WINDSOR — When Windsor Elementary School students need a break from the stresses of the day, they can come to the welcoming confines of the “Zen Den.”
After they get a pass from their teacher, the students head to a sectioned-off area at the back of a classroom.
A desk at the entrance has small hourglass timers that students flip to start the normal 10-minute allotted time, although they can stay longer under certain circumstances, according to school counselor Stefanie Muller, who created the space.
Once students have entered the Zen Den, which is hidden behind shelving units, students can choose from various activities in divided areas.
For example, the first is a calming area outfitted with posters of different breathing techniques and objects to manipulate like putty, Play Doh and other squishy things.
Next to that is an area with books about feelings and ideas to help students calm down if they are upset. Another area is set up for drawing and coloring. The last area contains Lego blocks and fidget toys combined with a small tent with stuffed animals.
Students also can take a nearby light that projects a night sky-type image into the tent with them.
“It’s just putting normalcy on needing a break,” Muller said. “Having a safe, private spot where kids can come is teaching kids how to take care of themselves.”
The Zen Den provides the tools that she has been talking to students about so they can self-regulate their emotions, said Muller, who knows of two fourth-grade girls who have made their own Zen Dens at home.
The Zen Den is located in the classroom where Muller teaches life skills classes.
“I come here when people are being rude or I’m getting stressed out when something is happening in class,” said fourth-grader Maizie Waerzeggers. “You don’t have any pressure on your shoulders. Nobody is telling you what you need to do at that time. You’re in your own world.”
First-grader Spencer Keller likes the Lego bricks, one of the more popular items. He said he has come in because he is “mad because we have to do things I don’t want to do, like start a new unit in writing” when he preferred another unit and felt better about the situation when he returned to class.
Third-grader Bella Treinen particularly likes the putty, which is popular among other students.
“You just squish it,” Bella said. “If you’re mad you can kind of track how your fingers move in it.”
Muller got her own classroom when Windsor Elementary School was renovated and expanded, which resulted in some currently unused space. The arrangement means Muller no longer goes from classroom to classroom to teach her classes. She also has a much larger space than her former small office where she had an assortment of objects in a bowl for students to handle and laminated sheets with breathing techniques.
The Zen Den complements the rest of Muller’s classroom, which she set up to be a “comfortable, fun spot.” Muller furnished it with some special fuzzy orange lounge-type chairs for students as they learn about topics like personal body safety that they may find uncomfortable.
“I like it a lot,” second-grader Samantha Wheeler said about the classroom. “The chairs are comfortable and it’s bigger than (Muller’s old office).”
While some students said they liked the bright orange color, second-grader Aubrey Taylor said she likes them because they are “fluffy and soft.”
Muller has been tracking the results of the Zen Den by having students note their feelings when they came in and what calming tool they used. Then she has their teacher report on whether the break seemed helpful.
In a typical month of about 20 school days, slightly more than 40 students on average have come into the Zen Den and more than 95 percent of the breaks have been considered “successful,” Muller said
Last Thursday, a girl came to the Zen Den and was crying because a family member had died, Muller said. The student stayed for 10 minutes, using objects like putty and magnets, and then was feeling better so she went back to class.
“It really does work,” Muller said about the Zen Den.