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How to Engage Kids with Targeted Programming at Your Studio

Pilates COREterly - Courtesy of Balanced Body Inc

Spring 2014

Pilates Programming - Kids Just Want to Have Fun!

by Larkin Barnett, BA, MA

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“The true object of all human life is play.” — GK Chesterton

To create his method, Joseph Pilates drew from several movement disciplines. This combination makes it a perfect fit for kids, because children’s fitness programs require this type of variety for physical and mental development.

Pilates instructors have a lot to offer children because one area of expertise includes mindful fitness. After all, children explore their world first through their rich imagination and five senses. Children who experience the joy of learning to “control” their own bodies then take on the bigger challenge of moving with purpose in work and play. They grow up more comfortable in their own skin. They are being given the mindful tools to becoming people dedicated to their own personalized physical fitness or sport for the rest of their lives. Our children are the most important resource on our planet so let’s get moving!

Why Add Movement

Creative movement in fitness settings provides an answer to our nation’s health-crisis of sedentary, overweight, and diabetic children. Pilates instructors who grow a youth-based business are helping our children to move “one repetition” closer to a healthier future. Each day, more of the arts are being completely drained from our children’s schools. Yet studies show parents believe dance, music, art and drama make their children better students and better people.

Creative movement provides a specific art-orientated vocabulary that builds a child’s mind/body connection, as well as their language, math and science skills. Expressive movement involves mastery over the body in all its varieties. It reinforces an outlet for the joy found in rhythmic action. Children need variety, complementary activities (like games) and fun. Creative movement cultivates a “can do” attitude, stimulating both the right and left sides of the brain. Not to mention, children move through space with confidence, uninhibited by the fear of being judged for not having moved in “the right way.”

Planning Your Program The extra twist is that with children there are two sets of clients: the children and their parents. When you strike a balance between satisfying the needs of the children with the result-oriented desires of the parents — the sky is the limit, so be sure to communicate with the parents.

Once you’re ready to begin, it’s important to remember children aren’t mini-adults, so design a fitness program that is full of kid-friendly variety and less complex exercises. Also, keep in mind that each child is extremely unique and a helpful common denominator to the group dynamic is mindful exercise. A comprehensive fitness program promotes problem-solving, self-esteem, social skills, and fun creative self-expression. If you make it fun they’ll enjoy learning about anatomy-based visual imagery, while simultaneously being introduced to the power of their mind/body connection. Children need shorter intervals of exercises. It is essential to provide a full curriculum of movement disciplines in order to mix it up!

Designing Your Class

Begin by getting physician clearance.

It’s important to design a non-competitive fitness curriculum in which boys and girls can move at their own individual pace, discover personalized potential, and build self-esteem. Keep the class focus upon aspects of self-motivation, safety guidelines and proper form. Next make sure there is an appropriate warm-up and cool down portion to every class. Make the essential Pilates principles of movement the foundation for teaching these disciplines. For consistency, build in ways for them to chart their own progress. Include ways to burn energy, build bone density, balance, endurance and strength.

Identify main elements to explore in a particular lesson. Provide the kids with ample time to refine, practice and choose solutions. Experiment with cueing using a supportive and natural voice, which is your most potent teaching aid. Be aware of your posture and energize your own body. Create a comfortable, friendly and non-competitive environment.

Expressive Movement for Ages 5 to 8 A successful children’s fitness program must be based upon a combination of functional and expressive movement for physical, mental and emotional development. Developmentally, creative movement is hands down the winner for cultivating self-expression and emotional stability, while building optimum physical conditioning. Children organize, perceive and understand the world primarily from their physical senses. Before the children focus on the detail-oriented Pilates movements, begin each class with an easy non-competitive movement approach that explores their full movement potential.

Younger children will be more apt to enjoy and concentrate upon Pilates refined moves or yoga poses after delighting in skipping, running and jumping with joyous abandonment. Expressive movement is an essential energy release and a biological necessity. Children need these intervals and short bursts.

