A beautiful trait of children is they tend to get caught up in a moment. This gives them the highest of highs, where their whole bodies just light up from the inside. But these strong emotions can also have them spiraling into stress and anger with no clear path to turn it around. In my kids’ Yoga classes I use the phrase “Turtle Time” as a cue to help kids focus and calm themselves, whether it be from super-energetic activity or sinking in negativity. I also encourage classroom teachers to use it in their classrooms.
To use Turtle Time, you must first teach your students a few steps. First, try turtle pose (kurmasana). Sit on the floor with legs spread out wide and knees bent. Place your arms under your knees and outward. Fold forward to face the ground. This pose physically aids in calming emotions because it is a forward fold, which is settling to the nervous system. It is also a hip-opening pose. We tend to store unmanaged emotions in our hips, so this stretch helps release them. Plus, stretching works the body so it can eventually be still. And when the body is still, the mind can be, too. Remind kids as they are in turtle pose that it’s okay to be unhurried. Just settle in.
Next, try a Turtle Walk. Talk about how a turtle, especially a giant tortoise, moves – slowly, smoothly, one leg at a time, delicately. Find a quiet spot, take off shoes and socks, and guide your children through their walk. Encourage them to wiggle their toes and really feel the ground. Over and over, redirect their attention to their feet. Now have them walk like turtles, very silent, slow turtles. Call attention back to the sensation of the floor on their feet. All attention to the soles of the feet. As they settle into walking, have them notice their legs moving. Can they feel each leg lifting, moving, and stepping on its own? They can even think to themselves, “Lift. Move. Step.” like a moving meditation. Their whole world becomes the movement of their legs and the sensation of the floor.
After learning to walk like a turtle, it’s Turtle Time. Kids get into their “shells”. They can sit in turtle pose, or in a chair and give themselves a hug. Or if there is room and time, kids can take child’s pose. The idea is to train them to hear “Turtle Time!” and respond by immediately pulling their limbs and energy into their shells. As they slowly pull into their shells, kids close their eyes and feel themselves surrounded by their safe shell. Once they are in their shell, describe taking three slow deep breaths, turtle breaths. This would be a great time to let kids know that giant tortoises actually have specialized muscles just for breathing since their shells don’t allow chest expansion. Kids can imagine their breathing muscles filling their shells with air. When they are ready, they can slowly come out of their shells to continue on their day. Or, they may need to stay longer.
Put Turtle Walk and Turtle Time together and you’ve got Musical Turtle! Play soothing music and have kids use their slow, smooth turtle walk in a circle. When the music stops (this can be an abrupt stop or challenge their mindful listening and slowly fade the volume out), kids get into their shells, take three deep breaths and remind themselves that they are calm and ready to learn. This can be repeated as needed.
The beauty of Turtle Time is that, once it is taught, it can be used in any situation. I’ve found it useful in classrooms – the teacher simply says (maybe with the sound of a chime), “OK! It’s Turtle Time!” and kids get into their shells – usually a self-hug with closed eyes, and head resting on their desks. Everyone has a chance to catch their breath, refocus, balance their energy, and come out alert and ready to learn.