BETTENDORF, Iowa – First-grade students at Neil Armstrong Elementary School file into the school gymnasium, but there is no raucous game of kickball or other high-energy activity on the agenda.
Instead, the students arrange their beach towels on the floor as mellow music softly plays in the background and they prepare to strike a pose.
The first-graders are taking yoga lessons as part of a program started by school counselor Shelley Klaas, who said she got the idea after attending a yoga workshop last summer in Minneapolis.
“I came out of it feeling quite calm and thought, ‘This is a great idea for kids,’” she said.
Klaas received a $380 grant from the Bettendorf Community Schools Foundation to pay for curriculum and materials for a series of six yoga lessons for the school’s first-graders. The lessons are taught by Pat Kirkland, Shelley Chambers and Joan Marttila, volunteers from St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Bettendorf.
Research shows that yoga can help young children learn skills such as focus, relaxation and self-control, Klaas said. They can use methods they learn in yoga in the classroom or at home.
As the class begins, Chambers reminds the children about how to do “bunny breathing,” an exercise where they put their hands on top of their heads like bunny ears and then take three breaths in through their noses, then a long exhale through their nose. In-in-in-out.
“I just want you to remember to pay attention to your bodies,” Chambers tells them. “Not anybody else’s bodies, just yours.”
Chambers then leads them through a series of exercises designed to “untie the knots” in the children’s bodies, such as rolling their necks and shoulders and shaking out their arms and legs.
The children then go through a series of other poses, including warrior two, rag doll and star.
At times, the students start to get a little rambunctious. When asked to put their hands on their knees and walk like a dinosaur, some of the students start to roar like dinosaurs. When asked to lie on their backs and grab their toes like a baby, a few baby cries can be heard.
Whenever the youngsters start to lose focus, they are instructed to do a bunny breath. In-in-in-out.
The breathing exercise is an example of a yoga method students can use in class or at home that can help them relieve stress and regain their focus without disrupting others said Lisa Hawker, a first-grade teacher.
Some students already are beginning to incorporate into the classroom the lessons they have learned in yoga, asking to do breathing exercises or brief poses to gain focus, she said.
First-grader Nathaniel Malloy said he likes being able to lie down and relax during the school day. Classmate Kyra Taylor agreed.
“It feels nice,” she said.
Klaas said she plans to study whether the use of yoga poses and breathing techniques can help cut office referrals for students with behavioral issues.
Reaction from parents has been positive, she said.
Erica Saunders, whose son, Connor Dilley, is in Hawker’s class, said she was excited to learn about the program, particularly after she did her own research about the benefits of yoga for young children.
“My son is one of those who can’t sit still very long at all,” she said. “I’m hoping it will help calm him down a bit.”
Saunders said Connor has been enjoying the classes and has tried to teach her some of what he has learned. If it is helpful, Saunders said she may try to teach some of the techniques to the children she watches at her in-home day care business.