I’ve been taking an online course created by the Greater Good Science Center called: The Science of Happiness. It is a comprehensive compilation of the research into what cultivates human happiness. Not surprising, personal happiness, correlated with greater well-being, sense of value, purpose, and healthy relationships, comes down to how we think about and treat ourselves.
One of the key “mental habits” of happiness is self-compassion. Self-compassion is self-understanding, self-support, and self-kindness. It’s the opposite of judgment, punishment, and martyrdom. It’s how we are taught to treat others, yet not ourselves. Most of us can soothe a friend much better than we can ourselves. Think about it – how much do you internally push, criticize, or have unreasonable expectations for yourself – then complain about your stress?
The bad news is that we are caught in the gap between the rules of our old social systems and institutions and the truths of our new understanding of what cultivates physical, mental, and emotional health. We’ve been indoctrinated into the pressure to perform, the focus on extrinsic rewards, constant comparison to others, the drill and grill approach to education, and yet we know and experience that those ways of being/thinking produce what the researchers call “toxic thought patterns”, which negatively affect our health, our abilities, and our joy.
The good news is that we are learning not only to value but also to practice slowing down, self-caring, being mindful, being compassionate, and developing our heart intelligence. Why? Because self-compassionate people enjoy greater psychological health and happiness. Who doesn’t want…
- Less stress, anxiety, depression
- More heart rate variability and stronger vagal (social) nervous system activity
- Less perfectionism and fear of failure
- Greater emotional intelligence and resilience around negative events, emotions, and pain
- Greater mindfulness, curiosity, and coping skills
- Better relatedness and relationships
My point is – this Thanksgiving, be grateful for yourself and practice self- care and compassion.
- Be mindful of yourself – notice and acknowledge your needs, feelings, and desires. Let them guide you in taking good care of yourself so you can enjoy the holiday and your loved ones.
- Be kind to yourself – soothe, comfort, support, ask for support. Don’t judge.
- Remember you are human – just like everyone else. You are not less than; you are not the only one struggling or suffering; you are not alone. You are, just like the rest of us, doing your best. Give yourself permission to be vulnerable, accept your mistakes, celebrate your strengths, honor your boundaries, and admit your weaknesses.
How self-compassionate are you? Find out by completing Kristin Neff’s self-compassion test at her website, self-compassion.org.
The research on the benefits of exercise for young and old, like self-regulation and mindfulness, is definitive. I think we can all agree how important movement is to well-being, development, learning, and behavior. We certainly don’t need more information to be convinced. What we need is a way to fit it all into the day!
Before we get into ways to integrate more active play and slow, intentional throughout the day, I want to summarize per Kids Health. Young children, preschoolers to second grade, should engage daily in 60 minutes of planned physical activity(supervised/instructional) AND 60 minutes unstructured physical activity (free play). I know you know why but I’m including a list of highlights here anyway – as a reminder.
So how do you build in a minimum 2 hours of instructional and supported physical activity, with all the other requirements to be met?
- First, decide.
- Second, establish a regular schedule.
- Third, explore new resources, learn new games, and plan the activities you will use.
My hypothesis is that once you commit to daily classroom movement 10-20 minutes, 4 -6 times a day for a month, there will be no turning back. You and your students will not only feel better but also behave and learn better. All the reasons why you didn’t do it before will be history. More movement will be your secret solution to a happier, more productive classroom.
In addition to our Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum and Scooter & Me Yoga Adventures video class series, there are many great resources from which to choose. Whatever you choose, remember to follow active, aerobic play with 30 seconds – 1 minute worth of slow, intentional movement before transitioning to another activity, especially an academic one. Cardio exercise increases dopamine and neurotropic factor, BDNF, in the bloodstream. Slow, focused movement such as yoga, then concentrates that BDNF in the hippocampus to support memory and executive functions, while also grounding the body and integrating the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Let each child choose a colorful sheet of felt and use it to mark their place in space. You can buy them in a myriad of colors at any Michael’s or other crafts store. Use them as is (8.5” x 11”) or cut into squares and then spread out to enjoy a range of physical activities that are safe, fun, creative, as well as both fast and slow to develop all three elements of fitness: endurance, strength, & flexibility.
