It is something of a modern paradox: Although kids today seem wiser to the ways of the world, their bodies are more unhealthy and deconditioned than ever. There are many demands on children’s attention these days; but, unfortunately, very few of these involve healthy levels of interactive play or connection to nature. The conveniences and “advances” of the modern world seem to have paralyzed kids’ instincts for good old-fashioned play and stress release through movement. Without these basic connections of body and mind to the world around them, how can children possibly grow into conscious, healthy participants in society?
What can mind-body professionals do to help kids make the right connections? As a starting point, some very encouraging research is emerging about the links between mind-body practice and stress reduction, on the one hand, and overweight, obesity and related disease systems, on the other. Some of this research is even specific to children. The following exercise, postures and poses are yoga- and tai chi/chi kung-inspired, with a few fun adaptations added. By teaching multidimensional mind-body aspects of fitness and wellness—core concepts that I believe can instill confidence, help reverse behavioral challenges and open a new and creative fitness world for kids, you can help create a very positive future. A list of fun moves, concepts and teaching tips follows. Put your own creative spin on the program!
Feeling the Chi. When working with kids, try to engage them intellectually. Ask them questions to gauge “where they are” in their heads. Talking about nature and the movement of animals can be revealing. Children have a lot to say about nature; it can be both hilarious and inspiring to hear their observations. For example, sometimes I open by leading children through the following dialog:
“Does a cat move slowly or quickly when stalking a bug?”
“Slowly,” they respond.
“Really?” I say, “Why would a cat move slowly?”
They answer, “So he doesn’t scare the bug away.”
“That’s right, and once the cat is close enough, he can move quickly, yes?”
“Yes!” they respond.
I then point out that the cat is aware that the bug has “quick” chi, but is also aware of his own feline “slow” and “last-second-quick” energy.
“So, is it good sometimes to focus and move slowly to get closer to your goal?” I ask.
“Yes,” they respond, and chi lesson #1 is complete.
Children seem to be very interested in chi; you can keep the conversation going by asking them several questions: “What is chi?" I ask them, more than once, as if I have forgotten. By the third or fourth time they scream enthusiastically, "Energy!!!"
Then I ask them questions like these:
“Do dogs have chi?” Yes.
“Do frogs have chi?” Yes.
“Do bugs have chi?” Yes.
“Does cheese have chi?” Yes.
“What about Swiss cheese? With the holes in it?” Pause . . . Yes.
“Do your teachers have chi?” Usually a slight pause, a giggle, then a resounding, Yes!
"Do rocks have chi?" Slight pause, and a hesitant Yes. This opens the door to talk about the formation of land, lava flow, volcanoes, movement into stillness and other insights.
"Do you have chi?" By this time there is a loud chorus of Yes!
Then I ask them to feel the chi of the child sitting next to them. This is done by holding the palms out in front, mirroring another person’s palms and feeling the heat/chi/energy without touching. Children always feel it and understand the concept immediately through this opening exercise.
Flying Wild Goose. Bring on the birds! This is a traditional chi kung movement that mimics the slow-motion flapping of wings. Begin with your feet parallel and arms at your sides in a relaxed, bent-knee martial-arts horse stance. Fueled by a deep inhalation from your core, raise your arms (wings), leading with the backs of the elbows, up to shoulder level in a slow-motion wing flap. Lower the arms slowly as you exhale fully. Allow your knees to bend as you exhale, sitting down into your horse stance as the arms come down. The idea is to open up to the path of least resistance through your arms and entire body, so that openness and warmth are conveyed through the palms of the hands as you exhale and lower the arms.
With children, I do this a few times as I explain it and they mimic it. Then I cue everyone to begin “flying” in “slow motion.” I repeat the words out loud over and over as my “wings” slowly flap: “S-l-o-w m-o-t-i-o-n.” After doing this for a while, I change gears suddenly and exclaim, “Fast!" I then lead the group in rapid wing flaps as we all jump around like a bunch of wild geese. Kids usually go nuts at this point—screaming, laughing, jumping and flapping. Let them get really exhausted, then go back into s-l-o-w m-o-t-i-o-n. Alternate back and forth for an excellent and fun interval training exercise.
