Last week’s post looked at ways to use crafts to teach children about relaxation. Today’s post is all about specific physical movements and exercises that aim to teach children how to relax their bodies. These ideas can be easily applied to the counselling or therapy setting. The idea is that if kids can learn to control their own bodies, they can better regulate their entire range of emotions, from anxiety, to anger, to grief. Relaxation is not about escaping or suppressing emotions, but about being able to recognize and manage the way those emotions impact one’s body. Relaxation gives children the ability to find relief when their feelings seem big and out of control, and it enables them to choose better ways of expressing their emotions to the people around them.
Here are 4 ways to teach kids about relaxation and their bodies:
1) Relaxation Scripts:
There are many different ways to teach progressive muscle relaxation in child-friendly way. For those who may not know, progressive muscle relaxation is exactly what it sounds like: progressively working one’s way through the body, and relaxing one group of muscles at a time. Relaxation is achieved first by tensing and then releasing each muscle group. By doing so, kids (and adults) learn to recognize the difference between feelings of tension and relaxation. It does take a few minutes to do progressive muscle relaxation. However, once they become proficient at it, children can identify where they feel tense and focus specifically on relaxing that area instead of having to go through their entire bodies.
One of the easiest ways to teach muscle relaxation is to use a script tailored for children. The University of Washington has a great script in which children pretend to squeeze lemons, tuck their heads in their shells like turtles, stretch like a lazy cat, chew a giant jawbreaker and so on. I’ve known children who’ve used this script to help them relax at bedtime and go to sleep. While this script can be a lot of fun, it does take several minutes to do and really young or easily distractible children may find it challenging to make it all the way through.
For younger children who might have a difficult time keeping attention for a longer script, the metaphor of raw spaghetti and cooked spaghetti can work well. In this exercise, children practice tightening their whole bodies like a string of raw spaghetti, rigid and stiff. They can do this standing up or lying down on the floor or couch. You may want to bring in a few sticks of raw spaghetti though, as some kids might not know what it looks like before it is cooked. Once they are as tight as they can be, then they pretend they are cooked spaghetti and make their bodies go limp and wiggly. Children can alternate between raw and cooked spaghetti many times. You can add some music in to make this activity extra fun.
The book Early Steps Physical Education Curriculum has a version of this activity called “Spaghetti Dance”. Although the activity is adapted for use in a classroom setting, you could use this in a therapeutic group or an individual session. The book suggests using a pot, a pack of spaghetti and some cooked spaghetti to narrate the activity the first time, and then children are to act it out with their bodies. Designate an area to be the pot and have the children pretend to be the spaghetti and dance around. First they are stiff and straight as they dance. Then they jump into the “pot” and slowly become loose and flexible like spaghetti that is cooked. The script continues with the spaghetti boiling over the pot, and the noodles spilling out. Kids can be goofy and try to wiggle their bodies into different shapes as they move around the room.
Follow this activity with a discussion about relaxation and how our bodies tighten up when we are anxious or angry or afraid, and then how we can make ourselves feel better by purposefully loosening our muscles up like the spaghetti.
Yoga is a great activity for teaching kids about relaxation. Yoga improves strength, balance, and flexibility as well as helping kids learn to control their bodies. The slow movement of yoga stretches and poses combined with deep breathing relieves stress and enables kids to relax. As with progressive muscle relaxation, kids can use their favourite yoga poses to help when they feel tense or upset.
Here are two sites with some kid-friendly yoga poses:
You can also check out Cosmic Kids Yoga’s YouTube channel. Here you’ll find lots of yoga videos with different storylines and a variety of fun themes to make learning yoga an adventure. There are videos for toddlers and older kids, for bedtime, calming, confidence and more.
For those kids that may not want to do something as structured as a relaxation script or a series of yoga poses, dance is a great alternative. Kids can learn about and loosen up their bodies through dance. They can use their movement as an outlet for emotions and pent up energy. Plus doing any kind of physical exercise is linked with stress relief and improved relaxation. Add in some music for an extra relaxation boost. Kids can easily incorporate the benefits of dance into their daily lives. There is also lots of opportunity in the community to take formal dance lessons. Kids will be healthier, stronger, and more in touch with their bodies, all of which will help them manage their stress and emotions better.
Those are four of my favourite exercises. What are your favourite strategies for teaching children about relaxation?