5 Tips for 5 and Under by NGY Teacher, Kelli Mae Willis

Every age and developmental stage brings a unique excitement and challenge to teaching Kids Yoga. Perhaps because my own children are quite young, I feel I’ve really honed in on the attitude and toolset that works for children 5 and under. When you find the groove with this age group, classes can become a joyous experience, full of play, profound insight, and plenty of silliness. Here are my top five tips for managing classes for children ages 5 and under.

  1. Notice what they’re noticing
    All my life, I was told I was “good with kids,” when it seemed to me, all I was doing was paying attention. However, when we have a Class Plan, we might feel so full of our own ideas, we sometimes forget to check in with our students!One of the greatest tools I learned from Circus Yoga was to become a master of improvisation. If a spider walks across a Yoga mat and everyone reacts, our next song is going to be Itsy Bitsy Spider. If a child is really excited to make dragon noises, then we are all going to practice Dragon Breath (yes it’s a thing because I invented it in this very way). If I need to draw a child back to the group, I acknowledge what it is that’s distracting them first. “You’d like to ring the bell. You can ring it after we lie down, I will tell you when. Now you can go lie down for Savasana.”At any age, it’s powerful when you can meet someone where they are. For young children, there’s really not much else you can do! They are banging the door, I need them to be quieter and closer to the group. So I say, “Come play your blanket drum over here by your mat.” It’s simple, and it makes me feel like a magician for how well it (usually!) works.
  2. Say what you want and make their “No” your “Yes”
    This tip is two-fold. First, the more simple and direct we can be with our words, the better. Young children are deep in the process of learning language, and we will lose their engagement if we clutter our words. The difference between, “I’m not so sure that playing with your block like that is going to be a really good idea,” and “Your block goes here,” is profound. They don’t need to be convinced, they need to be able to understand you.In the same way, using “don’t” or “no” can be confusing and ultimately fruitless for very young children. When they hear you say, “Don’t throw the block,” they have to imagine “throw the block,” to understand your words, and then guess what happens?! Instead, when you say, “put the block on your mat,” they process exactly what you do want, and are far more likely to follow along.Two, 3, and 4-year-olds are designed to say no, to push limits, and to ask for boundaries. It can be exhausting to say “Don’t do that,” 20 times a day. Instead, use your magic and redirect like a boss. If a child is throwing a block, I might say, “Let’s hold the block in our hands. Or you can try to balance it on your head like me.” The excitement around throwing the block is then replaced by the excitement of watching a grown-up do something playful and challenging.Another strategy is to always offer two choices you are happy with. We remind the caregivers of this strategy when we say at the beginning of class, “You can do yoga, or you can watch yoga.” The child always has a choice, but both situations will keep the class flowing smoothly.
  3. Imitation is everything
    The primary way young children learn is through imitation. That means you as the teacher will be doing all of the silly movements and sounds along with your class. I like to think of it this way: My movements show them what to do with their bodies. My words engage their imagination. This is quite different from an adult Yoga class, and it allows us to be even more simple and intentional with our words.It’s also important for you to model engagement for the adults. When I teach Family Yoga, I teach to the adults, knowing that the parents will model me, and the children will model them. I also share with adults that children this age may only watch during class, but will go home and reenact the whole experience later on. This is very normal and can put adults at ease if they are worried that their children aren’t “doing it right.”
  4. Rhythm, music, breath, and touch
    As a Waldorf teacher, I have a deep appreciation for the power of rhythm and music to engage children. Rhythm – clapping, stomping, or rhythmic language – immediately commands attention and focus. Adding music further engages young brains, and supports language development and comprehension. I bring in music or rhyme every 5-10 minutes in a class to refocus the group and reaffirm myself as the leader.As Yoga teachers or students, we are familiar with incorporating guided breathing in our adult classes. We can do the same with children, and it creates the same calming, centering experience. And, side benefit, when children are breathing intentionally, they can’t be shouting or disruptive! Taking a group breath can bring the focus back when a few children are starting to get a bit raucous.Touch is a particularly useful tool for Family Yoga classes. A caregiver can hold, squeeze, rock, or wiggle their little one in time to a song, or to connect in a posture. Young children process their somatic experience more immediately than through language. It can also help to soothe, heal, and stimulate development. Bonus benefit here: teach the children to “massage” their parent or caregiver, beginning a relationship of mutual care and nurturing.
  5. Let yourself play!
    Let’s face it – we teach are Next Generation Yoga Teachers because it is super fun! Where else can you bark like a dog, spray water like an elephant, and eat a giant imaginary pizza? We keep the children engaged when we embrace the play fully, and we ourselves become enlivened by that play. Whenever you are feeling stressed, annoyed, or are having your buttons pushed, take a breath and remember children want to have fun, and so do you!

Kelli Mae Willis
Next Generation Yoga Teacher for 2-13 yr. olds
Olympia, WA

Kelli Mae Willis is a dynamic leader who offers a diverse depth of information in a clear, relevant, and engaging format. She creates exciting learning environments for children and adults. She has over 20 years experience with children and holds certifications as a Waldorf teacher, Children’s Yoga Teacher, in Prenatal Yoga, CircusYoga and AcroYoga. She has been teaching teachers since 2013. Her students find JOY, wisdom, comfort in their own skin and empowerment through the work that Kelli Mae offers, as she is fun and full of heart. She recognizes the beauty and brilliance in each student and supports them to listen to their inner wisdom.  Kelli Mae lives with her husband and two daughters in Olympia, WA. She runs the Children’s Yoga program at True Self Yoga, trueself.yoga/family-yoga


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