How to Make Kids’ Yoga Engaging, Playful, and Effective

Maybe you want to teach yoga to kids but you aren’t sure where to begin, or maybe you’ve taught kids before and realized that sustaining their attention involved way more than mooing like a cow and getting the wiggles out.

Either way, you may be wondering: How do I make kids’ yoga classes both age-appropriate and engaging? Do I need additional kids’ yoga training, even if I already teach adults? How can I tell if what I’m offering my students is really sinking in and benefiting them?

Below you’ll find doses of wisdom useful for those considering or continuing this dynamic and fun journey, gleaned from seasoned kids’ yoga teachers Jennifer Cohen Harper of Little Flower Yoga, Sheila Palmquist of Take 5, and Amanda Masters of Bright Kids Yoga. Little Flower Yoga is based in New York, serving kids and teens in all five boroughs of NYC and Westchester County; Take 5 is a Lincoln, Nebraska-based organization (to learn more about Take 5, check out this interview I did with Palmquist in 2014); and Bright Kids is a newly developed organization serving Wayne County, Pennsylvania, school systems.

From our conversations, I’ve culled ten things you may want to consider as you continue to explore this heartfelt venture.

1. Yes, you may want to bolster your skills with some training.

Be sure to do a local or online* kids’ yoga training, even if you’ve been teaching adult classes for “forever.” Many organizations won’t ask for your credentials, but teaching a kids’ class is very different from teaching a yoga class for adults (see point 3) so you’ll want to go in prepared.

2. Connect with your community to get your foot in the door or expand your reach.

As a new kids’ yoga teacher, you’ll need to interact with and gain traction and support from your community. A great way to begin is to give the adults you approach a reason to think yoga is a good idea for the kids they serve. “Go into a community center, a daycare center, or an after school program and teach the staff or administration a regular yoga class,” Palmquist suggests. “Once they feel the benefits of practice, they’ll naturally want their kids to experience those benefits too.”

According to Masters, you could also connect with a friend who already works with children and see if they’ll be your inside person. “I’m friends with our school’s guidance counselor and for two years she’s been my scheduler and booker. I let her know when I can come in and she finds space for me to teach,” she elaborates.

And according to Harper, connecting with local (experienced) kids’ yoga teachers who may let you observe or assist their classes, or even practice teach during them, is also valuable. As an added benefit, it also supports the teachers. “Most don’t want to go it alone,” she remarks. “It’s infinitely better to teach when you have a community of support.”

Also, just a few practical notes: When you approach organizations and school administrations, have scientific data at your fingertips that demonstrates that yoga can have a positive effect on youngsters. Also, check in with the organizations you want to work with and find out which clearances you’ll need before getting started. For example, you’ll likely need background checks such as an FBI fingerprint background check, a criminal record background check, and a state child abuse background check. Some places also require CPR certification.

3. Learn the difference between sequencing a kids’ yoga class and sequencing an adult class.

Kids’ yoga classes defy the standard bell-curve sequencing we adult yogis are familiar with (i.e., centering, raising the energy level, then lowering it back down to close with relaxation). You’re going to need to monitor the energy levels of the class and adjust your plan accordingly and have some kid-friendly games on hand.

In her elementary-school classes, Masters works with an “exhale/inhale” structure: “I start class on an ‘inhale,’ asking the kids to focus and bring their energy in, and then I offer something that’s a little more active, that involves movement or a game.” She continues, “That’s the ‘exhale,’ but if you go with this exhale for too long they get really wild. So you have to bring the energy back in [for another inhale moment] with balance poses or by having a discussion.”

Repetition is important, not only to provide kids with a feeling of safety that comes from knowing what to expect, but also so that they can develop a sense of mastery.

For consistency’s sake, Masters also starts and ends each of her kids’ yoga classes the same way, with centering and relaxation. Repetition is important, she adds, not only to provide kids with a feeling of safety that comes from knowing what to expect, but also so that they can develop a sense of mastery. “Do some things differently to keep their interest, have fun and develop new skills that push them forward, but circle back to a lot of the same things too. Kids love repetition.”

And a final note about sequencing from Masters: Older kids (upper middle school and high school) will often do pretty well with a more standard adult-style class.

4. Encourage self-reflection.

People often assume that kids’ yoga is only about playing games and having fun, but according to the teachers I spoke with, there’s way more to it than that. As a kids’ yoga teacher, you’re also there to foster self-compassion, self-regulation, and empathy. To help instill these lessons, it’s useful to engage your students in a little self-reflection along with games of “yogi says” and musical mats.

“One of the breathing exercises we do is called ‘open and close my book,’” says Palmquist. “It’s about bringing in what you need, letting go of what you don’t—filling up your heart so that you can give to others.” (The practice involves syncing your breathing with fluid hand gestures, and you can watch Palmquist teach it here, in this sample Take 5 class, after the centering practice). “It gives them an opportunity to discover what letting go and giving back means to them.”

But of course kids’ yoga also isn’t about asking kids (or ourselves) to take anything too seriously either, as having fun and being thoughtful are not mutually exclusive. Harper reminds, “While we have to teach the practices with real depth, our teaching style can still be light and playful in spirit.”

5. Don’t rely on a standard mat-based yoga practice.

Beside the fact that games often require kids to leave their mats, if you’re teaching kids in school environments, you won’t always find time or space to lead them in mat-based practices—especially if you’re teaching older kids who don’t have as flexible a schedule as kindergartners might. In these instances, meet them where they are (at their desks!) with kid-friendly chair yoga practices.

