussions.
“The girls set up the exercises and we give them the tools to do it, but they are driving it,” said Samantha Whelan, a school counselor and one of two staffers who supervise the program. “Covid really brought out a lot of social anxiety in kids, a lot of them have felt the anxiety.”
The students rotate among the groups, giving each activity about seven minutes. They join again at the end for a final group relaxation exercise and return to class.
“We all have anxiety, too,” said Barnes, the daughter of a social worker. “We wanted kids to be able to relate to each other. We can talk with them about things.”
An August 2021 report from the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that before Covid, more than 12% of children 17 or younger experienced “clinically significant generalized anxiety and depressive symptoms.”
It added that since Covid those rates have increased: “Youth are enduring pervasive social isolation and missed milestones, along with school closures, quarantine orders, increased family stress, and decreased peer interactions.”
During a recent Relax Club session, Olson and Passerelle led one group in deep breathing, yoga stretches and meditative exercises, while Barnes gathered others in a circle to discuss their stress and concerns.
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“The kids come to us and want someone to relate,” Barnes explained. “I love helping other kids relate to things and we can relate to them.”
Olson recalled one student who came to her group one day crying about her poor schoolwork. “She had gotten a bad grade on a test and she didn’t know what to do,” Olson said. “We did some talking and it helped her realize she could get through it.”
The Relax Club came about as an entry for the state Science Technology, Learning, Engineering, and Arts, or STEAM, Challenge, which began in December.
The New Jersey School Boards Association’s competition seeks ideas to “reimagine and redesign New Jersey to ensure our state is a sustainable, healthy, equitable, and safe place for everyone to live, work and play.”
The four club creators thought the stress-relief idea was inventive and timely as students began returning to class after the long Covid quarantine to home virtual learning for many.
“We came up with it as an idea for STEAM but we have stuck with it as a club,” said Passerelle. “We talked about it for a while and then we planned it out and it works.”
Each bi-weekly session takes place on Fridays from 12:30 pm to 1 pm for students to engage after lunch.
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“Kids come up to us during school and ask about it, they want to be involved,” said Barnes. “Some teachers are asking if we can do it for them, too.”
Principal Melissa Lopusznick said students choose to miss their lunchtime recess to take part in the club, a sign of its impact: “So many children are starting to cope with emotions and stress at this age and they learn to deal with anxiety.”
The school is already planning for the club to continue in the 2022-2023 school year with new student leadership and the four creators are hoping to replicate it in fifth grade when they move up to Ocean Township Intermediate School.
“They can really do something with this,” said Jessica Olson, Riley’s mother. “The motto of ‘kids helping kids’ is what it’s all about.”
Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years’ experience who covers education and several local communities for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of three books, including Killing Journalism on the state of the news media, and an adjunct media professor at Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Reach him at email@example.com and at 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter at @joestrupp