As a kid's yoga teacher, I get the chance to explore artistic, creative ways of sharing the practice and its benefits everyday. What’s more, working with the supportive and inspired team at Bent on Learning, NYC’s largest non-profit bringing yoga and meditation to public schools, has helped me develop way to share yoga more creatively.
When sharing yoga with children, inviting creativity through the arts not only makes the postures come alive in more visceral and relatable ways, medical research shows making art, as well as appreciating art, engages kids’ developing brains, firing up regions related to decision making and feeling reward, building self-esteem and independent thinking.
Kids also learn differently. Although there are three major learning styles: kinesthetic, auditory, and visual, there are further subtle ways children engage with the world to derive information and knowledge. The Multiple Intelligences Theory, first proposed by Howard Gardner in 1983 in his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, outlines eight ways people develop and express their intelligence: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Visual-Spatial, Verbal-Linguistic, Musical, Logical-Mathematical and Naturalist.
The great thing about yoga is that it holistically addresses all of these modes of expression; from partner poses, to chanting and singing, to learning about angles as they relate to the body and our bodies as they relate to the natural world.
Here are eight creative ways that engage the various intelligences to share and explore yoga with kids:
1. Draw Your Pose (interpersonal/visual-spatial) – Make yoga flash cards for use in future activities or use a large roll of paper for a banner of poses. This activity works great in a larger group of children but can also accommodate two kids, or one child and one adult. Have kids partner off and choose who will be the “yogi statue” and who will be the “yogi artist”. Statues pick a pose to hold for the artist to draw. When drawing is complete, switch. Make sure to balance out by taking the pose on the other side if it’s asymmetrical. Extra credit for using different colors for various lines found in the pose (e.g.: blue for vertical lines, red for horizontal lines, green for curves)!
2. Musical Mats (musical/bodily-kinesthetic) – This game works best in larger groups of younger children. In a circle, lay out one less mat than there are kids. Place asana index cards at the top of every mat. Press play on a fun, upbeat song and let kids dance (while singing along, perhaps) around the mats in a circle. When the music stops, kids take the pose of whatever mat they land on. Whoever doesn’t get a mat is out and can control the music for the next round, switching for each round. For older kids, and if they’re familiar with poses, after a few rounds, ask them to think about how a counter pose would feel and do that pose instead.
3. I AM (intrapersonal) – Bent On Learning teacher Jocelyn O’Shea practices this mantra meditation with 10th graders at a Brooklyn high school at the end of her yoga classes. It can also be used for younger children (and adults!), encouraging self-reflection, imagination and self-creation. Have kids lie down and take a few deep breaths while finding stillness in their bodies. Prompt them to think about a quality they admire, suggesting a few possible ones, like kind, smart, funny, caring, happy, peaceful, beautiful etc. to put them on the right track. Then ask them to repeat the mantra I am ____, inserting the quality they admire. Encourage kids to start and end their day with this mantra, choosing the quality on which they’d like to focus for that day.
4. Rain Game (naturalist/musical) – This game engages the senses to contrast with complete stillness when you’re done. It works more powerfully in a group but is also appropriate for a duo. Together, you’ll create sounds of a rainstorm. Begin with whooshing sounds, like the wind carrying in rain clouds. Then, thunder slowly rolls in as you begin to pound your feet, thunder stops and rain slowly comes in, snap your fingers. Then part of the group simulates lightening: clap your hands. The rain gets heavier, slap your thighs. Layer sounds for a veritable nature symphony using your hands, voices and imagination. Explore other sound-filled environments from the jungle to the city, the ranch and farm. Sit in stillness when done and explore the sound of silence.
5. Pose Detective (logical-mathematical) – Another game from BOL teacher Jocelyn O’Shea: Once kids are aware of some of the basic poses, call out different body parts that should be touching the mat and have them negotiate their body into a yoga pose that satisfies the request. With Pose Detective kids start listening to their bodies and moving into whatever pose they want or need to practice. I.e. "show me a pose with 2 feet and 2 hands on the mat only". This could result in: downward dog, plank, table pose, upward plank, upward bow, standing forward fold, or a new pose that they invent. It's quite popular with all ages of elementary school K-8. It gives students a chance to make their own choices and promotes creativity within the traditional asanas.
6. Scene of the Pose (verbal-linguistic) – In a larger group, have one child pick a pose for the group to take. The child to his or her right then begins to tell a story, describing the scene around the pose, passing on the scene when they’re done by locking eyes with the next scene-setter. Add points to the game by awarding one point per detail they use to describe the scene. Encourage them to use imagery related to poses and each time a pose-specific animal, plant or thing is mentioned, the group takes that pose.
7. Yoga Pictionary (interpersonal/visual-spatial) – Play this with teams of two or more members. The first team up chooses one member to be the ‘drawer’. Set a timer to 30 seconds. Start the timer when the drawer picks a card (use your asana cards or write the names of poses on pieces of paper). Draw clues without drawing the exact pose. 4 points for guessing before time runs out with an extra point if they guess within 20 seconds, 2 extra points if they guess within 10 seconds. 1 point goes to each of the other teams if they don’t guess before time runs out.
8. Yoga Song, Rap or Rhyme (musical, interpersonal) – Last year, while I was beginning to learn guitar thanks through a partnership with Guitars in the Classroom (side note: AWESOME charity), my class and I came up with a yoga song which we performed for the school at the annual potluck presentation. It went something like this: Yoga, it’s a life-long practice / and yoga – it’s not just poses, it’s loving, caring, showing and growing / smiling, learning, loving and knowing / that you and I are brothers / yea you and I are sisters / yea you and I are one – and the same. We’re all familiar with the power of music to not only bring everyone together with a shared melody, but to also help assimilate ideas seamlessly and enjoyably. Using a familiar melody kids already recognize (or make one up!) write a song, rap or rhyme together about sun salutations, a yogic theme (giving, forgiving, breathing, compassion) or even to breakdown a pose. Repetition of lyrics is especially helpful with younger children. As a bonus, when times get a little tough off the mat, bust out your tune to playfully remind kids about the good stuff.
Children and young adults hardly ever operate in isolation (no one does, really). Through their developmental phases, like seedlings needing external energy sources to emerge, they’re constantly picking up cues from their environment on how to think, speak, act and feel. WE are their environment. As a global family plugged into one another more and more each day, isn’t it is every single person’s responsibility to care for what goes out from us and into the environment as thought, word, action and feeling? And it starts with presence, actually being there and embodied in your own self in an intentional and interested way, as interesting role models. Because, whether or not we realize it or even have children in our lives on a day-to-day basis, we’re all modeling the world they’re stepping into.
Taking the time to form and encourage habits that nurture children’s independent curiosity is crucial. This independent curiosity, naturally plentiful in growing children, is daily eroded by social rules, standardized testing, a want and need to fit in, and control mechanisms used to keep order in schools and at home. Spending time with children to help them develop tools with which to explore and engage beyond what they’re told to do and into what empowers self-directed growth is as essential as ever today. With yoga as the platform, and creativity as the intention, learning can take place along every step of a child’s development, giving them the keys to a self-fulfilled life outside of the text box and into themselves.
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