As a 500-hour yoga instructor, aspiring Personal Trainer, and generally active person, I take matters of health quite seriously. I’ve had injuries in the past from running that have been horribly disabling. I watch people my age complain of aches and pains and be unable to play with their children the way they desire. Who doesn’t long to run, play, and generally keep up with their children? (Ok, not everyone is as active as others, but you get my point.) I see people unable to live fully within their bodies because of pains, injuries, muscle imbalances, and of course a multitude of other factors. This article is not a slam on lifestyle choices, not in the least, nor is it designed to treat, diagnose, or replace medical advice. However, I am an educator, and I am here to share experience and knowledge passed down to me about why maintaining flexibility throughout the body is vital to overall health and well-being. I believe the more our parents and educators know about these topics, the more likely they are to set examples as well as share the information with the children in their care. Let’s take a quick look at the muscles and how they work, and then we will look at a few fun ways to educate the kids.
Picture this: You have the kids in the van and you need to go to the bank. Obviously you choose the drive through option if possible. You are able to see the bank tellers at a distance within the bank, and you also see all the various stalls with output points for the bank tubes. The tellers inside the bank coordinate all activity in all parts of the bank and those tubes going to and from customers. Those tubes are like the nerves, containing a message, sent through a pipeline we can’t see from the external stimulus (you, the customer) to the brain (bank tellers).
We have a Central Nervous System (the brain and spinal cord) that controls all the functions of the body. We have a Peripheral Nervous System made up of nerves that connect the CNS to the parts of the body and the outside world. This PNS tells the brain where the body is in relation to the environment as well as when to activate certain muscles. We have sensory receptors all over the body that turn things like light, heat, sound, taste, motion, and touch into messages sent to the brain, which triggers a response. These receptors have different functions, but the ones that respond to touch and pressure are called mechanoreceptors. These sense organs have reflexes that help prevent overstretching (muscle spindles) as well as reflexes that allow the muscle to relax to prevent excessive stress on the muscle (Golgi tendons); both of these functions help prevent injury.
When we exercise, practice yoga, or do any sort of training we see performance results because we are retraining the nervous system. We strengthen the muscles by activating these responses in the sensory receptors, thus increasing activity between the nervous system and each muscle. When we move, these senses are providing constant feedback about where the limbs are and the strength or force needed to perform the action. When we become more active, start stretching and strengthening, and even breathing more fully, the nervous system adapts and allows us to have better control of movements through greater awareness of the body. Not just how it moves or works like in biology class, but where each part is in space and in relation to the external environment (proprioception). Over time we see greater balance, smoother movement, and improved performance (great for athletes!).
Let’s review why flexibility training is important. It can be used to help correct muscle imbalances, improve range of motion, decrease tension of overworked muscles, improving the effectiveness of the brain-muscle connection, and overall functional improvement. Children’s bones produce new bone tissue faster than they dispose of old bone tissue, thus increasing bone density. When the muscles are putting undue pressure or stress on the bones, it can affect the way the bones form during this important time of life. Yoga postures and flexibility training in general is great for helping keep the body in safe alignment to allow all the systems to function more optimally.
How do we talk to kids about their muscles? In many ways! We can bring a picture of the muscular system to class and show them the main muscle groups, we can bring a coloring sheet to class (or use with your children at home) like the one found on this site featuring a great video about muscles and the skeletal system. Then, once they know where some of them are, we can play a game like Simon Says and have them point to the muscles, or do poses that use a certain muscle group! As a yoga teacher, or to use yoga to teach children about their muscles, you could tell them which muscles were being affected by the postures you do. Animals have different muscles and could be a great catalyst for activity: kangaroos have large leg muscles, “let’s hop like a kangaroo!” If you are offering series of classes with the same children, have your own classroom, or just want to do this with your kids at home, it would be a great theme for a month-long set of classes to learn all about the body! Work with your children to draw up a sequence of their favorite poses in stick figures, hang it on a wall, and encourage them to do it daily. My son did this his entire Kindergarten year, only he included push-ups and jumping jacks, and now he can do 30 push-ups! I am not entirely sure I could even do 30 unmodified push-ups! Letting children see their measurable progress is a huge motivator and a great way to teach them about why we need to incorporate things like yoga into our healthy lifestyle.
Great songs by Kidding Around Yoga (and other artists) to use during this theme:
– “Head, Shoulders, Yoga Pose”
– “Every Little Cell”
– “Yoga Limbo” (great poses for leg strengthening)
– “Yoga Makes Me Strong”
– (There were too many great options, so check out this site for a huge list of body-themed songs.)
– Inside Your Outside by Tish Rabe (A Cat in the Hat Library book), Preschool-2nd grade
– The Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body by Joanna Cole, 1st-4th grade
– From Head to Toe by Barbara Seuling, 3rd-5th grade
– My Bodyworks by Jane Schoenberg, K-2nd
– The Blood Hungry Spleen by Allen Wolf, A Collection of Poems about our parts, 3rd-5th grade