When Elizabeth Gach first started teaching yoga at the University Avenue Discovery Center Preschool in Madison, it was an entirely different experience from teaching adults.
“One of the biggest things I learned is that you have to meet the kids where they are at and start your class from there,” said Elizabeth.
Unlike an adult yoga class there is not a specific amount of time for class each day, or a yoga routine that is always carried through as planned. Elizabeth has worked with children ranging from birth to school age, and says that although yoga is scheduled for certain portions of the day, sometimes they do yoga for five minutes, other times it is 35. It depends on the children; their age, their abilities, and what their behavior shows that they can handle that day. That means on a chaotic day when the kids are hyped up she might scrap the lesson she had planned for one that is better for calming them down. If they are in silly mood she might choose one that lets them work out some of their energy in a positive way.
“The ability to regulate themselves is what yoga really gives children,” explained Elizabeth.
This regulation can extend to improved self-expression and social emotional competence, increased physical control of movement and balance, gross and fine motor development, and better listening skills. Elizabeth’s experience has shown her that many children need sensory breaks throughout the day. Yoga provides that, and she has seen how children who have taken yoga consistently over time have more self-control over their movements and emotions. The movement of yoga starts to give them that “beginning language about what their bodies can feel.” Best of all, yoga provides equal benefits to children who speak a different language because, as Elizabeth said, “movement translates into any language.”
Yoga in the classroom not only benefits the children, there are advantages to providers as well. Besides having an easier time with children who are well-balanced and better behaved, Elizabeth said she is always surprised by how much more “centered and calm” she feels on the days she does yoga. She believes that teaching yoga on a regular basis has made her a better teacher, not only because yoga calms her, but because it forces her to pay closer attention to the children in her classroom through observation and listening.
“I think as teachers we have all these tests and scores that we track where there is a right or wrong, but not with yoga,” said Elizabeth. “Yoga is a safe environment; there is no right or wrong way to do it.”
With that in mind, Elizabeth is not only flexible in the time and content of teaching yoga she is flexible in how children choose to participate. She stresses that although she guides her children through specific poses she also honors whatever movement each child seems to need, even if it is not the pose the rest of the class is doing. Her rule is that as long as children are being respectful and safe with their bodies in the movement they choose, and stay in their yoga space—which can be a mat, carpet, etc.—they are free to create their own movement. With these rules in place, Elizabeth has never had to ask a child to leave her class.
Some providers lack the resources to set aside time for yoga each day. For these providers Elizabeth suggests working yoga into your existing schedule. Whether that means moving baby’s and toddler’s legs and arms through poses for a moment on the changing table, taking a chance to stretch with children while waiting in line, or to cue transitions like clean-up time with a yoga pose or song, yoga does not have to be an independent portion of your day if that is not what works for your program. It can be integrated into a hundred little moments throughout your week, to make transitions smoother and bring some healthy movement into your children’s day.
At Elizabeth’s center, meditation precedes naptime because it calms the children and “sets them up for success to get a more restful sleep.” Children who have trouble holding still during quiet time or story time do yoga poses instead. And if a child is having a rough day, Elizabeth suggests they do a calming pose, to quiet their physical restlessness and soothe their emotions.
Yoga can also be a great way to engage parents, such as University Avenue Discovery Center Preschool did in hosting Parent Child Yoga night, where parents came in to practice yoga with their children. Involving parents in this way not only establishes a better relationship between families and your child care program, it extends the benefits of yoga beyond the classroom to children’s home environments.
However you choose to utilize yoga in your program, it can bring countless benefits to a child care program, to parents and providers, and most importantly, to children.
“Yoga is often seen as this thing that rich people do, and it’s not,” Elizabeth emphasized. “It is for everyone.”
Stay tuned for upcoming SFTA posts demonstrating specific yoga poses you can use with your children! Meanwhile, here are some quick tips from Elizabeth for teaching yoga to different age groups, followed by some great resources to help you incorporate yoga into the classroom. Visit the SFTA website for more early childhood resources and information.
For children birth to 5:
- Start out slow. Do a few minutes a day and gauge what they can handle. Some children birth to 2 may only be able to commit to 1 minute a day, others 10. Do what works. Slightly older children, 3 to 5, can probably handle more like 15 to 30 minutes. Again, it depends on the group so try and observe their reactions over time.
- For very small children from birth to early 2, doing yoga one-on-one works best. Even with babies you can gently move their limbs so that they can experience the benefits of yoga. To do this might mean you partner with another group to do yoga, or it might mean sneaking in yoga throughout the day, such as while preparing for naptime, or on the changing table, when you can focus on each child one at a time.
- Use easier poses with your youngest children, or modify more difficult ones into poses they are capable of doing, or that you can help them do. For instance, instead of doing Boat Pose, where your torso and feet are up off of the ground, maybe you would have younger children lie down and lift their arms and legs in the air. For babies you can gently lift and lower their limbs one at a time. For children 3 to 5, you might let them do boat pose, and hold that position for ten seconds. For younger children, you might only hold poses for a few seconds. Tailor it as needed.
- Make the movement fun! Don’t just tell children to reach their arms up, tell them to try and touch the sky. Incorporate sounds, images, songs, and even stories.
Not feeling very creative with your yoga planning yet? Check out these fantastic resources to get you going, including some of the materials Elizabeth uses in her classes.
“Watch Me Do Yoga” Bobby Clennell
“The ABC’s of Yoga for Kids” Teresa Anne Power
“You Are a Lion” Tae-Eun Yoo
* This link to the “You Are a Lion” yoga video can be sent home with parents so they can do this book with their children, which establishes a great school/home connection. The video can be paused at certain poses so the children can practice them.
“From Head to Toe” Eric Carle
* This book is not about yoga, but the movements and rhythm of the book translate well into yoga movement. This is one great example of how you can use books you already have as a part of your yoga routine.
“Yoga Kids” Marsha Wenig
“Sleepy Little Yoga” Rebecca Whitford and Martina Selway
“Itsy Bitsy Yoga” Helen Garabedian (for infants)
“Itsy Bitsy Yoga” Helen Garabedian (for toddlers and preschoolers)
“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see?” Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle
“Así Me Siento…/That’s how I feel…” Rourke Publishing
“Star Pose” Tove Ohlander & Susan Cline Lucey
“Dance for the Sun” Kira Willey
* This CD doesn’t just provide mood music for yoga time, it guides you and the children through different yoga poses. Look for this CD at your local library!