Snake Creeps Down. This traditional Yang-style tai chi posture is a fun challenge for children. I warm them up with lunges, pliés and a forward bend or two. The goal is to shift about 70% of your weight into the creeping-down leg. The back hand forms a bird’s beak (four fingers to the thumb), and the joints should remain fluid, never locked; the lengthened leg remains slightly bent. I explain to kids that this is because a snake must always be ready to rise or slither away at any given moment. Emphasize that there is power in fluidity and weakness in stiffness. A snake is powerful because it can move quietly and quickly.
Mountain Pose. Stand strong with feet apart. Stretch your fingertips toward the ground and the crown of your head toward the sky. Cue the group to breathe fully, feeling the strength of a strong, solid mountain; then vary the arms. This pose presents an opportunity to teach about mountains. Cue the children to bring their feet together and reach their arms to the sky to become Mount Everest, the tallest mountain. Then cue them to spread their legs and lower their arms to represent medium mountains and smaller hills. Next feel free to have them invert their arms, squat down and become valleys, showing the balance of nature in the movements.
Peace Warrior. This is your chance to redefine the word warrior for children by establishing the honor of a strong, nonviolent warrior of either gender. I usually show children Warrior poses 1, 2 and 3. For Warrior 1, do a wide lunge stance, arms up by the ears and torso vertical above the hips, facing toward the lunging leg. In Warrior 2, maintain the same lunge, with arms open horizontally, parallel to the ground, torso turned to the front, and head turned to the side looking down the arm toward the lunged leg. For Warrior 3, the most advanced, balance on one leg with arms forward, parallel to each other and up by the ears (or thrusting backward). Hips are squared as much as possible to the ground, torso is bent over the base leg and the opposite leg is off the ground, lengthened back directly behind you. The children will have fun trying these poses, and you will see many variations.
Tree Pose. Kids love this pose. Feel free to play, but keep the base leg strong and encourage participants to understand where to place the other foot. Also cue them to breathe as they balance. This is a great pose to showcase quiet focus and teach children how to keep their eyes on one point. A child who is noisy and unfocused will not be able to hold the pose properly. I always point out the students who are quietly focused, and they inspire the other kids to rein themselves in. For fun, try different trees, such as palm, sturdy oak and weeping willow (an all-time favorite because I bend from the waist a bit, wither my arms and pretend to sob and cry uncontrollably—and then of course, emerge as a happy willow).
Diamond/Butterfly. This is a great stretch for the adductors and back. Cue the children to sit tall, with the soles of their feet together. Have them focus their eyes down at about 45-degrees for 30-60 seconds. From there, cue them to round the chin forward toward the chest (head toward the feet), breathe deeply and slowly roll up to a vertical position one vertebra at a time. At the end, I have them lightly flap their wings (legs) like a butterfly.
Stretching. While the kids are still on the floor, I like to introduce stretching exercises. This is yet another opportunity to bond with the group, teach them about muscles and get close together. After a full-body floor stretch (which gives you the opportunity to talk about muscles, stretching and strength), we stand up, find a buddy and perform partnered exercises. For example, try the Standing Counterbalance Stretch: Facing your partner, clasp at the wrists and “sit” back as if in a chair, lengthening your arms and stretching your back. This is a real trust-builder and teaches children how to work together.
Before I show this stretch, I ask: "How many of your parents say ‘Oh, my aching back’?" Most of them raise their hands, so I engage everyone with an exciting assignment: “Pay close attention so you can teach this to your parents to help them get rid of their sore backs.” Kids really enjoy this stretch. There are always a few who fall down dramatically, but as with Tree Pose, I point out the ones who are quietly enjoying the stretch. I try to bring home the point that if you want to set goals and achieve, you must learn to focus and trust. I tell them, "If you let go of your partner, you are letting go of yourself.” Children really understand these concepts by the end of the class.
I often close by standing with the group in a circle, holding hands, legs apart. We lunge to the left and right and do centered pliés, forward bends, arm lifts to the sky, back arches, one-legged stands, etc. There are so many wonderful ways to engage and teach kids. I invite you to open up your creative doors. If you have fun, they will too.
Inner IDEA author and presenter Scott Cole continues to come out and play with his Get Fit America for Kids program.