Put on any, and over time, all kinds of music and lead choreography that uses the felt as the focal point for the body – kind of like that Dance Revolution video game. Choreography can be standing or sitting and ideally moves through both and leaves room for kids to try some choreography of their own. This activity also develops focus, concentration, spatial awareness & kinesthetic coordination. Examples:
Stand on felt – Jump feet to either side – Jump back – Jump front & back – switch legs. Repeat… now in slow motion, tap with right toe 3 x – tap with left toe 3 times – fast now touch right heel, left heel, right heel. Repeat 3 x and then squat like a frog on a lily pad. Take some deep breaths, maybe snag a fly, hop froggies hop – look how high! No show me your own choreography. You can be a froggy, a dolphin, a ballerina, a bird… or yourself! (Then coach from sidelines!)
Throw and catch felt open handed, trying not to let it touch the floor AND not to grab or scrunch it. Imagine each felt square as a butterfly! You can toss to each child, they can pair up and toss to each other, or children can toss and catch individually. I recommend using classical, flowing, or circus music depending upon the mood you want to inspire.
This activity requires focus, speed, and finesse. It cultivates observational skills, carefulness, and fluidity while moving quickly, which is a challenge for anyone!
Pass the felt using different body parts.
Example: Designate 2 parallel lines on opposite sides of the space with tape. Children stand on lines facing each other, paired with person across from them. One person from each pair is given a piece of felt to be balanced on a body part, such as an elbow. That player must get to his/her partner balancing and keeping the felt on his/her elbow; then pass it with only using elbows. That player must then move back to the other line without losing the felt from his/her elbow. If felt does fall to ground, both plyers can help, only using elbows to get it back on and continue.
Use felt to get safely across the hot lava, or shark filled ocean, or whatever imagery serves!
Divide children into groups of 3 or 5. However many in a group, give them 1 less pieces of felt. Ex: Groups of 4 get 3 pieces. Start groups at one end of the space. Their challenge, should they accept it, is to get to the other side touching only the felt and never the floor or ground!
Both activities inspire lots of laughter, silliness, and crowded cooperation that is fun, physical, educational and community building.
I just returned from the NAEYC conference in Washington DC. At the enormous and beautifully designed and equipped Kaplan section (they had a mini-stage and even a photo booth!), Wendy and I presented Move with Me Yoga Adventures’ resources and curriculum (checkout the new PP on our homepage – with research summary). And though it went well and some participants thanked us enthusiastically, frankly, I felt like a drop in a bucket. There was so much being offered and promoted simultaneously in all directions in the exhibit hall, I felt a bit overwhelmed and insignificant (same thing happens to me in Costco!).
But, after a few deep breaths and some body re-energizing, my brain was back online and I decided to explore and educate myself. In a place packed with everyone and everything associated with ECE – educators, administrators, content vendors, distributors, and developers – I had to just jump in and swim.
Here’s what I discovered…
- Smart, creative books for every situation and every child – stories are powerful teachers
- Amazing outdoor environments & playground equipment – wish all preschools could afford
- Fun cards, games, puppets, puzzles, and many variations of manipulatives for math, pretend play, fine motor skill development, etc. – always needed
- Cool STEM resources such as light boxes, tubes, funnels, boards, gears, etc. Kodo Kids even had a wind tunnel – totally cool that the scientific thinking of children is being consciously supported
- CD’s of music – for listening, background and movement – enchanting, fun, educational
- New online programs & curricula – Frog Street, ABC Mouse, K-12 EC, Kaplan, and Hatch – interactive screens with state of the art technology and content are the future
- Social-emotional learning and nutrition resources such as food and feelings cards, activities, posters – terrific scaffolding for developing social-emotional intelligence
Here’s what I felt was missing…
- Active play resources you can use indoors – so many childcare providers, Head Starts, and preschools have very limited outdoor space or equipment as well as inclement weather for several months yet children need daily movement enrichment & exercise
- Activities that develop mindfulness – mindfulness develops executive function, the ability to filter distractions and sustain focus, and critical thinking
- Tools for self-care and self-regulation – children need to have ACTIONS to take and to practice to learn how to calm, soothe, support, and re-direct themselves.
