Today’s fast-paced, digital world pressures children to grow up fast. Instead of running around grassy playgrounds, most of them live highly structured lives, shuttling from one organized activity to the next, often while playing with hyper-stimulating devices. For school-age children, homework, peer pressure, teasing, poor grades, bullying, parental demands and isolation can all trigger stress (White
2012). Kids need coping skills, and mind-body practices that teach awareness and mindful movement can reduce stress, offer playful opportunities for growth and learning, and provide a foundation for a healthy life.
Kids Today: Plugged In and Nowhere to Go
For children nowadays, academic, peer and family pressures are intensified by the increasingly young age of media consumption—a source of entertainment, but one that is distracting and often isolating and inactive. According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, 8- to 11-year-olds spend an average of 8 hours per day exposed to TV, music, computers, video games, print media and/or movies (Kaiser 2010).
Use of mobile devices—handheld game players, cellphones, computers, tablets, MP3 players and iPods—is increasing, especially among younger audiences. In the U.K., for example, tab- let usage among youth tripled in 2013 from 2012; by 2014, 1 in 3 children possessed a tablet, and an astonishing 11% of 3- and 4-year-olds had their own tab- let (Lomas 2013, 2014). Many children are numbed by constant entertainment, face relentless distractions and don’t have enough opportunities for physical play as an outlet.
These conditions impact physical and mental health. In America, 5% of children aged 4–17 have serious difficulties with emotions, concentration, behavior or getting along with other people; 27% of children need some form of mental health care or counseling, according to parents; and approximately 1 in 5 children aged 6–17 is considered obese (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics 2014; National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs 2010).
Mind-Body for Children: Timely Tools
“Kids’ fitness is certainly a hot topic,” says Lindsay Merrithew, president and CEO of Merrithew Health & Fitness™, based in Toronto. “We’ve seen growing interest in mindful modalities—such as Pilates—for kids, for many of the same benefits they provide adults.”
Both The New York Times and ABC News have reported on the growth trend
of kids’ yoga classes serving children as young as toddlers (Rueb 2011; Shaw 2013). “Kids are struggling with how to self-regulate, manage their emotions and get along with others,” says Lisa Flynn, founder of ChildLight Yoga® and Yoga 4 Classrooms® and author of Yoga for Children, who is based in Dover, New Hampshire. “Teaching children mindful movement, like yoga, and mindfulness techniques, such as breathing, concentration and other sense-awareness exercises, not only creates healthy exercise habits for life, but also strengthens the mind-body connection for improved self-awareness and coping skills.”
“Learning mindfulness tools when young and continuing the practice throughout all schooling will likely lead to happier and healthier children, because they will learn how to ride through difficulties with greater ease,” suggests Susan Smalley, PhD, professor emeritus and founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, University of California, Los Angeles. “Mindfulness practice builds a skill to be present with experience—whether difficult or pleasant. The immediate benefit [for children] may be an increased ability to calm down, but long-term benefits may be in interpersonal relationships in adulthood. There are no longitudinal studies available to look at these factors.”
Children are mature enough to benefit from practicing these techniques. According to neuroscience and developmental science, the sense of self emerges during toddler years, and even young children can learn how to improve attention, emotional control and concentration (MLERN 2012). Interestingly, epigenetic science reveals that significant childhood stress has been linked to alterations in gene expression that affect emotion regulation (MLERN 2012). Mind-body practices for children that reduce stress can therefore provide a foundation for healthy living and reduce the risk of developing cognitive deficits, sleep disturbance, anxiety-related disorders or depression later in life (MLERN 2012).
Starting Classes for Children
Children-specific mind-body programming can be offered in studios or health clubs or delivered at schools. It will provide much-needed benefits for local kids and may also add a revenue stream, raise a facility’s profile, increase goodwill and fill what could otherwise be downtime in the midafternoon.
