From yoga to body scans, check out these somatic exercises to try with your kids, straight from the experts.
Medically reviewed by Laura Anderson Kirby, PhD
Picture this: you’ve just picked up your kid from school, and they're in a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad mood. You want the best for your child and want to help them calm their body down—but you don’t want to reach for a screen.
Experts say there are alternatives that can calm your child—and you—in tough situations. They’re called somatic exercises, and they can be used to help your child reconnect with their body and breathing so they can find their center again. Read on to see the benefits of incorporating somatic exercises with your children.
What Are Somatic Exercises?
Somatic experiencing, a practice that includes yoga, is a group of exercises that involves being mindful of your body’s movements, its feelings, and your breathing. Somatic exercises have been used in hospital settings to treat PTSD, and can be helpful when you’re trying to stay centered throughout the day.
Amelia Groves, ERYT-500 and Master Trainer for YogaSix, points out that somatic exercises have been around for thousands of years. “Somatic exercises are movement-based exercises that focus on the mind-body connection in order to integrate thoughts, emotions and physical sensations.”
Yoga is the most common somatic exercise we think of, but somatic exercises comprises a full group of mind-body connected exercises, too. Taryn Parker, Director of Curriculum and Training for The Little Gym says somatic exercises are a great way to recognize how your body moves from point A to point B, explaining further: "They're intended to slow us down, not only understanding how we got there, but most importantly experiencing how that made us feel."
For kids, that can be vital. Robyn Parets, founder of Boston-based Pretzel Kids, adds, “With yoga, as with somatic movement, you generally move slowly and pay attention to your body, breath and mind.” This can be a real benefit when your kid is feeling disconnected from their body. Bringing them back to breathing and how their bodies feel can help them regulate their emotions.
But adults can also benefit from somatic exercises, says Robyn Gaillard, yoga expert and teacher, healing and wellness practitioner, founder of My Way Om. Intentional body movements encourage your body to rewire from stressed to calm.
What Are the Health Benefits of Somatic Exercises for Kids?
Like other body-mind practices, which have been linked to better concentration and boosted mental health, somatic practices put kids back in touch with how they’re feeling.
"Yoga and somatic exercises allow children to connect with their bodies," Parets says. "On a physical level, yoga helps build strength, increases flexibility, and enhances balance. On an emotional level, children can develop an increased sense of self-esteem (for what they can accomplish in their own bodies). Mentally, kids learn skills to calm themselves and regulate their emotions in a healthy way."
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends yoga for kids, noting that it can help them handle stress and develop mindfulness. Groves adds that kids who have trouble verbalizing their emotions might find somatic exercises helpful. "These practices can be used to regulate emotions, manage mental health, listen to the body’s internal signals, and release trauma. Children often do not have the vocabulary to express difficult emotions."
Somatic exercises can help kids express stress and anxiety through their bodies and movement. Plus, Parets says, starting to incorporate these methods will give you some special time with your child, while helping them feel more connected to themselves.
Types of Somatic Exercises to Try With Your Kids
If you're looking to begin your somatic exercise journey with your child, check out some of these easy routines below!
Like in meditation, scanning the body can bring a child a sense of awareness. All they have to do is lie or sit down in a comfortable position, and close their eyes.
“By systematically bringing attention to different parts of the body, from the tips of the toes to the crown of the head, children can explore the sensations throughout their bodies when emotions or thoughts are overwhelming,” Groves says.
Parents can practice this kind of mindfulness with their child, giving both parties a sense of calm in stressful situations. "Some children may start identifying (or pointing) at body parts beginning as early as 15 months," Parker points out. "The foundations of body awareness and body comfort can begin [earlier than parents think]."
Helping your kids move through their bodies mindfully can combat distraction in an ever moving and changing world.
When we get stressed, breathing can often speed up or become erratic. Focusing on the breath is an easy way to center our kids. It can help them slow down, says Groves.
“Have your child place a stuffed animal on their stomach and gently rock their friend to sleep using their breath," she suggests. "This helps them become aware of their breath, connect to their body, and calm their nervous system."
They can also imagine blowing out a birthday candle, breathing in gently through the nose, and more forcefully through the mouth.
Practicing some yoga with your kids is another fun way to get them connected to their body, while also incorporating movement. "Yoga poses and sequences, such as sun salutations, are great ways to move through a flowing series of postures," Parets explains.
For kids, start standing with your arms by your sides. Then, stretch your arms skyward, all the way through your fingertips. Bend at the hips, and touch the ground. Come back to standing with your arms by your sides. This simple yoga pose can help your kids feel the whole length of their bodies as they release any stress.
But if they’re not feeling movement, that’s okay too. "Savasana, deep relaxation pose, isn't really movement-based, however, it is a great pose for kids to relax and focus on their breath," Parets adds. For this yoga pose, all you need to do is lie down and close your eyes.
Opposites Attract Game
Parker, who helps develop curriculum for The Little Gym, recommends this activity for all ages.
"Simply pick a way to move your body in an opposite direction. Get creative–you can move your arms in opposite directions 'in slow motion' or make your body 'small like a mouse' and 'as big as a house.' The key here is expectations and mindfulness.”
Lead by example, Parker says, and check in with your kids to see how it makes them feel. As a bonus, this is a great way to transition from one activity to another, sometimes a sticking point for kids.
You might be surprised to find that outdoor play is also a somatic exercise. Reconnecting to nature can help kids, and parents, reregulate.
"Unstructured outdoor play is perhaps the best somatic exercise. Children are able to rewire emotional patterns faster when their unstructured play includes movement, climbing, creativity, and imagination," Gaillard says.
For kids who don’t want to sit inside when they’re stressed, this is a great option. Gaillard adds that laughter, climbing, and running is a great way for your child to reconnect to their body.
Things to Consider Before Doing Somatic Exercises With Your kids
Somatic exercises are an easy way for kids to get back in touch with their bodies, but there are some considerations to keep in mind. Though these exercises can be made as gentle as lying down and as active as free play outside, Groves cautions parents whose children have been through major life trauma to take it slow.
“If there is a history of trauma, it is best to work with a trained somatic therapist to avoid re-traumatizing the child,” she says.
Parets adds that children with injuries should also take care when starting a movement routine. “If you are injured, any type of exercise may exacerbate an injury so it's best to discuss with a health care provider prior to participating.”
As always, you know your child best. It’s important to speak to a pediatrician or health care provider if you believe your child is having trouble regulating their emotions and bodies, or if you suspect there might be underlying issues best resolved with the help of a medical professional.
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