Maybe it’s just my perspective, but I have to admit, the journey through the maze of EC resources and programs actually made me realize that MwMYA type resources are needed more than ever. In all this content, there were the usual categories: literacy, math, puzzles, recognition, science, etc. – but where was the body? movement? mindfulness? Developmentally, early childhood is all about mastering the body yet with the focus on academics, it’s being skipped over. My passion for what we do and offer at MwMYA got re-ignited. The advocate for embodied learning in me was triggered into high gear. I started introducing myself to every company I could: Hi, I’m Leah from Move with Me Yoga Adventures and we’ve got content you need.
I went from feeling insignificant to important. Our movement adventures offer a new integration of story, exercise, and self-regulation that delivers supervised active play and social-emotional enrichment that any school, center, home can afford and use. The video classes develop fitness, enhance well-being, teach kids embodied self-care, and light up the whole brain for learning. Participation develops strength, balance, and coordination, builds brain cells, enhances memory, and helps children maintain a healthy weight.
If we pay attention to the research, clearly, it’s time to do more movement, practice more mindfulness, and teach prescriptive self-care techniques. Science continues to affirm the critical importance of embodied physical and mindful education. Obesity as well as learning, attention, and behavior statistics are screaming at us to do a better job to nurture, engage and empower the whole child. We need to go beyond relying on just 1) sending kids outside when possible or 2) music and some props for PE.
Historically, the approach to early childhood education in the US has, for decades, swung between support for whole child development/ play and focus on cognitive development of the child / academics.
In 1957, when the Russians won the race to space with the launching of Sputnik, the US was traumatized. Educational policy, dictated by political agendas, suddenly repudiated play and shifted to an overemphasis on the 3 R’s and intellectual skills. This new focus, carried out through an accompanying emphasis on standardized testing, was not a result of new information from developmental research, but instead, a reaction to Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s explanation of why the Russians “beat us”. The admiral, by asserting that young children in Russia were being trained in mathematics while American children were busy finger painting, unwittingly drew a line in the sandbox of early childhood education, pitting academics and play against each other.
In late 1970s – early 1980s, with the success of David Elkind’s books, The Hurried Child (1981) and Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk (1987), the pendulum swung back. Social and emotional development was seen as a valuable part of every child’s early learning. It was widely accepted by parents and teachers that social – emotional skills strongly affected intellectual growth. As a result, there was also a renewed appreciation for the value of play.
It wasn’t long, however, before policy swung the other way again. During the Reagan and George H. W. Bush years, Head Start was back focusing on cognitive measures to assess program effectiveness. To get a good grade on the Head Start Measures Battery, teachers followed an accompanying curriculum, which led to the issues of teaching to the test and the devaluation of play.
Then, in 1995, the National Educational Goals Panel officially found a middle ground by defining school readiness as consisting of five dimensions: (a) physical well-being and motor development, (b) social and emotional development, (c) approaches to learning, (d) language development, and (e) cognition and general knowledge. This definition emphasized interconnection and a wholistic approach, which was validated by a growing body of brain and developmental research. In 1998, Head Start followed with a new statement of goals that included physical and mental health, social and emotional development , pre-academic skills, and parental involvement – all factors proven to be essential for future school success.
