Yoga in preschool for social emotional development

This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #48 “Yoga in preschool for social emotional development”

Check all episodes of The Preschool Podcast

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early childhood education.“

INTRO: On episode 48 of the show, we talk about the benefits of yoga in the preschool classroom with our guest, Nancy Siegel, an early childhood consultant based in New Jersey whose focus is mindfulness and using yoga as an approach for social emotional and cognitive development. In our conversation, we learn about the difference between children’s yoga and adult’s yoga as Nancy explains how the practice can be developmentally appropriate during the formative years. We also discuss the science behind yoga and how it helps cultivate the mental awareness needed for a more positive social environment in the classroom. This not only benefits the children but also the teachers.

If you are an educator who thinks that social emotional development is important and are curious about incorporating yoga in your classroom, then stay tuned to this episode of the preschool podcast.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Nancy, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.

Nancy SIEGEL: Thanks, Ron. It’s an honor to be here.

SPREEUWENBERG: We’re so glad to have you on the show, Nancy. Let’s start off by learning a little bit more about you and what you do.

SIEGEL: Okay, great. So I actually started in the early-childhood classroom and loved everything about it, especially the social-emotional piece. So then I discovered yoga a number of years later and it all sort of came together for me, my love for children and yoga. And I decided to become certified to teach kids yoga, which I did for 15 years. And then I developed a creative arts and yoga camp that was called CADDY Camp, that stands for Circus, Art, Dance, Drama and Yoga. So I used the creative arts and yoga to help kids tap into their creativity, help themselves with their own self-regulation, self-modulation – really important life skills. And that was for older kids, 6 through 11. And I found that those kids were taking the lessons they were learning in the camp into their school experiences. So I thought, “Well, if it’s going into schools anyway, why don’t I do that more formally?” So I’ve been training and working with classroom teachers now for about 15 years.

SPREEUWENBERG: And you mentioned you have a background in early-childhood education. What prompted you to make that shift into yoga?

SIEGEL: Well again, you know, really what fascinated me the most was the social-emotional piece, and the psychology that goes on in the classroom, and how teachers set the emotional stage for the classroom, and how children respond to that – especially young children. So that those were the things that really excited me about being in the classroom. And when I discovered yoga I found that yoga helps us with our own self-awareness, which is a foundation in social-emotional competence. So it was so seamless for me to run with that passion that I had of social-emotional learning and development in children, then tying that in to the wonderful benefits that yoga can offer children as well as the teachers.

So then I discovered mindfulness yoga, which is a hot topic these days. And I realized that when we become mindful – which I like to say is simply paying attention on purpose – when we do that, when we pay attention on purpose, we tend to see how things are, not as we project onto them. And those are the things that really intrigued me in the classroom, and have always been my passion. And that’s what I do now: I training teaches to become aware of their own emotional reactivity when that kid presses the button, or when the parent says something and it doesn’t quite go along with what the teacher is thinking about the situation. So to really tap into what’s coming up for you as a teacher.

And so to answer your question, those are the kinds of things that were always so exciting for me, and that’s why I made that shift.

SPREEUWENBERG: So for those listeners out there who might have a very limited knowledge of yoga and maybe see it as something that adults go to the gym to do so that they can stretch, what’s the connection with social-emotional development, for example?

SIEGEL: Great question, great question. So yoga is wonderful for stretching and for flexibility, and that’s a metaphor. So it’s for our bodies, but it’s also for our emotional competence. And for those who are inclined also you can become very spiritual when you’re tapping into yoga. It doesn’t have to be religious, but it’s tapping into that inner wisdom that we have, which is above and beyond the physical component. But yoga has so many benefits physically; I don’t want to undermine that. But you can take it even deeper. So when I say that self-awareness is a foundation for social-emotional competence, what I’m talking about through the lens of yoga is that yoga, through the breath in particular – bringing our awareness to our breath, bringing our awareness to sensations we’re having in our body – all of those things create a heightened sense of self, of self-awareness.

And when you’re attuned through that process of yoga it helps you, like I had said before, it helps you become more present and aware. And when we’re present and aware of what’s going on for ourselves, then our mind is clearer to be present aware of the situation around us, whether that’s working in a classroom with our students or with our colleagues. If there are any directors or administrators out there listening to this, that you become more aware of your own sense of self. And that’s a wonderful, wonderful benefit of yoga when adults practice it.

