One of the great joys of teaching yoga and mindfulness to children is introducing them to the wonder of breath. The breath is our ally, it is always with us and can be accessed anytime, anyplace. When we learn to pay attention to our breath, it can tell us something about how we are feeling and with this awareness we can discover the capacity of using our breath for self-regulation.
This can be particularly helpful for young children as they are often subject to sensory overload, not to mention that their brains are “under construction.” This is a term used by neuropsychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel to describe what neuroscience research has established; that the brain isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties. As we consider our children’s evolving brains and that experiences help shape their brain, teaching children about their breath and how to use their breath to help regulate their emotions is key.
When we teach kids to pay attention to their breath, then educate them on how to breathe fully and deeply we are actually familiarizing them with the effects of the parasympathetic nervous system. This branch of the autonomic nervous system induces calm and relaxation; it sends signals through the body that all is well and safe. From this place of calm and ease we are better able to access and strengthen connections to the area of the brain that helps manage our emotions and solve problems more skillfully.
Empowering kids from a young age about the value of their own breath is a powerful tool for teaching self-regulation. Practicing breath work with your child creates experiences that help them integrate healthy ways for coping with strong emotions. Here are some fun ideas for teaching your child at home.
Make it experiential! Using a prop like a pinwheel or bubbles can make breath work fun! These props not only capture a young child’s attention but can also help teach a child to slow down and extend their exhalation. This is important because the extension of the exhale is what helps ignite the parasympathetic nervous system.
Teaching a child through the use of a prop can come in handy too when a child is having a meltdown. For example, handing your child the pinwheel that they’ve been practicing with can act as a visual cue, reminding them to breathe. What’s more, if you have a pinwheel to model with, you can practice along side your child activating your own parasympathetic nervous system. As parents, when we are in a state of calm, we are better able to attune and respond to our children’s needs.
Here are some instructions for teaching breathing exercises with the use of a prop: Remember to make it fun and practice when your child is calm and alert. Keep in mind your child’s attention span, short periods of practice throughout the week works best.
Another breathing exercise and of one of my favorite methods for introducing breath awareness and diaphragmatic breathing to kids is called Rock-A-Bye Breathing. This is a great activity to use when your child seems particularly active. Because of the calming effects (activating the parasympathetic nervous system), try practicing before bedtime, during transitions or when your child is feeling anxious or worried; add calming music and see amazing results!
Bring awareness to your child’s rise and fall of the belly by placing a small stuffed animal on their stomach. Notice as the animal moves up and down to the rhythm of their breath. Practice the same breathing technique mentioned above. Focusing their attention on their breath and the rise and fall of the stuffed animal is a great way to help calm the body and mind, especially before bedtime. The novelty of rocking their stuffed animal to sleep will surely capture their interest!
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