Yoga and literacy: dog theme

(I teach a weekly yoga and literacy class for preschoolers at a local library, and plan each 45-minute class around a specific book and related yoga/movement activities.)

Screen shot 2014-10-13 at 11.22.20 AMSometimes a new preschool student will run into one of my yoga classes and announce, “I already know how to yoga!”

They then launch their little body into one of three poses.

Tree or…

Some kind of crazy-but-awesome, un-named, rubber-boned contortion or…

Downward facing dog.

Down dog is such a great pose to work on with children.  It ‘s fun to pretend to be dogs. It’s challenging to be halfway upside down and figure out where all your body parts should be.

And downward facing dog feels great, through the backs of the legs and the hips and the shoulders.

When planning a dog-themed class, I was so happy to find STICK! by Andy Pritchett.

Literacy Ideas:

Focus on the big, red letters on the cover. We might talk about which ones are curvy and which are straight, like sticks.

There is an exciting exclamation point to be noticed and played with! We practice saying “stick” in a calm way and “STICK!” with lots of enthusiasm. (Later in the book there is also a question mark to play with.)

The word “stick” is repeated MANY times in this book. I have the kids “read” it for me when they see it on the page. We might stop and explore what our mouth is doing when it says the word, hissing like a snake at the beginning, and making a the /K/ sound in the back of our throats at the end.

This is a great book for exploring vocabulary related to feelings. At different times the dog is confused, happy, playful, hopeful, sad, very sad, and curious.

 Yoga/Movement Ideas:

The little dog in this book has a very expressive face and body. Challenge the kids to imitate what he does with their own faces and bodies.

Bring in pictures of real dogs doing upward and downward facing dog. I like to print out large versions of these and laminate them so they can handle some wear and tear from class to class.  Have the kids try these poses, and add in some movement, puppy tail-wagging, and maybe even a three-legged dog (the kids think it’s hilarious to pretend to pee!).

Play FETCH!

After teaching the kids up and down dog,  add “stretching dog pose.” (I have a photo from a dog yoga calendar of a dog doing tabletop with one arm stretched out in front and the opposite leg stretching out in back. This is a challenging, fun pose for the kids to do!)

Bring out  sticks, dowels cut short, and “hide” them around the room while the kids watch. Kids 5 and under seem perfectly happy to have sticks “hidden” out in the open.

Explain that there is one stick per dog (reminders often required – in the fun of the game, some kids just start grabbing any sticks they can find!), and that once kids find theirs, they should crawl back to their mats, put their sticks down, and take a dog nap (child’s pose).

Sing this song, doing up, down, and stretching dog poses. (I usually sing it quite slow to give kids time to really get into each new pose). When you say FETCH!, it’s time to fetch those sticks!

Up dog, down dog

Up dog, down dog

Give a little stretch

Up dog, down dog

Up dog, down dog

Now…. it’s time to FETCH!

This one is a good workout and requires a lot of physical focus and concentration.  Enjoy!

Child’s pose

Yes!!

That was my instant response when a library where I teach preschool yoga asked me to offer a monthly class for toddlers. I love the families at this library, and I have a serious soft spot for toddlers.

But planning my first class, I froze, thinking, “What the heck am I doing teaching yoga to toddlers? To babies? What will parents expect? What does it even mean to ‘do yoga’ with kids that young?”

Which, of course, begs the question: What does it mean to “do yoga?”

Oh, we could spend a long time on that one, couldn’t we?

We might agree that it has something to do with bodies moving in ways that are deliberate and have a beneficial effect on muscle and bone, mind and mood and spirit. But beyond that, the millions of people who “do yoga” branch off into thousands of different (sometimes contradictory, often territorial) definitions of what yoga really is.

Which can be confusing, if you insist on capturing so much history, so much possibility in a mere two syllables.

On the other hand, it can be extremely freeing that there is no single adequate definition out there.

Because then you can make up your own.  Awesome!

So, here’s what I personally mean when I say that I “do yoga” with toddlers, with little kids and big kids and teens and with my fellow grown-up yogis in the classes I so gratefully attend myself.

I believe that every human being, from first breath to last, is simultaneously a body/brain, a mind, and a being in constant relationship with the surrounding social, emotional, and physical world.

I believe that every human being has a drive to grow toward the sun, toward health and happiness and connection.

Humans are “doing yoga” whenever they (re)connect with this drive by bringing increased attention and effort to one aspect of the current moment with curiosity (rather than judgment) and open heartedness (rather than fear).

Yes, physical yoga poses are a powerful and proven (and fun) way to accomplish this. There also do seem to be very real physical and psychological benefits that certain physical poses elicit, which is incredibly cool and fascinating and WOW.

But are we limited to any particular set of “real” yoga poses or activities?

Not in my kids’ classes, where we feel and try our way into bulldozer pose, unicorn pose, and birthday cake pose alongside downward dog, half moon, warrior I, tree, and mountain.

And where we dive into drawing and singing and skipping and hugging and looking one another in the eye with kindness.  We hula hoop and taste chocolate and blow (and pop!) bubbles.  Sometimes, with bigger kids, we sack out on our mats and have safe, honest conversations about what it would be like to fly or how sad it is when a pet dies. We listen to ourselves and to one another.

To me, doing yoga is doing anything that leads to greater awareness, more openness, and easier loving of self, others, and the world in the present moment.

And when I touch in on that understanding, I know exactly what it means to “do yoga” with two-year-olds.

So on that first day of toddler yoga, we pretended to be dogs and cows and trees and mountains. We blew bubbles and watched a Hoberman sphere expand and contract. We listened to music and sang along.  Some kids jumped right in and gave it all a full-body try, working so hard to remember which joint was a knee and which was an elbow and squealing with delight when they balanced on one foot. And some kids sat and watched, cuddling closer into a parent’s reassuring warmth.