It’s a dual model. So when an adult practices yoga and is in a leadership capacity, whether that’s from an administrative point of view or the leader in the classroom as the teacher, she or he has the ability – through that lens of clarity of the self-awareness that you’ve gained from practicing yoga – you’re more aware of the situations that are in front of you. So as I said, when that child presses your buttons, instead of responding from that place of emotional reactivity you can take a breath. You’ll have the tools through yoga and mindfulness to know how to react so that you can react in a way that’s effective for the situation, not just for you.

SPREEUWENBERG: And what about from the children’s perspective? I’ve never seen or experienced younger children doing yoga. My first reaction would be, “Is that possible to have children focused enough to be doing yoga?” What’s your experience been with that? I’m curious to know.

SIEGEL: So that’s a great question, and we could spend the whole podcast talking just about that question, but I’ll try to make this succinct as I can. So I offer kids’ yoga teacher training program that’s accredited by Yoga Alliance. Yoga Alliance’s standards for the kids’ yoga training – it’s for ages 3 to 17. So in a formal way when we’re talking about bringing yoga into children’s lives, we do it starting with [age] 3. So that doesn’t mean that younger kids can’t learn yoga. But what we’re talking about when we’re talking about yoga for children, for early-age children, is it looks more like creative dramatics. It’s fun, it’s playful, it’s honoring the attention span that they have. You brought up a really, big important yoga word, which is “focus”. And there are a lot of very important people talking about focus right now. In fact Dr. Dan Goleman wrote a book about it [Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence], and the importance of focus in schools. What does focus do in relation to it, especially what’s going on now with the advancements in technology where it is very hard for early-age children to sit for long periods of time?

However, we can stretch that through yoga. We can deepen mindfulness. We can help them wait another second before their impulse is to get up. If we’re sitting at circle time and you want kids to sit quietly you can introduce breathing techniques, which are so useful in so many ways. So for example when you want silence in the classroom this is such an easy way to do it, but you have to teach the kids how to do this. When you take an inhale, you can’t talk. So in my trainings I would say to people, “Go ahead, try to say your name and inhale.” And you just can’t. So when you think about the ramifications of that – if you want silence, you need silence for whatever reason – just take an inhale.

So when we do that with children there are so many, so many wonderful benefits. One is that the room gets quiet – and who doesn’t want a quiet early-childhood classroom? Not all the time, but every now and then it’s important. But for kids going, back to your point about focus, these are muscles. It’s just like going to a gym and exercising. We’re practicing, we’re using muscles to help kids stretch their ability to focus, to stretch their ability to control their impulses, too. And self-regulation is a really big term that causes a lot of problems, especially in the early-childhood classroom, with impulsivity. We want to help kids. We want to encourage them to learn how to self-regulate, to self-modulate, to be present. And yoga and mindfulness tools are really, really good tools to help them with that.

SPREEUWENBERG: Now that makes all a lot of sense, very important skills to develop early in life, certainly. Now, you’re in the New Jersey area. Are these the types of reasons why childcare and early-learning programs want to work with you? Is it for improving or building these skills and capabilities within their preschool children? Is it for their teachers? Is it both? What do you typically find are the reasons that people are keen to have yoga programs in their early-education programs?

SIEGEL: So yes, both for teachers and for the children. However I encourage, oftentimes… it’s a little anecdote I was presenting for a group of early-childhood educators recently. And I said to them, “When you feel like things are spiraling out of control for you and you need a break, do a breathing exercise with your students, and participate in it.” And I kid you not, Ron, I had a teacher raise her hand and she said, “You mean I’m allowed to breathe in my classroom?” Right? At first it was funny to me. It was funny; we all laughed. But then I said, “It’s sad. It’s sad.” So when I get a call from a director to come into the classroom and bring yoga mindfulness for the students, I say, ”Yes, I’m on board with that. It would be my honor.”

And I also encourage the administrators to understand how valuable it is for the teachers to have these experiences just for themselves. When a teacher says, “You mean I can breathe?”, that’s such a red flag that we need to be helping teachers. We need to empower them with their own tools, with their own inner toolbox to help themselves. And then, in turn, when they have had this practice of understanding how things affect them and how their emotions get triggered, they can in turn be so effective in helping their kids learn these tools.