Being able to offer chair yoga practices to kids will also be important when/if you have students who are in wheelchairs (see point 8).

6. Be real with kids you work with.

Children often pick up on what we’re putting down, and if we’re feeling grumpy or restless but we’re asking them to be serene and calm, we’re not exactly leading by example. Thankfully, according to Palmquist, this can be a wonderful teaching moment in how to project rather than suppress emotions.

“You can say ‘I'm feeling frustrated that you are not listening to me. I'm going to take five belly breaths because my body feels upset and anxious,” she explains, adding that “Being angry or frustrated does not make you wrong, and I think we need to be better about teaching this to our kids: It’s okay for them to feel what they’re feeling, and all of their feelings are all valid.”

7. Remember that in a kids’ yoga class, participation comes in many forms.

As teachers, we may also need to let go of our expectations about what it means to be a “good” yoga student (i.e., we may presume that a good student’s eyes are always on the teacher, that they always respond perfectly to verbal cueing, or that they take part in every activity). Just because a kid isn’t participating in the way we expect them to or are comfortable with, that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in or benefiting from yoga.

“Some kids need to observe for some time before they are ready to jump in fully. Others may seem like they aren’t paying attention, and then we learn they are doing the practices on their own at home or teaching them to their parents,” Harper says. “Many kids are engaged more fully when we invite them to give feedback via non-verbal communication such as a thumbs up or down, rather than speaking in front of the group,” she continues.

And of course there will be kids who don’t like yoga, and that’s totally fine too. After all, no matter how much we may want to, we can’t will everyone to enjoy this practice just because we think it’s valuable.

8. Be consistent, know your audience, and be trauma-informed.

As a kids’ yoga teacher, you can become a reliable adult in the life of a child who may not otherwise have one. Showing up consistently with an attitude of compassion and understanding is important, along with having an understanding of childhood trauma statistics and some training in trauma-informed yoga. On that note, Little Flower Yoga offers a webinar in trauma-sensitive yoga for kids, which makes training in this particular aspect of kids’ yoga super accessible.

As a kids’ yoga teacher, you can become a reliable adult in the life of a child who may not otherwise have one.

Of course, you may also work with kids who have different socioeconomic, ethnic, and health-related backgrounds than you, so having some diversity training and training in accessible yoga will also be extremely useful. Thankfully, Kidding Around Yoga (an organization that offers online and in-person kids’ yoga teacher trainings) offers online trainings in both, which you can find links to here and here.

9. Provide practical tools that flow off the mat, into their daily lives.

Many kids’ yoga teachers incorporate affirmations into poses as a resource for self-empowerment. For example, in warrior poses, you could have your students repeat “I am strong,” “I am powerful,” or “I am in charge.” Another idea, from Masters, is to integrate a different kind of affirmation work in kirtan kriya, a seated kundalini practice where you tap your thumb against each finger while reciting “sa ta na ma” (I am truth). For kids’ yoga purposes, with each finger you could instead say “I can find peace.”

In her classes, Palmquist refers to child’s pose as rock pose, offering kids a safe haven. “I tell them, ‘You can imagine you’re a rock and whatever storm is going on around you, you’re grounded and safe, you can let it roll off.’ Because some kids don’t know what they’re going to walk into when they go home, giving them this option can help them take deep breaths and find a sense of control.

“I think it’s important to make sure that when we’re presenting these tools we recognize how they might spill over into a lifelong practice of breathwork and movement,” she adds, “and more so to recognize the connection between the practices you’re teaching them and their emotions.”

In general, it’s important to give kids the opportunity to tune in to what they’re experiencing in poses, which can help them make this emotional connection. “I’ll sometimes ask them, ‘What was that like when you fell out of a pose? How did it make you feel? Did you get mad?’” says Masters.“It’s sort of a playground to explore the same feelings they will experience elsewhere.”

10. Track success with surveys.

Remember that tip about having data on hand when you approach the school systems or organizations you want to work with? Well, once your teaching is well underway, you can start compiling your own research by tracking the effectiveness of your kids’ yoga classes with surveys. When you’re ready, here’s a valuable resource from Kidding Around Yoga that will help you define your research goals, make your survey age-appropriate, and give you a general sense for how to distribute surveys to your students.

On another practical level, beyond simply presenting evidence to the adults, surveys can also help you gauge how your students feel before and after an extended experience with yoga. This will, of course, give you valuable insight into small (or big!) changes you can make to ensure your classes become even more effective over time.

A final consideration…

So yes, there are a lot of things to keep in mind as a kids’ yoga teacher, but as you continue on this path, also put this encouraging note from Harper in your back pocket: “I always want to remind folks (including myself) that the most important thing we can offer children is our powerfully compassionate attention. If we commit to our own practice, to building our own self-awareness and self-compassion, our presence itself will become a resource for the kids in our lives, whether or not we ever ‘teach’ them yoga.”

*If you’re feeling inspired and ready to continue your studies, here are some online training resources:

Rainbow Yoga

Yoga in My School

Cosmic Kids

Yoga Education Institute

Little Flower Yoga (as mentioned above)

Kidding Around Yoga (as mentioned above)

Take 5 Program 

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Kathryn Ashworth

Kathryn Ashworth

Kathryn is an associate editor, yoga teacher, and writer at Yoga International. She views yoga as a healing resource that can re-awaken a sense of wonder and individual purpose, and her specific... Read more>>  

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