A Conversation with Melanie Toth, Yoga Instructor for Children and Adults
Melanie Toth is a former classroom teacher who co-authored Inspiring Active Learning: A Complete Handbook for Today’s Teachers. She has worked for several New York Learning Centers, including Gemm Learning in 2007. She teaches children’s yoga through Story Time and Munchkin and Me Yoga in New York along with several adult classes. I recently spoke with Melanie about the benefits of children’s yoga and movement for young learners.
Making the Choice to Teach in a New Way
Melanie has worked with children for most of her life. She started with babysitting and camp counseling, and then on to elementary school teacher and eventually, learning center director. When she decided to leave the learning center world several years ago, it was the first time that she had ever not been working with kids in some capacity. Melanie had considered training to be a yoga instructor for a long time. She thought becoming a children’s instructor seemed like the perfect way to use and expand her experience.
As a classroom teacher, Melanie had previously experimented with injecting yoga poses into class. Her aim was to bring energy in after lunch and improve concentration before getting settled down for work. She saw how the kids would eat it up. She wanted to learn about how to tap into that connection a little more specifically.
Her plan changed once the actual training began, however. She realized how complicated it was just to get adults to understand yoga instruction. As a result, Melanie felt she needed to work on getting a little more comfortable as a teacher before working with kids. She led adult classes for about a year before easing into teaching children yoga. The additional experience allowed her to feel more comfortable and confident in her skills as a yoga instructor. Consequently, she was able to translate that into a more age appropriate class.
Meeting the Needs of Different Ages and Cognitive Abilities
Melanie opened two classes to include children, Yoga Story Time and Munchkin and Me Yoga. When asked about the difference between the two, Melanie explains that she made the differentiation after initially opening up the adult and child class for children ages 2-6. It was a real challenge because the developmental ability and attention span of a two year old and 6 year old is vastly different. So, she decided to split the class and offer yoga story time for the 2 and 3 year olds. Story time is a little bit shorter, only half an hour.
Melanie always reads a yoga themed book in Yoga Story Time. She tends to choose something that has to do with movement or animals and can be translated to poses. The story becomes a vehicle for movement. Each class includes a couple of poses and then story time, where children participate and act out the story before concluding with relaxation activities.
Continuing Age Appropriate Skills in Children’s Yoga
For the Munchkin and Me class, they kept the basic story time concept, but expanded that to developing literacy skills. Melanie introduces 4 or 5 new letters each class with a pose that is associated with that letter. Often, the pose is an animal name or some other description that matches what the pose looks like. For example, if the letter is “C” the pose might be cat or cobra. Melanie says animal poses are very popular. Students perform downward dog and lion, while imagining they are animals and making all the noises that go with it.
Partner poses are also incorporated, where the kids either work with their parent, caregiver, or each other. Because class is 45 min to an hour long, they are also able to incorporate more group activities and games. The level of communication and cooperation is much more developed. This allows them to do more specific structured activities. Parents are encouraged to participate in doing all of the poses and then have specific poses to be worked on together.
The Benefits of Yoga for Children
Melanie has received positive feedback from her classes. some from parents of really young kids, who are still a little shy and not able to communicate all that well. After 2 or 3 weeks, parents have told her that their kids are doing yoga poses all over the house confirming they were absorbing all of this information. Some of the older kids were a little more verbal about it. For example, if they were at home and upset about something they might say, “I just have to take some deep breaths, the way we do in yoga.”
When asked about the additional benefits of yoga, Melanie noted that, “The self-esteem part is huge for kids and adults.” There’s an emphasis on understanding yourself and what makes sense for you. How does this feel in your body when you take a big breath in and out? She talks a lot to students after each pose about the difference between active, strength building poses and calming, relaxing ones. Melanie believes that allowing kids to verbalize that helps in terms of starting to explore their relationship with themselves. She believes that, sometimes, regardless of age, people need something calming.
There is also a large memory component to yoga. Students memorize poses and pose names as well as how to do them and what the order is in terms of setting their body up. The sequencing element involves starting in a certain place and logically working their way through the body. In doing so, they’re building this thing called a pose and understanding that the order in which you do things makes a difference. When poses are linked together, students understand that a sequence of events is happening. And that they’re going to complete that and come back to the beginning again.
Creating Space and Time for Movement
For parents with limited time to attend or take their children to a yoga class, Melanie had a suggestion. She recommends making space for some movement before expecting children to sit down and settle in for homework. Allow them to stretch before studying or anything that requires them to be still and pay attention. Just doing some basic stretching and releasing of tension or getting silly and doing the animal poses with noises can be a fun release. She also recommends coming back to the breath and using it as a way to center afterwards. This will make it easier to switch gears into work mode.
Melanie stresses the importance being realistic about how long we expect kids to sit still or just sit. Movement doesn’t have to be limited to sports or outdoor activities. It is okay to say, “We’re going to come back, and we’ll have a little 5 minute break for yoga after we do x amount of work.” Movement can be integrated into their daily activities, so that they can be more effective in everything they do.
Reading to Learn More About Yoga and Movement
Since reading is such an important part of learning at all ages, I asked Melanie to share some titles she’d found helpful in teaching children about yoga and movement.
Melanie’s first recommendation is called You are a Lion and Other Fun Yoga Poses. She described it as a really sweet book. It incorporates animals and actually shows children doing the poses. She has used this with kids ages 2 through 9. The Eric Carle book From Head to Toe is not about yoga, but Melanie feels that it translates really well. The story itself is about animals and how they move. It describes the movement, giving kids an opportunity to repeat and try it themselves. Melanie says this is always a big hit. Another recommendation was actually written by a yoga teacher. It’s called Watch Me Do Yoga. It’s a story about a little girl doing children’s yoga with her parents. The pictures make it easy for a parent who has little or no experience doing yoga to get down on the floor and experiment with their child.
A Nurturing Component
Melanie would like parents to understand that children’s yoga is about learning how to care for ourselves. If we can make space, even 5 or 10 minutes in our day, we can have a huge impact on the quality of our lives, specifically mentally and emotionally. She adds,“We all have the power to choose how we feel, even if that’s just by recognizing that we don’t like the way we feel right now, and we can get into our bodies and use movement and use breath to actually change the channel and create a different vibration and hopefully, go forward to a better place that will help us to be more successful.”