Philly school’s new ‘calming room’ offers yoga mats, drawing, and a ‘brain break’

Students at Tilden Middle School using the new “calming room.” (Dana Bate for WHYY)

Students at Tilden Middle School using the new “calming room.” (Dana Bate for WHYY)

Companies like Google and Facebook famously have rooms on their campuses where employees can relax and recharge their batteries. Now, one Philadelphia school has launched a “calming room” where students can do the same.

The room at Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia may not have Google’s sleeping pods, but it does have numerous tools to soothe students and help them unwind.

Cool blue walls encircle a space filled with stations meant to give middle schoolers a ten- to fifteen-minute “brain break.” There’s an area for yoga, an art station for drawing, and a reading couch with books on meditation and photography. In another corner, plush floor cushions offer students a place to sit and listen to pre-loaded iPods, which offer self-guided meditation tracks and soothing music.

The space is meant for solitary reflection and relaxation. The only place where students are allowed to speak to one another is in the discussion circle, a ring of low-slung seats in the middle of the room.

Tilden Principal Brian Johnson said the room is the answer to a question he and other school leaders have been asking when it comes to wellness.

“What can we do for our staff and our students to maybe have a calming space where they can go and maybe deescalate, maybe do a mediation, maybe just kind of chill out for a bit before kind of getting back into things?” he said. “[The room] is something we’re really excited about.”

Robel Gebresilase, a student at Tilden, said he’s most excited about the free iPods, but he also sees the benefits of having a place to de-stress.

“When the kids are messing with each other, like you could just come up here and talk, say how you were feeling and what happened,” he said. “And people could help you calm down, and you could just listen to music with the headphones.”

The room was funded by a $20,000 grant from Cigna Health Insurance through their Community Ambassador Fellowship program. Peggy Banaszek, a Cigna community ambassador, met with some of Tilden’s teachers and staff, who asked for more programming and tools to help trauma-affected students in this neighborhood where about one-third of the residents live below the poverty line. Banaszek and others then reached out to behavioral health experts, both at Cigna and elsewhere, to design the optimal space.

Mayor Jim Kenney said the room reminded him of his own yoga studio — and, indeed, students will have the opportunity to do yoga about once a month. Kenney said it’s important for students to have a time and place to de-stress.

“If you’re living in a struggling neighborhood, and things are going on around you, and you need a space to kind of decompress, as opposed to allowing that stress to build up and to emanate as some other kind of activity or behavior, it’s really important to be able to come in here,” he said.

The room is the first of its kind in the district, and city officials hope to replicate the space in other schools.

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