Driving along State Road in West Tisbury, one might not notice a new addition to the landscape, but peer closely and you will be rewarded. On the grounds of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, a 4,000-year-old tradition has found its way into the modern lives of students and teachers.
Lined with granite bricks, a seven-circuit labyrinth now rests comfortably amid the usual playground equipment: swingsets and a basketball court, the baseball field and a four-square area. The labyrinth was constructed in December of 2011 and came about as a result of the efforts of learning facilitator Meredith Dillon.
After a meeting in early 2011 with other learning facilitators, Ms. Dillon began thinking about the role of mindfulness in education, particularly for students with attention challenges. She started with techniques such as calligraphy and Chinese brush strokes, activities with repetitive motions that help to create a kind of meditation and muscle memory. The idea was that this type of mental reserve could then be applied to academic work. This led her to consider the benefits of walking meditation, which brought her to the labyrinth idea.
She proposed the idea to the Charter School’s development director, Paul Karasik.
“Everyone embraced it . . . it was what we were looking for without knowing it,” Mr. Karasik remembered. As the school had been thinking about an alternative to the typical playground experiences, it was a perfect fit, allowing a flexibility of play — both individual and collaborative. Ms. Dillon then enlisted the help of Justin Ahren, who had built a labyrinth at Featherstone Center for the Arts. She also applied for one of the $400 mini-grants that the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank was awarding to educators (which she received).
The style is that of a seven-circuit Cretan labyrinth, which means there are seven concentric circles emanating from the central structure or seed pattern. This size has been shown to be the ideal length for the attention spans of elementary school children — it takes about seven minutes to walk in and back. Although the labyrinth has an ancient history worldwide (including, most famously, in the Chartres Cathedral in France), it is only recently that its benefits are being measured scientifically, particularly with regard to children in educational settings.
Walking a labyrinth creates a calming, centering effect, as it “messes with your time perception,” said Mr. Karasik. Its configuration helps a walker to surrender the more linear left-brain thinking and connect with the right brain, accessing the more creative and imaginative side, both for problem-solving and artistic endeavors. It also helps the walker to slow down and focus, plain and simple.
“Children are so bombarded by media and connected to their gadgets, which can be toxic to their limbic system [which manages emotion and behavior, among other things],” Ms. Dillon said.
Although Ms. Dillon hopes to develop more curriculum-based integration possibilities for the next school year, the labyrinth has already found its way to those who need it. It has been used by several teachers, including physical education teacher Tim Penicaud for soccer agility, among other practices, and by kindergarten teacher Lori DiGiacomo for behavior issues. One of her young students attests to feeling calmer after having walked the labyrinth.
“It’s a good way to calm you down if you have any worries,” said Carlos Mullen, the labyrinth’s steward.
Some students use the time before school starts or at recess either to think or just play.
“There’s no wrong way to use it,” Ms. Dillon said.
Tomorrow, June 23, at 9:30 a.m., the Charter School will be dedicating the labyrinth to Juliett Burkett, a 2007 graduate of the school. In September of 2011, Ms. Burkett died in a car accident while driving cross-country.
Mr. Karasik noted that having a living, interactive memorial to her, rather than a static one, is indeed fitting.
“The eternal quality of the labyrinth will keep her spirit alive here,” he said.
Ms. Burkett’s father, Joe, agreed. “She loved labyrinths . . . she’s walked through many. It fits her mystical side,” he said. “Her most amazing trait was her ability and commitment to make other people happy,” he added. “She was all about happiness, for others and herself.”
What follows is a poem written by Ms. Burkett.