Little kids, big breaths

Last month I helped a group of tween/teenage kids plan and teach a preschool yoga class.

After the preschoolers went home, one of the older kids said, “The little kids didn’t really understand my sense of humor.”

He was right.

Preschoolers can be super silly, but some concepts that a middle schooler, or even a second grader, might be able to play with and joke about are lost on 3, 4, and 5-year-olds.

When I ask a group of 8-year-olds “Are you breathing?” they laugh and groan, “Of course we’re breathing, otherwise we’d be DEAD!”

But when I ask the same question of a group of 4-year-olds? They stop to check, and solemnly respond, often “NO,” because in the process of quieting down enough to notice, they’ve actually frozen into statues and stopped breathing for a few seconds.

Breathing is automatic. And that’s a good thing.

Breathing can also be controlled. And that can be a very good thing too.

Breathing slowly, deeply, and through the nose calms physiology and increases brain real estate that’s available for learning and problem solving.

Breathing helps with slowing down at naptime, with mitigating fearful reactions to new situations, with heading off impending temper tantrums and too-tired meltdowns.  A few deep breaths can help a child prepare their brain to find calm words to retrieve a “borrowed” toy from a playmate or to make a choice about what they want for lunch.  A parent/child duo breathing deeply together can reconnect in powerful ways.

When I’m teaching a breathing exercises to the littlest kids, my goals are simple, but developmentally right-on.

**Can they “find” their breath, and feel themselves breathing?

**Can they distinguish between breathing in and breathing out?

**Can they breathe in and out through their nose and through their mouth?

**Can they slow their breath down?

Here’s the first of a series of blog posts with ideas about teaching young kids to notice and control their breathing. Enjoy!

(At first you might notice that, for some kids,  attention to breathing seems to do the opposite of relaxing children’s bodies; their faces can get squinched or wide-eyed  in concentration, eyebrows and shoulders might rise with tension. Don’t worry – – they’ll figure it out!)

Huff and Puff

Huff and Puff by Claudia Rueda is a fun book to read to preschoolers and young school age children to reinforce the breathing concepts of deep inhales and long, slow, strong exhales.

In this retelling of the 3 Little Pigs story, kids are encouraged to play the part of the wolf. Holes are strategically cut in certain pages so that the reader can huff and puff through them and try to blow the various pigs’ houses down.

huff&puff

The story has a happy ending, since the pigs make a birthday cake for the wolf, complete with candles to extinguish.

I usually read this one with the kids sitting in a circle, reading each page and then walking the book around the circle when we get to the blowing pages so that everyone gets a turn.

This is a good one to read just before any final slow breathing you do before savasana/final relaxation. 

 

 

Quite a handful: a meditation especially for parents

We’ve all heard it.

What our kids need more than anything is our presence.  For us to really be there with them.

And so many of us try so hard to be present. We listen and respond, nodding, really hearing. We ask questions, and we listen some more to the answers. We put down the magazine, the iPhone, the potato peeler. We draw and read. We get on the ground and we play with trains and little plastic animals. We eat tons and tons of fake food.

At its best, presence is not a requirement, but a joy that builds on itself.

Sweet-smelling child in lap with a beloved book, commenting on pictures, sibling nestled up, perfectly content to lean head on your arm and wait for her turn to flip the next page. A walk on one of those first days of fall, when we’re re-mesmerized by the colors of the fallen maples leaves, by puffy clouds in a blue sky, and happy to take 15 minutes going one block. One of those in-the-car conversations with a teen when you drive an extra few miles out of your way, just so that the beautiful talking doesn’t stop.

But let’s face it, sometimes we want to run away. To tune out.

Sometimes the idea of another repetitive, semi-nonsensical conversation about trains or princesses or ponies or construction trucks or, when our children get older, sixth grade social dynamics or video game intricacies, can numb the skull and all the material within. Sometimes we gaze with longing at the book we’ve been reading for the past three weeks or the undone work on our laptop or even our cool, empty pillow while pretending to nom nom yet another slice of pretend birthday cake. We. Can. Be. So. Bored.  So tired. Or on our last nerve.

Because sometimes we’re angry at our child (gasp). Or worried about him. Or worried about ourselves or our parents or our marriages. Sometimes we’re distracted or just in a sour mood. Sometimes being really present in a room with another person is the hardest thing imaginable.

However, the reason that presence is so powerful, the reason that the experts advise that we offer more of it to our children is that we feel safe and connected when another person is truly (physically, attentionally, emotionally) with us. We feel seen and understood and felt, and when those conditions are in place, our mind is at its emotional best. More ready to learn and create. Less reactive and volatile and more receptive. Presence is an optimistic investment in a child, for the next 10 minutes and the next 10, 20, 60, 90 years.

No one is demanding that you be present 100% of the time, turned up to 11. Children need to learn to play and rest and just be on their own and parents are at their best when they  nourish themselves as adults.

Simply being near your child and holding them in your appreciative attention can start a powerful feedback loop.