It was all yoga.

And one little cutie spent most of the class off to the side, moving his feet slowly in and out of a patch of  sunlight  turning to smile at his mom and announce “Sun in eyes! Sun out of eyes!” before starting the process again. And again.

It was one of the best sun salutations I’ve ever seen.

 

Popcorn!

Post by post, I seem to be writing a guide called 101 Fun Yoga Games to Play with Pom Poms.

Idea #72: Pom Pom Popcorn Scramble! This is a great energy-dispersing, good-feeling-generating physical challenge for all ages.

Here’s what you need:

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1 pot, preferably with a lid

A whole bunch of pom poms

Popcorn by the Barenaked Ladies (silly name, yes, and this song is from their excellent, quirky children’s album Lunchtime) cued up on the sound system.

Here’s how we play:

•  Fill a pan with popcorn pom poms.

•  Remind the kids about any rules during the game.

I usually have three rules:

1) Once the music starts, sit as still as possible in easy pose until you hear the singer say the word POP three times. Then get up and get ready to move!

2) Each time we play, we have one fun rule about retrieving popcorn, such as: only one or two kernels at a time; you have to hop or skip or tiptoe to the pom poms and crawl back to the pot; you have to balance pom poms on your head to bring them back to the pot; you can only retrieve pom poms with your toes, etc.

3) When the music stops, everyone returns to their mats and sits in easy pose.

•  Start the music! Hold the pot out over a pretend stove, and dramatically act out turning up the heat. When the singer starts to say POP, remove the lid, and throw the “popcorn” all over the room!!! (Little kids especially love this part – a grown-up, making a big mess and throwing stuff? Awesome!) Kids retrieve all the popcorn, according to whatever “rule” has been imposed.

•  Do it again! This is one of those games that always ends in “Do it again!”  And, like the Water Balloon game, it leaves you with happy, laughing kids who have just expended some silly energy and who end the game in easy pose, breathing deeply and ready to transition into the next activity.

The me-too jar

The kids in my yoga classes like to talk.  A lot.

When I first started planning yoga classes for kids, I set aside 5 minutes at the beginning for everyone to answer a question, calling the group’s attention to that day’s theme and settling us into a class routine.

But we rarely finished answering the question in 5 minutes. Or 10 minutes. The kids wanted to share. To respond. To know more about one another. To say, “Oh, yeah!  Me too!” and weave in their own thoughts to what another student just said. Sometimes conversations were silly, and there was a lot of laughter in our circle. Other times, the tone was more thoughtful or even serious.

And something special was happening during these conversations. Kids shared their true feelings about what they cared about, at school and at home. Kids expressed their shared frustration about feeling left out or teased, their joy about birthdays and sleepovers and scoring a winning goal or getting a new cat. I heard them build on one another’s dreams about saving the planet and talk about who they want to be as adults.

Best of all, I saw kids connect with one another. With an adult there to provide scaffolding (stay somewhat on topic, be kind, wait your turn, can you say more about that?) and modeling, (“Wow, that must have been a really sad day when your dog got hurt”), conversations could be silly or serious, sometimes both, but always safe. Within that warm safety, hearts opened,  sarcasm evaporated, and kids listened carefully and responded with gusto.

At first I worried that we were spending so much of a yoga class not really “doing yoga.”

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that these conversations support exactly what I hope kids will experience in a Friendly Yoga class – the growth of inner and outer friendliness and deep comfort showing up in our circle of mats to safely be exactly who they are that day, body, mind, and spirit.

Also, since talking is pretty natural for most kids, everyone starts class feeling at ease. The physical part of yoga comes easily for some  kids, especially the dancers and gymnasts and those kids who are just naturally rubbery or strong or kinesthetic learners. But most groups have a couple of kids who are stiff from years of hockey or sedentary play or who struggle with balance or have disabilities or who are just self conscious about moving their body in front of their peers. Having conversations that emphasize individuality and mutual support sets an important tone that lasts for the rest of class.

Once I truly believed in the power of the Friendly Yoga conversations, I officially incorporated them into our class routine in 3 ways:

I committed to keeping Friendly Yoga classes small. I occasionally teach 20 Girl Scouts or a big group at a community event, but I keep most classes capped at 12, 6 to 8 for my littlest kids.  I could fit more mats in the room, and keep a larger group engaged, but I can’t build the group dynamic as easily, and conversations lose their power.

I made Friendly Yoga classes a little bit longer to accommodate a 15-20 solid minutes of discussion.

I incorporated props to structure turn-taking and skillful listening.  Conversations go best with a minimum of interruption and off-topic diversion, and a physical object can go a long way toward keeping things on track.

One tool I sometimes use to build in this structure is a me-too jar.photo-1

The me-too jar couldn’t be simpler. I use a glass mason jar and craft store pom-poms.  The jar sits in the middle of our circle, and  before the day’s question is asked (What do you love to do on the weekends? If you could only keep one box of your stuff, what would you pack? What’s your favorite dessert?), I give each child and myself as many pom-poms as there are people in the room.

I remind the kids that they will each get a turn to talk, and I challenge them to say nothing out loud while another friend has a turn.  Instead, if what someone else says resonates, they can add a pom-pom to the jar.

The me-too jar is a concrete way for kids to show the speaker that a connection has been made and to practice active, encouragement-filled listening.  They enjoy the tactile satisfaction of holding onto soft pom-poms, and some movement is added to what can otherwise be a long (but profitable) period of sitting, as the kids move into the middle of the circle to deposit their pom-poms in the jar and then return to their mats.

When we’re done, extra pom-poms get put back in the jar, the jar is put away, and we are ready to move into our physical yoga as an even more connected, friendly, encouraging group.