When my niece was 8, she confided in me that she still loved to play with her Barbies but didn't because her friends would tease her. I suggested she pull them out at my house because I would be glad to play. Sixteen years later, I can’t remember if we played with them more than once, but I always felt that I had helped her establish something important – a safe space to be herself.
Creating a space where mutual respect and trust are the primary rules makes for a safe, inviting space in which to practice yoga. But when you are talking about a kids yoga class, does that change? Safety for young children
is about the physical environment - covering outlets, removing distractions, blocking hazards and voila a safe space. A safe space allows caregivers to say “yes” to a child’s natural curiosity to explore a space free from danger. For kids 4-7 years old the safety of the physical environment is also important but there need to be added rules about moving safely, and helping to keep each other safe – but these rules still have more to do with physical safety.
When you are trying to create a safe space for tweens, it isn’t as simple as covering the outlets, moving the candles, tying up the curtains, or listing some safety rules. Tweens need to feel emotionally safe and able to trust the teacher and the other students such that they can let their guard down. And when they feel supported they can and will try many things. Tweens need to feel that it’s ok to play, try a challenging pose and act silly without judgment from their peers or the teacher. So how do you create a safe space for a tween to be a kid? Here are five tips to get you started:
1. Set the stage.
Explain in the first class, and then as often as needed, that yoga is a safe space physically (point out what makes the room safe physically), followed by a discussion about what would make the tweens feel safe (talk about trust and respect.) This conversation doesn’t have to end in the first class session. Let it grow and develop over time. Let the tweens take part in creating trust and respect – and remind them what they agreed to. And of course, be sure to always be the example of respect.
2. Be the captain of the ship.
Tweens need to know that you are in charge and that you know how to steer the ship, but in calm waters it’s great to let them take the helm. Let them lead sun salutes, maybe making up poses or deciding what goes next. When appropriate, allow them to take ownership of the direction and focus of the class. If you get into rough waters, you can always grab the wheel – sometimes this is a simple as giving a pose modification when someone picks a challenging pose (perhaps offering setu bandha sarvangasana bridge pose instead of urdhva dhanurasana wheel pose). As long as they know you are in charge – they will feel safe and will be more willing to follow you into play and silliness when it's time for that.
3. Offer choice.
Not everyone is the room needs to agree on the activity. It's important to allow tweens plenty of choice - giving them the option to pass or watch from the sidelines until they feel ready to jump in. Having said that, it should be established that it's important to honor the interests and willingness of others, respect one another and the space. Keep reinforcing that point by example – releasing attachment from needing your students to one thing or the other. Modeling that you are ok with and even encourage the varied interests and suggestions of the class reminds your students that your leadership is solid, and that you can not be disappointed in them, ultimately helping students feel comfortable.
4. Be part of the fun.
Being the only adult in the room doesn’t mean that you have to be overly serious to maintain control of the class. A kid’s yoga teacher always has to play along – and the tweens will admire and respect your willingness to be part of the fun. This also gives you a chance to model a safer alternative, both in alignment and difficulty. It is a great opportunity to step outside your comfort zone, and genuinely play. You can laugh along as you fall out of a balancing pose or attempt to make it through the obstacle course set up by your students.
5. Respect to connect.
The respect you show your students will be reflected back to you. Letting each student know that you respect and value them and their contributions in class will go a long towards encouraging them to respect each other. Take a few moments to 'check in' with each students as he enters class. A question about her day or following up on an interest or event he mentioned in the previous class establishes connection which is key not only to establishing mutual respect, but also engagement. Making eye contact, and truly listening to what your students have to say and then reflecting it back shows you respect and value them. Remember, "Namaste" means the light in me honors the light in you.
Rebecca Gitter, E-RYT, RCYT has been sharing yoga with kids in the Washington DC area for over a decade. Her classes seek to meet kids where they are, and make yoga accessible to everyone. Rebecca is a trainer for ChildLight Yoga and Yoga 4 Classrooms. She teaches ChildLight Yoga's Basic kids' yoga training, Baby & Toddler training, and Teen Yoga Training.