Mind-Body Activities for Children

Do our kids need a sanctuary for inner and outer play?

By Shirley Archer, JD, MA
Jan 14, 2015

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.

What is Mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, defines mindfulness as paying particular attention ÔÇ£on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentallyÔÇØ (Kabat-Zinn 1994). Mindfulness originates from ancient Buddhist traditions, but modern-day mindfulness may be applied in a nonreligious way. Mindful awareness practices include breathing exercises, mindful movement and meditation, among other activities.

Benefits of Mind-Body Activities for Children

Susan Smalley, PhD professor emeritus and founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, University of California, Los Angeles, said, ÔÇ£We do know from research on mindfulness training in children that it can be beneficial to . . . regulating attention, emotion, and/or body states, so it can be seen as a core aspect of learning.ÔÇØ Growing research evidence is emerging from studies of healthy children, as well as of those with issues like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities or conduct disorders.

The following are some of the identified benefits:

  • less aggressive and disobedient behavior
  • fewer feelings of stress and anxiety
  • more feelings of calm, relaxation and self-acceptance
  • fewer symptoms of ADHD
  • better attention
  • less test anxiety and higher
  • academic performance
  • more emotional stability and self-control
  • better social skills and social relationships
  • increased optimism (Tilahun & Vezzuto 2014)
Resources

Program Development: Children Yoga and Mindfulness Programs

ChildLight Yoga®. Provides resources for program development in studios or other facilities. http://childlightyoga.com/.

Inner Kids. Develops and refines best practices for bringing appropriate, secularized adaptations of well-established adult mindful awareness training into the public sector.www.susankaisergreenland.com/inner-kids-program.html.

Little Flower Yoga. On a mission to bring yoga and mindfulness to children. http://littlefloweryoga.com.

Louise GoldbergÔÇÖs Creative Relaxation┬«. Yoga therapy for children with autism, ADHD and other special needs. www.yogaforspecialneeds.com.

Mindful Schools. Integrates mindfulness into education. www.mindfulschools.org/.

MindUPÔäó. A research-based training program, composed of 15 lessons, for educators and children. Curriculum manuals are available for students from pre-K to 8th grade. http://thehawnfoundation.org/mindup.

Move with Me Yoga Adventures. Focuses on movement and mindfulness for early learning.

UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Offers free guided meditations. http://marc.ucla.edu/.

Yoga 4 Classrooms®. Offers resources for in-school programs. www.yoga4classrooms.com/.

Yoga in My School. http://yogainmyschool.com/

Books

Flynn, L. 2013. Yoga for Children: 200+ Poses, Breathing Exercises, and Meditations for Healthier, Happier, More Resilient Children. Avon, MA: Adams Media.

Greenland, S.K. 2010. The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder, and More Compassionate. New York: Free Press.

Hanh, T.N., & Nghiem, C.C. 2011. Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness With Children. Berkeley, CA: Parallax.

Hawn, G., & Holden, W. 2011. 10 Mindful Minutes: Giving Our Children–and Ourselves–the Social and Emotional Skills to Reduce Stress and Anxiety for Healthier, Happier Lives. New York: Perigee.

Saltzman, A. 2014. A Still Quiet Place: A Mindfulness Program for Teaching Children and Adolescents to Ease Stress and Difficult Emotions. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Smalley, S.L., & Winston, D. 2010. Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness. Philadelphia: Da Capo.

Movies and DVDs

Fitness Fun: Pilates for Kids. STOTT PILATES. Using balls and bands, this DVD incorporates fun into a workout that challenges mobility, agility and flexibility while encouraging development of the mind-body connection. Best suited for ages 8-14. www.merrithew.com/shop/ProductDetail/DV80085_Dvd–Fitness-Fun-Pilates-For-Kids

Room to Breathe. Documentary film about San Francisco middle-school students who are introduced to mindfulness. www.roomtobreathefilm.com/index.html.


References

American Psychological Association. 2014. Are teens adopting adults’ stress habits? Stress in AmericaÔäó survey findings. Accessed Oct. 13, 2014. www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/teen-stress.aspx.
Archer, S. 2012. Mindfulness practice: Empowering fragmented teens to become whole. IDEA Fitness Journal, 9 (2), 78-81.
Brown, G.S. 2013. “More Yoga Practitioners are Pint-Sized.” Good Morning America; http://abcnews.go.com/Travel/kids-yoga-grows-popularity/story?id=18102032″. Jan. 2, 2013; retrieved Oct. 13, 2014.
Burke, C.A. 2010. Mindfulness-based approaches with children and adolescents: A preliminary review of current research in an emergent field.Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19, 133-44.
Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. At a Glance for 2014. America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Flook, L., et al. 2010. Effects of mindful awareness practices on executive functions in elementary school children. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 26, 70-95.
Kabat-Zinn, J. 1994. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion.
Kaiser Family Foundation. 2010. Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. A Kaiser Family Foundation Study.
Lomas, N. 2013. Tablets becoming must-have devices for kids of all ages, Ofcom research finds. TechCrunch, posted Oct. 3, 2013. Accessed Oct. 10, 2014. http://techcrunch.com/2013/10/03/kids-love-tablets/.
Lomas, N. 2014. One in three U.K. children now owns a tablet–Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp use also rising. TechCrunch, posted Oct. 9, 2014. Accessed Oct. 10, 2014. http://techcrunch.com/2014/10/09/ofcom-2014-report/.
MLERN (Mind and Life Education Research Network). 2012. Contemplative practices and mental training: Prospects for American education. Child Development Perspectives, 6 (2), 146-53. doi: 10.111/j.1750-8606.2012.00240.x.
National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs. NS-CSHCN 2009/10. Data query from the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health website. Accessed Oct. 10, 2014. www.childhealthdata.org.
Rueb, E. 2011. Can teetering toddlers find balance in yoga? The New York Times, Apr. 15, 2011. Accessed Oct. 13, 2014. www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/nyregion/stretch-can-teetering-toddlers-find-balance-in-yoga.html.
Thompson, M., & Gauntlet-Gilbert, J. 2008. Mindfulness with children and adolescents: Effective clinical application. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. doi: 10.1177/1359104508090603.
Tilahun, L., & Vezzuto, L. 2014. Mindfulness Practice in K-12 Schools: Emerging Research on Stress, Well Being, and Achievement. Orange County Department of Education. Accessed Oct. 10, 2014. www.ocde.us/HealthyMinds/Documents/Mindfulness%20Reader%20%20January%202014.pdf
White, L. 2012. Reducing stress in school-age girls through mindful yoga. National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners. doi: 10.1016/j.pedhc.2011.01.002.

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Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is the 2008 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and is IDEA's mind-body-spirit spokesperson. She is a certified yoga and Pilates teacher and an award-winning author based in Los Angeles, California, and Zurich, Switzerland. Two of her books, The Walking Deck and The Strength and Toning Deck, are now featured as iPhone apps. Contact her at www.shirleyarcher.com.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar YY on May 10, 2020 at 3:30 am

    Can you kindly put in the references as well? There are only citations but no references at the end.

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