Inexplicably, the tide turned again shortly thereafter with No Child Left Behind. Though well-intentioned, President George W. Bush’s initiative, designed to ensure that every American child be a proficient reader, is short-sighted, if not futile. Reading is only one cognitive skill – one that is physiologically and inextricably intertwined with the physical, social, and emotional development of the child learning to master it. NCLB has, if nothing else, shown that the sit down and perform rote worksheets / drill and grill approach to literacy and learning in early childhood does not work.
Currently, fortunately, we are back to what the founders of Head Start recognized in 1965, 40 years ago – the importance of nurturing the whole child. The first Head Start programs understood the value of emotional and social intelligence for school readiness – and cultivated it through engaged, purposeful play. Emotional self-regulation is a key component of learning. Without it, children cannot focus, filter out distractions, work in groups, organize their behavior, or even listen. As children play, they develop self-regulation through taking turns, learning to cooperate, planning ahead, and navigating frustration, sharing, disappointment, delayed gratification, and other emotions. Play also provides opportunities for developing cognitive skills – language, early literacy, concepts, problem solving, perspective, representation, memory, and creativity.
In 2007, the ASCD’s Whole Child Initiative shifted the conversation away from play vs academics to one about the long term development and success of the whole child. The intention is to ensure that every child, in every school, in every community is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. This approach is about laying a foundation for lifetime well-being, community engagement, and personal fulfillment. Just as we cannot separate our bodies from our minds, we cannot separate play from learning. As Dr. Pearce wrote so many years ago in his book , The Magical Child: Play is nature’s biological plan for learning.
We here at Move with Me are obviously advocates of play and whole child education. Our unique combination of story, exercise, and self-regulation truly supports the simultaneous development of physical fitness, emotional stability, and learning readiness. Here’s the scientific breakdown of how and why:
Embodied Self-Regulation Skills using Bilateral and Crosslateral Intentional Movement –
Cardio Exercise –
Slow Intentional Movement –
Learn more about the benefits and importance of play time for kids at Mom Loves Best
Teachers, parents, children … anyone – needs only three, simple, universal steps to a less stressful day.
- Drink water
- Pause to self-reflect & self-care … then choose a brain-body-nervous system refresher
- Take 60-120 seconds to slowly and intentionally refresh with a cross lateral, bilateral, or intentional breathing exercise (2-5 times a day)
Truly? Yes. I’m a homeschooling mom and movement instructor (I KNOW the value of movement) yet still there are days that my agenda overrides my good sense. When I look back on my harried days, almost without exception, that will be a day there wasn’t a moment of intentional movement and I couldn’t tell you when or how much water I had consumed. My most grounded days begin and end with those short steps.
Here are the basics:
How much water? For ease use the 8 by 8 rule: 8 ounces 8 times a day. The Mayo clinic astutely notes that every individual is different but recommends roughly 3L for men and 2.2L for woman (1).
What 60-120 second exercise? Brain Gym® (www.braingym.org), Handle , PowerBrain, and Move with Me™ all teach easy, short, specific exercises that can help any individual, young or old, slow down and refocus their attention and energy. Among the many benefits of even a very short break are:
- Increased self-awareness
- Situational insight
- Clarity of thought (cognition)
- Impulse control
- Physical coordination
Short, easy cross lateral and bilateral exercises are self-care and self-regulation tools. Anyone can do them; they don’t require skill or precision; they are not complex or hard; they are invaluable in every walk of life: they translate into increased abilities in everything from the cognitive requirements of simple social interactions to the pure physical challenge of competitive sports. Learning just a few specific intentional movements or controlled breathing techniques can be a game changer. Intentional movement allows us to stop spinning our wheels and acts as an effective calming measure. Calming alone increases oxygenation to the brain, decreases stress, and increases understanding and technical skill. What do you have to lose?
Want to know more about this simple physiology that can transform our stress and state like magic?
