Energy and Calm: Reading the Natural Rhythms of Children for Greater Joy

One of the greatest mistakes of our day is to think of movement by itself, as something apart from the higher functions . . . Watching a child makes it obvious that the development of his mind comes about through his movements. —Maria Montessori

My youngest son is what you might call “active”, “busy”, “energetic”. You know the type. Daring and courageous on the playground. Struggles to sit through family meals or mini-lessons. The thing is he’s a seven-year-old boy and he’s built to move, run, jump, climb, and play. This week he’s decided he wants to be a diver, and he’s taught himself how to do a full front flip on the couch. It’s actually pretty impressive to watch. At home, we can channel his energy and respond to the natural rhythms of his day. As the school year starts, I find myself hoping that his teachers will view his energy as I do–as his greatest strength. 

We all experience moments throughout the day where our bodies are telling us–it’s time to move. As adults, we tend to have control over our bodies and can get up, move about, and make decisions about when to move and when to be still. Children tend to have less autonomy and decision-making about their movements, especially in school. 

Watching children, it’s easy to see that they are inherently motivated by opportunities to move. The word motivation, is actually from the medieval Latin motivus, which means “moving” or “motion.” But, as humans (especially little humans), when we feel boxed in, we experience the opposite of motivation. When our energy needs aren’t met, it’s natural to get frustrated. We then use our bodies and voices in ways that reveal something isn’t right. The more we learn to read children’s gestures and bodily cues that it is time to move, the more we can intentionally plan for these moments and respond in joyful ways. After all, children are built to move, watch things move, and make things move (see ideas below).

But being in continuous motion is exhausting and learning to self-regulate your body to find moments of calm is an essential part of one’s overall happiness and well-being. Research now shows a combination of movement and breath have been found to lower stress and anxiety. 

Children can learn to find moments of calm by counting their breaths or doing simple yoga poses like “tree pose” and “say hello to the sun”. Children can also be taught what I call “joy breathing” exercises. They can visualize smelling a flower (inhale) and blowing out a candle (exhale). Another one of my favorites is pretending to blow on a slice of pizza, also known as “pizza breathing”. These simple, quick techniques can help all of us find moments of quiet stillness. 

Notice the energy patterns of the children in your life and consider ways to build movement and calming opportunities with intention. And consider adopting the belief that children’s natural energy just might be their greatest strength. 

In the classroom:

  • Incorporate movement and gestures during read alouds and during small group instruction–not only will this support children’s energy needs but it will also strengthen their comprehension
  • Work on letter and number recognition through whole-body games like hopscotch (use chalkboard paint or sticky chalkboard paper on your classroom floor)
  • Have an easel area and standing desks for students to write standing up which builds core strength
  • Mix up your turn-and-talk routine by adding a walk-and-talk routine where students are free to roam around the room walking and talking with a partner
  • Put objects related to lessons around the room for a quick scavenger hunt 
  • Incorporate a ball or soft object that can be thrown around to respond to questions
  • Invite students to do reading, writing, word study, or math investigations lying down on the floor propped up on their elbows–this activates core muscles–don’t be surprised if some kids start doing planks
  • Teach students various “joy breathing” exercises and use them in transition moments from the classroom carpet to seats or before lining up
  • Notice which students have energy as a strength and design leadership roles for these students that involve gross motor skills like moving furniture, passing out materials, and delivering notes around the school as a messenger 

At home:

  • Have areas in the home designed for different kinds of movement like rough-and-tumble play, sensory seeking play, bouncing a ball, or swinging (we have monkey bars and hooks in our ceiling for ropes, ladders, and swings; we also have an occupational therapy crash mat which has saved our couches!) 
  • Head outside and encourage children to make decisions about their bodies with sentences like, “Do you think you can do it? You know best if you are ready.” 
  • Find ways to play as a family before school and after dinner–natural times of the day when children may need to expend some energy before finding their calm (a Cunningham favorite after-dinner game is what we call ball tag– basically family dodge ball with a giant yoga ball)
  • Model “joy breathing” techniques and remind them of these strategies when emotions run high

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