So I said a lot of powerful things there, really important messages that can be so helpful within a school system. But to make it a little lighter, bring some levity to it, it is fun. Yoga in the early-childhood classroom is so much fun. And we don’t want to lose sight of that. We want to remember that these are skills that children learn, that they carry with them throughout their lives. The benefits of being in an early-childhood setting: they’re learning how to play, they’re learning how to negotiate with one another. They’re learning, as I said before, some of those important self-regulations and checking in with their impulsivity and all those life skills… these are important life lessons. In fact, in my training one of the things we talk about is that at MIT they have what’s called “lifelong kindergarten classes”. It’s a program, I’m not sure if you’re familiar…?

SPREEUWENBERG: No. Interesting to hear more.

SIEGEL: Yeah, it’s so cool. It’s a course that… the philosophy is that everything we need to know, we learn in kindergarten. Everything we need to know in life, we learned in kindergarten. And it’s just so powerful when you break down what we’re learning in an early-childhood setting. They’re life skills, the things that we carry with us throughout our lives. So I mentioned all those juicy things, those powerful things in the social-emotional realm.

But there’s also, as I said, I don’t want to downplay the importance of play, that yoga in the early-childhood classroom is so much fun. And this is one of the first things I say in my kids’ yoga teacher training, that kids yoga is not adult yoga. It will not look like it in any way. Because we’ll go into a downward dog and we’ll wag our tails, and we’re roaring like lions. And we’ll just be very, very playful, and we’ll have fun.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, it’s going back to your point about the benefits for teachers. It seems like a really great way for them to connect with the children while doing an activity with them, as opposed to the other approach which might be sort of managing your classroom and managing your children. You’re connecting with them through this activity, which is excellent.

SIEGEL: I love that. That’s such a beautiful way to look at this. Yes, the teachers and their students are partners in learning, and that their learning process is continuous. It’s not the disseminator of knowledge, sitting in front of the classroom, sharing the wisdom. It’s that the teachers are going to learn with the kids; the kids are going to learn with the teachers. It’s a really beautiful way to approach the early-childhood classroom.

SPREEUWENBERG: So this is an excellent conversation, and I’ve really been enlightened by the value of yoga for children, even at the preschool level. If I’m a listener and I want to learn a little bit more about this topic, what are some recommendations from you, in terms of where I can go to get that information?

SIEGEL: Oh, there are so many wonderful resources. And I’ve sifted and sorted through so many. Obviously people can feel free to come to my website, which is And I also have a Facebook business page with the same name, Nancy Segal Consulting. And I post a lot of very useful information on the current research. There’s so much current cognitive neuroscience research to support yoga and mindfulness in the early-childhood classroom and above, throughout the ages. And there’s hard science behind all of this. So I’m happy to be a resource to anybody who is interested in getting more. I can share lots of books.

The best book that I can recommend is written by a woman named Patricia Jennings, she goes by Tish. And the book is called Mindfulness For Teachers. She literally wrote the book for mindfulness for teachers. And there are lots of very valuable messages and resources in that book. But there are so many, so many other ones. There are some other ones that I’m not as in favor of, for a number of philosophical reasons. So like I said, I really have sifted and sorted through a lot of resources.

Also, we didn’t mention music. Music is such a valuable tool. I’m sure the educators who are listening who use music in the classroom know exactly what I’m talking about. But in my training they talk about how music is a great way to modulate energy, and especially through yoga and mindfulness. So I have [a] tremendous library of music and I am so happy to share that with people as well.

So you can shoot me an email, which is the same as my business name, is, and I’m happy to share resources with people want to take it further.

SPREEUWENBERG: Excellent, excellent. We love, at the Preschool Podcast, hearing and learning about activities for early-childhood education that are based on hard science. So it’s really cool to learn more about yoga and how that helps with creating mindfulness for both the children and teachers in preschool classroom. So thank you so much for coming on the show today, Nancy, it’s been a really great conversation.

SIEGEL:Well thank you, Ron. It’s a pleasure to share what I’m passionate about with another like-minded person. It clearly sounds like by putting together the podcast that you’re very passionate about helping educators and their students as well. So it’s really been an honor to have this time with you and those who are listening.

SPREEUWENBERG:Awesome. Thanks so much, Nancy.

SIEGEL:Thank you, Ron.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.

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