Before starting a class, it’s best to research the potential market, advises Merrithew. “Then, build interest . . . by building on existing programs that could provide a kids clientele, like pre/postnatal programs, as a natural fit and extension.”
Many practitioners have found that creating mindful yoga programs for schools is the most effffective way to reach a group of children. “School is where they are most of the day,” says Flynn, “and you can also get adults [who are] around onboard.” ThThese programs can benefifit teachers, as well as students (Tilahun & Vezzuto 2014). Other options include offering after-school programs in school facilities, or adding midafternoon kids’ programs at a studio or other location and letting local schools and teachers know.
Stephanie Adams, E-RYT 500, owner of Flow Yoga Studio and Jaya Yoga RYS, in Hood River, Oregon, has been teaching kids’ yoga classes for more than 15 years. She developed her program by offering a combination of both school and studio classes. “I started volunteering in a local elementary school. Next, I talked to the principal about offering an afterschool program. This was a paid program, but I offered scholarships as well—12 kids, and two of those were on scholarships. I then offered two additional days at my home studio, privately. This was a great way to build a program.”
Successful Programs Are Playful and Integrative
Program providers emphasize that children are a unique population, and mindful-movement programs must be adapted. “Kids are not mini-adults,” cautions Magdalena Oledzka, a pediatric physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery, in New York City, who teaches children with musculoskeletal problems and with special conditions like autism and cerebral palsy. “A basic understanding of children’s development . . . will guide a teacher in setting realistic expectations. Taking a special course in teaching yoga for children should be a requirement.”
“You have to meet them where they are,” says Flynn, “Engage children in the process through play—make it fun, with an educational component.”
“Playfulness is essential, ” Adams agrees. “It’s important to combine mindful movement, games, ‘share circles,’ breath work and visualization to move energy through the children’s bodies, as we calm the minds.”
Flynn also emphasizes an integrative approach that includes mindful meditations, breath work, poses, games, creative movement, songs and chants, relaxation and visualization. “Mindful meditations
and breath work ‘yoke’ the mind to the body to center [the] child,” she says. “Yoga poses provide physical activities; games are fun and connect family and friends; songs and chants add life and reinforce learning; and relaxation and visualization help create a calm, relaxed state.”
Practices need to be age appropriate. The attention span of 4- to 5-year-olds is not the same as that of 10- to 12-year- olds. Laureen Dubeau, master instructor trainer for STOTT PILATES® in Toronto, and program designer for the Fitness Fun: Pilates for Kids DVD, recommends Pilates mat work for children from 8 years of age. “With younger children—even younger than 8—the focus should be on feeling the body move, reaching the arms and legs, balancing on one foot, moving in all different directions. As they get older, attention will move to quality of movement and in some cases maintaining good posture.”
Good instructors must genuinely respect, support and love teaching children, and must practice mindfulness themselves. “It is key that children are taught by someone who practices themselves,” says Smalley. “Mindfulness is more than being given a set of exercises; it is learning from individuals who embody mindfulness—role modeling it in daily life.”
“Foster a supportive and nurturing learning environment blended with the playfulness of mindful movement,” says Adams. “Our instructors are taught to
not always correct children in [yoga] poses. Children start by holding poses naturally, in the way it feels best in their bodies, and instructors provide alignment detail over time. We emphasize feeling the pose in the body, instead of perfecting the pose.” Studies show, and practitioners agree, that kids who practice these activities can build confidence and improve self-esteem, so positive reinforcement is essential.
Serving Children: Strengthening Communities and Ourselves
These days, many children seem to have lost the space to simply be—to enjoy childhood simplicity. Instead, they live complex structured lives. As we pause to develop mindful activity programs where children can move playfully and discover their own inner light, we too can be replenished; we too can polish our ability to hear with our hearts and to see the world through fresh, unfiltered eyes. To offer our skills to help children connect with their inner joy is to help build a pathway to a richer, happier, more resilient way of life for youth, families and communities.