Last year, Petsworth Elementary School launched a community engagement program centered around family wellness. These Family Fitness Nights gave students and parents opportunities to try different activities to get families moving. The station incorporating yoga for kids was so popular among participants that this activity grew into a before-school enrichment class.
Regional Paraprofessional to Students with Multiple Disabilities, Susie Dunaway, was delighted to instruct the group of interested parents and students. She had been teaching school staff for over a year, anyway.
Dunaway, a Registered Yoga Teacher with broad Vinyasa training, loved the immediate feedback she received from students.
“I was so excited to see how the kids responded,” she said. “One child, who had taken classes before, described herself as more `mindful’ from her practice.”
Margaret Watkins, the Petsworth gym teacher who actually launched the fitness nights with the help of Community Engagement Coordinator Cindy Thomas, helped Dunaway get approval to start morning yoga classes for students last February.
“Academics and life in general can be so stressful for children,” said Dunaway. “If kids could learn other ways of coping, it could really benefit them.”
Initially, they opened the class to students in Grades 3-5. It quickly grew to Kindergarten-5.
“The most we’ve had is 21 students,” noted Dunaway. “It’s tough for some kids to get here at 8:00, particularly those that ride the bus.”
Nonetheless, the class continued, and Dunaway found that she didn’t have enough yoga mats for each child. She enlisted the help of Sharon Carino, third grade math teacher and grant writer, to help her put together a Donor’s Choose grant.
“Yoga mats are important because they help the children be aware of their own space,” explained Dunaway.
Within a few hours of posting, generous donors had fulfilled half the request. ESPN spied the grant and matched the funds so that 30 yoga mats could be purchased in time for the next class.
“It was amazingly fast,” Dunaway said.
She credits the breathwork and focus inherent in yoga with helping children the most.
“Kids can do the breathwork throughout the day when they feel frustrated, anxious, or angry,” Dunaway said.
A parent of one of Dunaway’s yoga students noted that her daughter uses the breathing when she needs to calm down.
Dunaway has seen other students grow in confidence as well.
“The yoga classes have brought some students out of their shells,” she said. “One boy who was so shy and nervous initially that he wouldn’t even talk to me, got to the point that he helped demonstrate some of our breathwork to the whole class.”
Dunaway also emphasizes that the non-competitive nature of yoga for kids also helps with self esteem.
“I love it when I hear things like, `Look, Miss Susie, I can do my tree pose now!’” she said.
For these kids, yoga is about more than just fitness—the practice incorporates character education as well.
“I always close the class with the following statement—think kind thoughts (we put our thumbs to our heads), speak kind words (we put our thumbs to our lips), and practice kind deeds (we put our thumbs to our hearts),” explained Dunaway. “My students often start class by telling me about a kind deed they performed or a kind word they said to someone.”
Parents have had nothing but positive comments about the K-5 Yoga for Kids program. In fact, several of them joined the class!
“It was great to have parents and kids learning together,” said Dunaway.
Community Engagement Coordinator, Cindy Thomas, who also helped supervise the program, was delighted to see the interaction between adults and kids.
“This was a true partnership between parents, students, and school staff,” she said. “It’s great to see our school buildings used for such positive extra-curricular enrichment.”
Kids have already requested that yoga continue next year.
“If I can help one child, then it’s worth it,” Dunaway said.