The founders of Brain Gym®, Paul and Gail Dennison, were pioneers in the field of movement designed specifically for the purpose of bringing self-regulation skills to the average man, woman and child. Movements that were previously done primarily as parts of more esoteric arts such as yoga, Touch for Health, Developmental Optometry, Thai Chi, Vision Therapy and others were adapted for everyday use by teachers, parents, care givers, and students into a comprehensive program. With their cumulative knowledge and expertise, Paul and Gail developed the effective movements know for the past 30 years as the 26 Brain Gym® moves. They were ahead their time. Brain Gym® has been joined over the years by many other esteemed programs, The Handle Institute, Power Brain, and our own program, Move with Me™ Action Adventures (MwM).
Each program has specific strengths. Move with Me’s lies in its ability to translate self-care skills into accessible language and fun activities for children as young as 2-5 years old. The MwM self-care skills are taught via engaging stories and given easy and fun names, such as Monkey Wisdom for cross crawl, and Cat Wisdom for simple, cat-dog pose, yoga stretching. Because of this, MwM is especially appealing to the preschool audience. Children’s yoga advocates, of which MwM’s founder, Leah Kalish, MA, was one of the first, have long been turning simple children’s stories into full movement based tales that delight their primary audience.
Whatever avenue is taken, Brain Gym®, Handle, PowerBrain or Move with Me™, any child or teacher with access to good clean water, a storybook, and the combination of movement for fun, and intentional movement for self-care, has an infallible recipe for social-emotional and self-regulation success.
Sources: (1) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/water/NU00283
A recent article in Developmental Psychology and Committee for Children reports that children with higher levels of self-regulation achieve higher scores in reading, vocabulary and math. As any therapist, teacher or parent, who has knowledge of sensory integration issues, knows – deficits in self- regulation affect everything else – behaviors, social skills and motor responses. With pre-kindergarten and kindergarten curriculum changing its focus to reading, writing and math skills, young children who need time to play, explore and practice self-regulation during these early formative years are falling behind with “behavior problems”. This study provides significant evidence that they are actually a symptom of a developmentally inappropriate focus on academics.
- In early childhood, the primary developmental task is to fully inhabit one’s body and senses. It is through movement and playful sensory exploration that children grow their brains and healthy sense of self. Movement builds brain cells and grows the optimal functioning of every system in the body. As a child’s muscles and coordination grow, so does the density of the brain and its executive function, which is the source of higher level thinking and self-awareness.
As a teacher and parent who has spent years teaching children self-regulation, I can tell you that it happens in the body. Intentional movement, such as yoga, has such profound effects on children’s ability to focus, calm themselves, and filter sensory information. Yoga has become increasingly popular because it is a perfect playground for active fun that develops motor skills and fitness along with social-emotional awareness and self-regulation tools. As educators, we know from experience, that when children feel in control of their own bodies and can navigate their own stress and frustration from the inside out in a healthy way, they are learning able because they can sustain their own emotional stability through self-regulation.
- Researchers in ECE, Megan McClelland, Ph.D., Associate Professor Human Development and Family Sciences, and her student, ShaunaTominey, have designed games to help children practice paying attention, following directions, remembering rules, and demonstrating self-control. Games and movement practices, combined with appropriate mirroring, are what children need to develop self-awareness, emotional intelligence and self-control.
The lack of playful SEL curriculum activities is what inspired me to produce the Move with Me ™ resources that teach health and self-regulation skills to pre-K & K. Our video classes are designed to involve the whole child in social-emotional learning through stories and pretend play. In the process of acting out a narrative through movement, children have the fun of “being” everything in the story – the lion, the rocket, the tree. So, while they are having fun building fitness, focus, stamina and coordination, they are also improving early literacy and learning social-emotional skills, which are embedded into the action and called Adventure Skills. These simple exercises, with cool names such as Monkey Wisdom and Ocean Breath, empower kids to calm, center and redirect themselves when upset, angry, frustrated, sad, scared or over-whelmed. They give both care-giver and child a common vocabulary and a set of tools for SEL that can transform meltdowns into mindfulness and acting out to self-control.