Teaching Yoga to Preschoolers: What Works Best?

by | May 24, 2015

It was like magic. In a room crowded with more than 100 families, music blaring, pizza and popcorn booths scattered throughout, invariably, the kids would find us at the 50th anniversary celebration of Portland’s Head Start program. Our booth was simple, unadorned, but on our table was a Hoberman sphere.

The kids were drawn to it like a magnet.

We discovered the sphere over 17 years ago, at an asthma workshop for adults. The instructor used it to demonstrate relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing, and we knew it was just the thing to teach kids this important nervous system regulation technique.

Since introducing it to our yoga classes for children – and to thousands of school teachers, counselors, therapists and parents in our college courses – countless others have been just as entranced by it as we were.

breathe_175px_adapt2561One by one, the children came up and wanted to play with it. Without saying a word, a quick demonstration showed how synchronizing breath with the sphere’s movement helps calm kids and adults alike.

 

7 Tips for Teaching Yoga to Preschoolers

The breathing sphere’s magic shows just how responsive preschoolers can be to yoga and related practices – and that young children don’t require those practices to be made speedy or silly or otherwise translated into a kind of cartoonish version of yoga.

But teaching the littlest ones well does require a certain awareness, knowledge and approach. What works best? We put the question to Lynea, who started teaching yoga to preschoolers 35 year ago, as well as a couple of our preschool experts: Minnesota-based Yoga Calm trainer Chrissy Mignogna and certified Yoga Calm instructor Carrie Green, who has taught Head Start for decades. Here are their tips:

  1. Start with yourself. In our view, nervous system regulation is the most important skill young people need. They learn it from us, through what’s called “co-regulation.” That’s why we love teaching Yoga Calm to school teachers. So many of them are already incredibly grounded, calm and mindful. And while tools like sphere breathing technique are good for the kids, they are equally important for us. Over and over again, teachers tell us how just leading a group through two or three breaths helps them to ground, shake off a hectic day and connect with the present moment.
  2. Create routine. Even kids as young as a year or two have the ability to find stillness and breathe deeply. They also respond strongly to routine. The predictability of Yoga Calm practice allows them to slowly master the breathing techniques and poses. Use the same routine each time you are with them and they will rise to the occasion. Recently, Chrissy had a one year old breathing so deeply with the sphere that the class could hear the child’s breaths!
  3. Practice at home. Helping parents deal with their own stress and hold back the flood of stimulation facing their children is no different than what school teachers face. Child development specialist and certified Yoga Calm instructor Sue Jepson-DeResta, LCSW, gives families Yoga Calm activities to practice at home – like a prescription but without the drug! Parents and their kids then practice an activity such as Volcano Breath three times a day, just 7 minutes at a time. Ostensibly, it’s to help the child, but parents benefit, too!
  4. Be flexible. If the kids are struggling with focus or getting too wild, just change what you’re doing. Come in with a class plan, but scrap it of you need to. Instead, let the kids lead you into the poses that will work for them. Chrissy describes a class with a preschooler who cried through the entire lesson, yet the rest of the group was able to allow him his space and still focus on their lesson. Talk about a great example of that day’s lesson theme: Community! By the end, everyone, including the crier, was calm and quiet.
  5. Move to learn. We all need to move more, but nowhere is movement more important than with preschoolers. At this age, children are developing key motor skills and lifelong wellness habits. Just as important is that using their body actually helps children learn. According to Dr. Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, “In order to really engage our students and help them perform at their best we have to move beyond what’s happening in the head.”

    This area of study, called “embodied learning,” is not new to many educators. Maria Montessori highlighted the connection between minds and bodies in her 1936 book The Secret of Childhood: “Movement, or physical activity, is thus an essential factor in intellectual growth, which depends upon the impressions received from outside. Through movement we come in contact with external reality, and it is through these contacts that we eventually acquire even abstract ideas.”

    Increasingly scientists are proving Montessori right. Researchers are studying the body movements of children as young as four-to-six months old and have found earlier and more frequent movement correlates with academic learning down the road. Kids who could sit up, sustain “tummy time” longer and walk were all correlated with future academic success, even when researchers controlled for socioeconomics, family education and type of future education, among other mitigating factors.

  6. Use moving stories. Combining movement with meaning – stories that include social/emotional learning or use symbolic language or animal archetypes – will engage even the most wiggly group of preschoolers. We devoted a whole chapter of Yoga Calm for Children how to use relaxation stories, and in our online Wellness 3 course, Lynea delivers a wonderful lesson called “Archetypes, Myths & Fairy Tales,” which further explores the subject. For an example story, check out “Coyote,” a fun tale that uses yoga poses.
  7. Develop community and social skills. Social/emotional skills – like the ability to identify, express and regulate emotions – are key skills for all ages, but particularly for the little ones. Yoga Calm activities such as having kids take turns leading the sphere breathing, work together in partner activities like Tree Circle, use Volcano Breath to send “heart thoughts” out to those they care about and use Back Drawing to tell stories are all wonderful ways to develop these life skills.

 

barbaraWorking with little ones and keeping up with all that energy can be exhausting, so don’t forget to take care of yourself! We are constantly amazed at the selfless service of preschool teachers, especially those in the Head Start program.

We want to send a special thanks to those at our granddaughter’s Head Start class, teachers like Barbara, pictured here with Lynea when both were honored the Head Start 50th Anniversary celebration. Thank you for all the amazing and important work you do!

 

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