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!

Sometimes I feel like jumping for joy!

A gentle roller coaster of rising and falling energy. That’s the image I keep in mind when planning a yoga class for young children.

ImageThe peak of each upswing gives kids a chance to expend energy, to find themselves in their bodies, to express themselves and laugh and play and move.

And then we coast into a quieter activity that challenges the kids to slow down, relax, notice, and focus, externally and internally.

Friendly Yoga classes usually begin with a greeting song, and then a chance for each child to ring our chime or answer a question. For the youngest kids, that’s quite enough sitting still, thank you very much!

Time for an exuberant warm-up to get our muscles pumping, our faces smiling.

One song I love to begin with is Sometimes by Frances England. Sometimes is the first song on her first CD, Fascinating Creatures.

Intermission!! Three fun things to know about Frances England.

ONE: Her children’s music  – – melodies, lyrics, her voice  – –  is sweet, folky, intelligent, playful, and original. I play a lot of Frances England songs in my classes.

TWO: (I especially love this one) She recorded her first CD as a fundraiser for her son’s school, not expecting that a wider audience would ever hear it.

THREE: She also has a beautiful album of music especially for grown-ups.

Intermission over!! Back to fun yoga class planning!

Here you can find the lyrics to Sometimes, along with some drawings suggesting “moves” you might do with the kids during each part of the song.

Before we begin, I tell the kids that it’s a listening and doing song and that we’re going to listen to what the singer says about her feelings, and act it out with our bodies. The first time or two that we listen to it, I repeat or paraphrase each lyric to the group, as if I’m hearing it for the first time.

The major warm-up action comes during the chorus:

high, high diddy high hee hee

low, low diddy low hoo hoo

When she sings “high,high…” we reach up as high as we can, up on tiptoe, fingers wiggling to the ceiling.

When she sings “low, low…” we quickly flatten ourselves as low as we can onto the ground, like the beginning of a cobra pose. The kids love the challenge of moving quickly from up to down and back up again.

During the verse that begins, “The highs, they soar…” we’re already on the ground, so we stay on our bellies, and when she sings about the highs, we raise our arms and legs, in a flying “superman” pose.  When she sings about the lows, we rest our limbs back down onto the ground.

You’ll be surprised how out of breath you are by the end of this one! It ends with everyone deliciously tuckered out and on their bellies, and I usually say something like “Now rest on your bellies and turn your head to one side, with your ear on the ground. Can you feel your heart beating or your belly pushing into the ground when you breathe? Turn your head to look the other way, and take two more deep breaths, in and out.  In and out.” I then use a very quiet voice to transition them into a story, meditation, or quiet noticing activity.

Planning tip: It’s especially helpful if warm-up activities like this end with the kids in a physical/attentional position in which they are “with you” and ready to follow you down into a more relaxed, focused state.  This song/activity sets you up perfectly for that transition.

As always, enjoy, and feel free to share!

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.