When I first started teaching yoga to kids, I had an idea in my mind of what successful classes should look like.
Mats evenly spaced in a well-lit room free of distractions. Adorable and focused children dressed in bright colors, listening intently and engaged in a series of somewhat accurate yoga poses, mellow games, and finally, a relaxing Savasana that everyone would melt into with ease and quiet enthusiasm. The kids would understand immediately how great yoga feels, and follow along with all my plans and activities with charming delight and happiness.
It’s funny, it wasn’t until I just sat down to write this that I actually articulated, even to myself, that I ever had this “ideal” class in mind. A vision straight from Pinterest, from a Martha Stewart Living spread about healthy snacks to serve children after a mindfulness-enhancing enrichment class. Kids’ yoga as interpreted by stock photography.
I should know better.
I’m an early childhood professional. I’ve spent my career teaching real, complicated, messy, inconsistent, exuberant, curious, strong-willed, boundary-pushing, friendly, social, silly, need-to-move-to-learn kids, so I’m not sure what central casting agency I thought was going to fill my classes with serene and compliant Savasana-afficionados.
The mats. They are rarely evenly spaced. They are usually scrunched or overlapping or wrapped around wiggly yogis, and the spaces I teach in almost always come with distractions. (Just a few have included antique furniture, yoga props and shiny Buddha statues and candles we were not allowed to touch, extremely loud fans, a fully functioning local access cable station working out of the same space, and a lovable but loud AA meeting that insists on setting up their giant gurgling percolators during our final Savasana.)
The kids are 100% adorable and usually come dressed in bright colors, but they’re only intermittently focused and in sync and intently listening because…they are kids. And they are often kids who have no idea what yoga is or whether they’re interested in it. Most come with a willing and curious attitude, but I have had more than a few kids who tell me, “I hate yoga, but my mom makes me come.” Sometimes yoga wins these kids over, and sometimes not. And even the kids who love yoga, who sign up for session after session, have days when they’re just not feeling it.
There are moments when everyone is moving in and out of yoga poses in unison, beautifully calm minutes of whole-group Savasana, so many joyfully cooperative games and activities, but there are also urgent trips to the bathroom and spontaneous cartwheels and donkey kicks and hugs that turn into wrestling matches.
There are tears. Oh my gosh, sometimes there are tears. Tears because bodies have collided, tears because someone’s best friend decided to sit near a new friend, tears because of spilled water bottles and turns that didn’t feel long enough. Tears because a conversation has reminded someone of a dog who has recently died or a grandparent who is ill. Tears because someone suddenly feels like they might throw up. And then tears because they did.
Absolutely: there are many, many classes that feel like surfing on beautiful green glassy waves, exhilarating and productive and gratifying; low-drama and high fun. Classes where energy levels can be harnessed and modulated and we all leave feeling happy.
But let’s be honest, there are some classes that are rough, and rough patches in many classes.
Happily, I’ve come to see even the rough moments as learning opportunities that show me what’s working or not working or that give me insight into a particular child or age group or group dynamic. And when I can remember what my actual goals are for these growing, changing, full-of-possibility individuals I have the privilege to work with, every class is a success in some way.
What are those goals? What do I want kids to learn, to feel, to understand, to be able to do because they come to Friendly Yoga classes?
I want children to feel 100% accepted and safe.
This is foundational. Kids need places where they can show up as their full selves, with all their moods and wants and joys, and be welcomed in and listened to and celebrated. This also means that limits need to be set and a few simple rules followed.
I want children to develop body/mind literacy.
Learning the names of body parts and figuring out how to move them in relation to each other is a big job for kids. Noticing how motions and emotions are felt in the body, and having the vocabulary to talk about different physical/mental states is a primary goal.
I want children to be able to focus on and be curious about their breath and use it as a tool for focus and self-soothing.
I weave breath-noticing and breath-slowing into every class.
I want children to learn to move in ways that build strength, flexibility, and confidence.
Sometimes we work on this through traditional yoga poses. Sometimes it’s through poses that the kids have made up. And sometimes it’s by running and jumping and dancing and making use of all the other fun ways to move bodies. It’s almost always playful, but sometimes we really work on serious focus.
I want children to find pleasure in calmness.
This means that we start with short periods of stillness and relaxation, and whenever possible add stories, games, and comforting physical contact. I let kids bring stuffed animals/pillows/etc. to class (they sit on the “watching bench” during the actual class) and have a lovey to keep them company as they rest. If I feel like I need to “discipline” kids to keep them in Savasana or a quiet moment of sitting still, we’re done. Move onto something else and try again later. It also means that when kids say they hate Savasana, we break it down, and try to figure out what’s hard about it, and also look for any possible seeds of happiness.
I want children to learn self-regulation.
Oh, this one is huge, and I could write volumes about it. I want kids to learn the range of energy states, and to be able to modulate to make themselves feel better and to fit the situation. I let kids get loud and exuberant and sometimes even “KOO KOO CRAZY,” (yes, that’s the official technical term!) so that they can learn to dial things down. We sometimes let things spiral a little “out of control” so we can feel what calming down is like. I’m super committed to this goal, and I’m so grateful to teach most of my classes in a space where we can let loose without bothering anyone.
I want children to see the connection between effort and achievement.
Sometimes we do “thumb poppers.” This is a time when we sit in a circle and I give each student a compliment, along with a thumbs up and a mouth-pop. I especially like to tell kids about progress I’ve seen them make and I emphasize that I see the hard work they put in to get there.
I want children to feel and express a full range of emotions and be able to talk about them in productive ways.
We make space for feelings in class. Sometimes, if there’s a conflict or someone is really upset or angry or frustrated, we’ll stop the whole routine to get to the bottom of what’s going on. There are sometimes eye rolls and harrumphs of annoyance, but I am insistent that everyone’s feeling matter and learning to talk about them is crucial.
I’m also insistent that happiness and joy and silly goofiness are all included in the full range of emotions, and try to make plenty of time for those too.
I want children to learn effective tools for speaking up for themselves and also for listening in a group context.
We have a lot of conversations in my classes. Most of my classes begin with coloring/snack time, and we call that “everyone at once” talking time.
Very often, we have such meaningful conversations during this time that kids don’t want to clean up and start the rest of class! Most of class is “one at a time” talking time, and I’m clear with the kids that this usually means that I will be the one talking so we can get some good body work/fun done. However, I do encourage ideas and feedback, as long as kids respect the one-at-a-time guideline.
I want children to develop friendships.
Sometimes this means that if kids are more interested in listening to each other than to me, I give into this and allow for more socializing. Sometimes it means that I pair up kids who I know have burgeoning friendships; sometimes it means that I separate kids who would benefit from widening their circle.
Finally, I trust that I’m planting seeds, even if the kids don’t seem to respond or “get it” in the moment. A kid might not be ready for what I’m teaching, but still filing away the information for later. I’ve seen this happen often enough to build my confidence that kids are learning even when they’re not “letting on.”
So, when I plan curriculum or revisit a class to figure out what worked and didn’t work, what was a “success” and what wasn’t, I don’t start from a place of “Would this class look like blissful yogi perfection to an outside observer?” “Are we photoshoot ready?”
Instead, I start with these goals. And I allow for realness and feelings and shifting dynamics and growth over time.
And then every class is a success.