She sat on the mat in front of my classroom of fourteen preschoolers between three and five years old. She had a pony tail and a collection of fake flowers in front of her yoga mat. The children sat anticipating what was going to happen. The yoga teacher began to speak in a soft, and kind voice about making malas from the flowers. For thirty minutes the children would follow her directions as we moved up and down. I was mesmerized by their excitement, especially when they realized they could tough their toes to the crown of their head if they laid of their tummies and folded into an “O” shape.
For two years after the thought of children doing yoga would make me ecstatic. I wanted to share these magical teachers with every single one of the families I knew. I would promote the classes, and research the benefits. While I personally had a practice, I would have never assumed one day I would take the plunge and become the yoga teacher. I got my certification in 2014 and have incorporated anything I could into every lesson I could think of. I convinced the parents on the preschool board I worked for to let me create a health and wellness program, and at least twice a week the preschoolers would do yoga poses. Sometimes we would lay on the floor in the dark; only the light from the windows and maybe some fake candles and I would take the children on “magical stories” using only their imaginations and the details I offered them and lay in stillness. Since then I have taught over hundreds of children yoga from as young as six weeks old. Children have always taught me more about myself than I believe I have ever taught them in the last fourteen years I’ve taught, but their relationship with mindfulness and yoga has been the most amazing lesson yet.
Why children are made for yoga and mindfulness:
It promotes social emotional skills
A 2015 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology found that children showed greater improvements in social competence and earned higher report card grades in domains of learning, health, and social-emotional development after being lead through a 12-week Kindness Curriculum . Humans are naturally a social group, creating connections with parents and peers from the moment we have the opportunity and carrying these relationship as we age. With the evolution of tablets and computers, it is important to continue to offer children rich opportunities to create kind interactions with one another. Turn taking, sharing, team building and communication are some of the ways to support children’s social-emotional development through yoga.
Have two children stand beside one another. Each child will wrap their arm around the other child’s shoulder. Then tell the children they can lift one foot each off of the mat, and either stand on a tippy toe with the raised foot or bring it to their calf. While in double tree pose the children are using cooperation and communication to ensure neither of the friends fall. It often ends in laughter, knowing they need one another to ensure the other won’t get hurt.
It facilitates self regulation
Self regulation is the action of being able to control our own behaviours and thoughts. This is not an easy task for young children who are still very much in the “me” and “mine” stage (which is age appropriate). A child exercises this skill when they are able to stand in a spot (often on a yoga mat of their own) and follow through with what the teacher is telling them to do. Incorporating intentional movement and the chance to follow directions through gross motor helps children develop their listening skills, turn taking skills, and mastering their bodies movement. Children love being in control of their own bodies and when a child is directed through a sequence of moves with a friend, family member or teacher they strengthen their abilities to self regulate.
Tell your child a story and use yoga moves to act out the story. Tell them you are going to a farm! During your adventure to the farm you see a cow! The cow stands on hands and knees and looks up at the sun thinking about eating grass. He then bends down, curling his back so he can munch on that delicious green grass. Beside the cow is a dog! Lead the children into a down dog pose, hands and feet on the ground, hips up towards the sky. The dog BARKS! (Create barking sounds).
What other animals are on the farm?
It strengthens their gross and fine motor skills
As children move their bodies up and down from position to position, bending their fingers, toes and other body parts to mimic animal shapes, you can see the delight on their faces. Any occupational therapist will explain how important it is for young children to begin working on their gross motor and fine motor activities during play. This includes crossing he midline which is crucial not only to the body but to the brain. Many big movement in children’s bodies such as jumping, crawling and shaking is important to a child’s motor development. And while some motor skills strengthen in children’s development at different times, through activates such a yoga they can begin to enjoy practicing these movements.
“You put your left toe in you take your left toe out, you put your left toe in and you shake it all about. You do the yoga pokey and you turn yourself a bout, that’s what it’s all about!” Enjoy playing some Yoga Hokey Pokey with your children. Switching from the left side to the right side of the body over and over is a great activity for crossing the midline. It also encourages spinning, jumping and dancing.
It helps children learn how to “deal”
A big part of a yoga practice no matter what your age is, is breathing. Yogis refer to it as Pranayama and there are various ways to use your breath to get you excited, calm you down, or help you concentrate. Using breath to help children slow down and concentrate can help children cope with anxiety, fears and feeling overwhelmed. Often when I was teaching in a class setting, if a child had been upset or was angry I would get to their level and begin to breath slowly with them. I would exaggerate my inhalations and exhalations, and more than often they would mimic my breath pattern. This would instantly calm them down and help them focus on the moment verses whatever made them sad or upset. My hope for the children I taught wasn’t to sing their ABC’s or know the difference between a hexagon and an octagon; my hope for the children was that when someone hurt their feelings they didn’t have the urge to hit or cry, but to breath and be present.
When your child is not upset, sit down with them and teach them about the joy of a flower. You could even purchase daisies, pick flowers from outside or use a fake flower. Ask them to smell the flower (if it is fake you could add a small scent such as vanilla lotion). Tell them to bring the smell all the way down to their belly button. Once they are done breathing in tell them to make the pedals dance by blowing on them. Spend time practicing controlling breath by breathing to the count of three or four, and then making the pedals dance for three or four seconds. After playing with the flowers a few times it becomes easier to bring up the memory of how that happened in the event they are upset or angry.
Its just plan old FUN!
In an adult class we are so serious. Body towards the front, keep quiet, lay still. Kids yoga is much different. A toddler or preschool class is organized much differently than an adult class. We sit down, stand up, sit down, stand up. We play yoga games such as “Yogi says” and make animal noises such as gorillas’ at the top of our lungs while we beat our chest. Children learn through play. It is important for yoga to follow a meaningful play philosophy, meaning the child has a choice if they want to try it or not, yoga feels fun and enjoyable and is a risk-free environment where children can experiment and try new ideas. When these rules are facilitated during yoga children can dance, sing, change the goals and plans and create meaningful physical literacy. It’s important for kid’s yoga to be playful, because it brings relationship and meaning behind to the activity. Yoga lead by a parent or teacher would follow an inquiry-based learning, meaning adults set up a question, or activity and then follow the children through the activity.
Pretend we are going on a vacation. Ask your child(ren) where you are going? How you are getting to this destination? What do we need while we’re there? These are all wonderful cues on getting your body into a yoga pose. Packing a suit case? Sit with your legs together and pretend to pack the suit case. Taking a train? Sit in wide legged pose in a row with them. Move your arms like the arm on the train wheels. Taking a plane? Stand on one foot in Warrior one, lifting the back leg off as much as it can be without falling, and raise each arm to the side. Once you’re there are you going to the beach? Get on your tummy, lift your chest and legs and pretend to swim. You kid sees a shark? Roll with it, make up a shark pose. Make up a surf pose. Make up ALL the poses! There is no wrong way to do kids yoga.
Look for a local class, call a private yoga teacher or google some moves to do with your kids. Incorporate yoga into all of your lives. Research shows that active parents help create more active children, and when it comes to kid’s yoga everyone can be active together.