I’ve found the following on-the-spot meditation to be a helpful tool for unobtrusively but powerfully reconnecting with a child, as both a parent and a teacher.

It’s so simple.

Take 2 or 3 deep breaths and feel whichever part of your body is in contact with the floor or your chair.

Then just choose one of your child’s hands and watch, in as much detail as possible, exactly what that hand does.

Watch the whole entire hand. What is it touching or holding? What shape is it making? Is it tense or relaxed, are its movements big or little?

You can stop there and just watch, or you can generate some inner appreciation for that little (or big) starfish of a hand. Amazement  at its dexterity. At its very existence, this hand that a decade ago didn’t exist, and can now wave in the air or make a fist or clap or drop cheerios onto the floor or assemble legos or swipe and tap at a screen.

Watch the thumb. Move on to the other fingers, and watch them one by one. And then watch the hand as a whole.

Oh yeah, and breathe. Slowly and deeply. Breathing is 50% of the magic in this one.

There are certain child wrangling “moves” that I categorize as Jedi mind tricks, and this is one of them. Maybe someday scientists will be able to explain exactly why this happens, but I notice that if I can focus on a child’s hand movements like this for even two or three minutes, the reset button is magically pressed. You and your child move a few pips away from from fractious, from worked up. If you’ve been breathing deeply, slowly, you might notice that your child’s breathing has also slowed down. And the positive feedback loop has begun.

Extra credit: Echo your child’s hand movements with movements of your own.

Update: As I was editing this post, one of my 13-year-old sons came into the room and asked for a hug. Which I gladly gave. He then sat very close next to me, and started reading the post aloud, in a smarmy voiceover tone. Every time he read the word “presence,” he exclaimed, “PRESENTS!? I LOVE presents!”

Cute, yes. But annoying!  Distracting.

My son didn’t come into the room to bother me. He came in looking for connection. Which, as a 13-year-old, he still needs very much.

But he *was* bothering me. Very much. I really wanted to tell him to go away. I really wanted to finish this post so I could get a bunch of other stuff done. More deeply, however, I really want to honor and savor the rarer and rarer moments when he wants to be close.

So I listened to my own typed words as he read them aloud,  took a deep breath and started to look at his hand. His giant hand, with the picked at fingernails. His giant, expressive, always moving, hand. Green marker on one of the knuckles. And it took a few breaths, but I started to relax out of my frustration with him. When I reached out for his hand, he squeezed mine, and said, “Nice Jedi moves, Mom.”

True story.

 

 

Savasana songs to know and love

Kids love ice cream!

Kids love silliness!

Kids love savasana!

Yes, you read that right.

breath-budsI used to be surprised when kids begged for a longer savasana at the end of class (or begged to begin with one!) especially when the begging was coming from the most movement-seeking, attentionally-challenged kids in the class. But now I’ve come to expect their enthusiasm. After a moment or two of settling in, it feels fantastic to lay still but not be going to bed. It’s not often that any of us make space to truly quiet down and have no demands or distractions to respond to.  With the the lights dimmed, and action quieted, the sensory load on growing brains is diminished, and kids seem hungry for that pause.

Some adult savasanas are done in silence, and I appreciate the good of that, the “truly nothing” happening in the room.

However, music, as they say, hath charms…and the right music can set a soothing tone, influence deeper, slower breathing, encourage kids to focus their thoughts, or make it clear that big feelings are okay.

The music I choose for savasana depends on the age of the kids, the themes we’ve explored that day, and the specific group I’m working with. Since we often begin with focused breathing or a guided visualization, that’s a good place for wordless music. Once we’re simply resting, I like to add a song or two with a peaceful, encouraging, open-hearted message, or one that suggests some easy mental imagery for kids to follow. Some of my current faves are listed below. Share yours in the comments section!

Savasana music – instrumental

Tortoise from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens

Lullaby (Sandman) by George Winston

Accordion Bells by Leo Kottke

Farewell (From the Million Dollar Arm Soundtrack) by A.R. Rahman

Love Me by Yiruma

Wishful Thinking by The Album Leaf

Brooks Cabin (from the Fronteir House Soundtrack) by Edward Bilous

Prelude and Yodel by Penguin Cafe Orchestra

 

Savasana music – with lyrics

Colors by Kira Wiley

Blackbird by The Beatles

Take a Little Walk with Me by Alastair Moock (with Elizabeth Mitchell)

Little Boat by Jennifer Gasoi

Rainbow by Charlie Hope

Queen of the Earth, Child of the Stars by Leela and Ellie Grace

Oh, Watch the Stars by Elizabeth Mitchell (with Aoife O’Donovan)

Breathe by The Rockdoves

Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

In The Clouds by Laurie Berkner

Quiet One by Big Little Lions

Pink Moon by Nick Drake

The Best Day  by Taylor Swift

Keep Breathing by Ingrid Michaelson

(kids 10 and up seem to especially love these last two)