Many thanks to Marcus Clarke for providing this fascinating guest blog post. Marcus regularly blogs at psysci, a psychology and science blog that examines the latest research and explains how findings can impact and improve people’s lives. I've included some of these ideas in my online course, "The Parent's Guide To Surviving Adolescence."
Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese martial art that integrates physical postures, slow body movements, and breathing and awareness exercises in order to train mental clarity and physical calm.
While the pervasive stereotype of Tai Chi is the image of aged Chinese monks practicing yogic poses in brightly coloured robes, recently scientists have done studies demonstrating that Tai Chi has numerous health benefits for all people and can benefit any age group – including children.
Here are five recent studies demonstrating the benefits of Tai Chi for kids:
1. Children Become Able to Benefit from Tai Chi in Secondary School
One would think that a physical activity as advanced as Tai Chi could not be performed at a young age. However, a study of children in grades 7-9 provided support for the idea that even children as young as age 11 can benefit from Tai Chi.
The reason for this is that children of the secondary school age are at a place of cognitive transition, moving from “concrete operational thinking” to “formal operational thinking,” according to the stages of development identified by Jean Piaget. What this means is that children of this age are just developing the ability to understand abstract concepts like the future, and to imagine themselves in a future time.
The development of these new intellectual abilities means that secondary school children are just beginning to experience the internally-generated feelings of stress and anxiety for which Tai Chi can be beneficial. It also means that they have become capable of performing the abstract mental exercises related to Tai Chi, such as studying koans.
2. Tai Chi Can Benefit Children with Severe Learning Disabilities
In many children with special needs, symptoms can include hyperactivity, lack of concentration, difficulty maintaining and focusing attention, as well as muscular tension. It is believed that in many learning disabilities, physical symptoms such as restlessness and heightened arousal co-occur with mental or emotional symptoms such as anxiety and mania.
This co-occurrence of mental and physical symptoms is why Tai Chi might be an effective treatment for children with severe learning disabilities. Tai Chi combines focus on the mind with focus on the body, and can help practitioners discover ways that attending to the body can calm the mind.
While some psychology studies have investigated this connection, more research is required to establish a firm link between Tai Chi and improvements in children with severe learning disabilities.
3. Tai Chi May Improve Attention Deficits Occurring in ADHD
The most common way to combat the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder (ADHD) is pharmacological treatment with drugs such as Ritalin. The prescription and use of Ritalin is a matter of some controversy, however, and alternative methods of treating ADHD are important to investigate.
One study tested healthy adolescents for ADHD indicators before, during and after a 15-week introductory Tai Chi course. Results demonstrated that the students who had been performing Tai Chi during the 15 weeks reported improved abilities to pay attention relative to the students who had not been doing Tai Chi.
4. The Vestibular Sensations of Tai Chi May Decrease Nightmares
Children can sometimes be affected by recurring night terrors or nightmares. In many of these dreams, a vestibular (balance-oriented) sensation occurs, such as a feeling of falling.
Tai Chi involves a large component of balance training, and so it is very intriguing to consider the possibility that there might be a connection between Tai Chi and vestibular sensations in dreams. One study showed that a population of college-age women who did Tai Chi reported decreased nightmares compared to a similar population who did stretching exercises that did not contain vestibular stimulation.
5. Children Hoping to Benefit from Tai Chi Must Do It Often
While several studies demonstrate that children may benefit from performing Tai Chi, it is important to note that these benefits do not come about without consistent effort.
A study done on secondary school students (with an average age of 13 years old) did not find that Tai Chi had any significant benefits on levels of stress or anxiety, despite the Tai Chi sessions being well-attended. The authors of the study conjectured that this was because students only performed Tai Chi once a week for 10 weeks, and results might not have shown until later.
Tai Chi can definitely improve longevity, but that doesn’t mean it should only be performed by elderly people. With sustained effort and the right attitude, the practice of Tai Chi holds benefits for all, including children.