Taking kids to the mat:
Children fall along a continuum in terms of emotional maturity, self-control, attention span, socialization skills and physical abilities. Therefore, the strategies for planning and managing a yoga class for children vary widely from group to group. The first question to ask when working with a group of children is "How much structure and predictability does your group need in order to be successful?" You'll want to first consider the needs of the lowest functioning students in the group. I recommend beginning with a great deal of structure and, when appropriate, gradually eliminating structure as the class proceeds.
How do you create structure and predictability in a yoga class? The yoga mat is an excellent place to start. The mat grounds the child in a particular place, defines each child's personal space and gives the child a specific place to go at the start of class. When the children leave their mats, they always have a place to return to when things become chaotic. I'll often send the children back to their mats for a rest in Child Pose when things get out of hand. This is an excellent non-punitive way of getting the children back on task.
I recommend beginning with assigned mats. If you're familiar with the children, mats can be assigned strategically, with more focused children placed between those who are more easily distracted. If you don't know the children, question teachers or parents. By the end of the first class, you'll probably have a good idea of what to expect from each child.
Create an initial direction for each class so your students know what to do upon entering the room. My classes designed for highly impulsive children begin with the repeated direction "Go to your mat, lie down on your back and close your eyes." I may introduce an incentive or positive reinforcement to encourage the children to "get their bodies ready for class." For some groups, I use colored cards to acknowledge the children who are doing a "good job." Often the children who are not on task will become more organized as they see their classmates being positively acknowledged.
Another example of positive reinforcement is "the ball smush." With the children lying on their stomachs, I use a large yoga ball to press those whose "bodies are ready" from head to toe. (Be careful when pressing on the backs of the knees.) Many children respond well to deep pressure and are motivated to receive it. "Ball smushes" also help to calm the children at the start or end of class.
Don't be too ambitious. Start with a half-hour class for younger children (7 and younger, and those with developmental delays) and perhaps 45 minutes for older kids. Strive for smaller groups (8 to 10 maximum) and ideally have another adult in the room to assist with setting limits and possibly with physical adjustments. I'm satisfied if the children are attempting the poses and prefer not to correct them unless they're apt to cause themselves injury. Some days I can accomplish quite a bit with a group (i.e. warm-up, game and relaxation); other days my focus is on maintaining a feeling of calm.
Try using activities in which children need to be chosen. One of my favorite tools is a variation of "The Bell Game." I move around the circle with my bell, quietly telling the children that I'm looking for someone who is sitting up tall, breathing deeply, shoulders relaxed. I softly ring my bell near the ear of the child I choose, who then picks from my bag of Beanie Babies to determine our next pose. Once we've performed it, the child who was chosen chooses the next child. I know a child has really been listening when he or she is able to repeat verbatim my directions to sit up tall and breathe deeply.
When you're really desperate, try feeding them. I realize I'm breaking a cardinal rule of not eating before (or certainly during) yoga class; however, this works 99% of the time, with all age groups. I call it "The Performing Seals." Depending on the setting, I may begin by painting their faces like seals. I announce that I'm only painting the faces of the children whose "bodies are ready." The children become quite still as they wait to have their faces painted. Then I lead my performing seals through a series of tricks (yoga poses), many of which involve balancing or manipulating a beach ball with a colorful fish inside. Following each trick, I toss my seals a Pepperidge Farm Goldfish from a bucket. The children open their mouths to catch their fish and whoop like seals. They're extremely motivated to take their turns to perform and to receive their edible reward (which is small enough not to interfere with their yoga experience in terms of digestion).
Ultimately, there is no absolute formula for success when teaching yoga to children. The more methods of positive reinforcement you have in your tool kit, the better your chances of finding something that will work. The key is to be knowledgeable and aware regarding the capacity and needs of each particular group and prepared to try different approaches. Although planning is essential, be prepared to abandon your plans at a moment's notice to try something new.
Craig Hanauer, a Kripalu Yoga teacher, board-certified art therapist and longtime director of Kripalu children's programs, has designed and implemented a full-time yoga program at The Parkside School, a special education elementary school on New York City's Upper West Side. Craig will offer the workshop Every Kid's Yoga: Teaching Yoga to Children with Varied Abilities and Needs at the 2004 KYTA Conference, Oct. 21-24. Contact him at email@example.com.