Therefore, lay the groundwork for every class with basic locomotion movements, such as walking, skipping, jumping, etc. Now that the children have expended their energy they can start the portion of class to master Pilates. Axial movements (bending, stretching, pushing, collapsing, and rising) are also part of the basics allowing the children to better access Pilates moves, traditional calisthenics, and yoga poses with more confidence. Body part lessons can be integrated into any of the themes. Adding props make the movement exploration less intimidating and expands the movement possibilities.

Visual Imagery Helps Young Children Enjoy Functional Movement Visual imagery is the most direct path to the mind-body connection. Visualization involves the thought or what you “see” in the mind’s eye. Imagery involves the body or what you “feel” with your senses. Children learn how to tap into their imagination using fun, anatomy-based visual imagery cues. The cues encompass the essential Pilates principles, which are key to becoming their own fitness experts for a lifetime. Tap into the rich imagination of children. Visual imagery and fitness make a successful team.

Children become their own coach by learning their ABC's — Alignment, Breathing and Core visual imagery cues. The essential principles of Pilates help children to prepare, initiate and execute each movement properly, from point A to point B. When the child focuses upon the visual image they don’t get bored and the movement takes on a distinct quality. Visual imagery deepens the understanding of the human body in motion, which prepares the children for injury prevention, sports performance, dance, recreational activities and better posture.

Like Olympic athletes, dancers and healers alike, children can also use visual imagery to learn to live up to their own “Olympic” potential. Watch the children think, speak, act and move like a champion. They gain confidence, strength and mind-body integration tools for a healthy lifetime. If you listen to the language of a champion, it is positive, encouraging and instructive.

Visual images are tools that can bring out the essence of the Pilates method. Children transform before your eyes, dig down for a deeper physical commitment and have more fun. They view their workouts as an adventure for the mind and the body. This gives them strategies for healthier living. It can correct inappropriate habitual movement patterns, which can become chronically engrained. Imaging can unite and balance the right/left brain activity.

Visual imagery is a positive way to help children alleviate worry, fear, or nagging negative thoughts that slip into the consciousness. No matter what circumstance the child finds himself in, he can tap into his “inner environment“ to gain strength, balance and relaxation. Imagery takes functional fitness training from mindless repetitions, to total body efficient movements which inspire confidence. Imagery builds a child’s vocabulary, while building muscles. It also empowers children to become independent exercisers due to their own invaluable input.

Unite Traditional Calisthenics with Pilates Principles:

Joyful Jumping Jacks Mindful exercise and a deep understanding of the body in motion becomes the name of the game with the addition of anatomy-based visual imagery cues. These cues reinforce the essential Pilates principles. The children’s faces light up when visual images are used to teach traditional jumping jacks. They go into a zone of efficient total body movement just like when we observe our clients using the Pilates principles. Their landings become soft and controlled by landing in the middle of imaginary targets. Their use of total-body space has clarity when picturing moving inside a 3-D cube. Their core supports stability and proper overall alignment when visualizing strong vines encircling the inner trunk. By picturing their hips as a bowl full of popcorn they support and align their pelvis during the jumping jacks. There are no popcorn kernels falling on the floor in front or in the back of the body. Imagining big balloons next to their ears each time their arms float overhead reinforces shoulder girdle organization when they don’t pop the balloons.

Pilates: The Hundred When you teach children The Hundred you may ask them to support their head with one hand. Cue them to pump heavy mattress springs into the mat with the arm by your side. Sew your navel into the mat to contract your abdominals and envision growing roots deep into the mat for core stability. Fog up a mirror on your exhales.

Pilates: The Roll Up (or Half Roll-Ups) Ask the children to picture their torso continuously curling over a huge water wheel of a windmill — while rolling up and down. This helps them to find their C-Curve. Picture your abs as a sponge your stomach stays away from the water wheel. Visualize the sponge getting smaller and smaller inside your body while wringing every drop of water out of the sponge — on your exhales. You may ask them to bend their legs at first. Fasten your legs and abdominals together like zippers. The zipper image is meant to convey the muscular engagement of the Base of your Powerhouse and Powerhouse. Eventually perform in the Pilates stance by gluing your legs into the mat. Feel your outer legs squeeze your inner legs together as if you can squeeze several tennis balls in between your legs — from your knees, thighs, and glutes.

Pilates: Rolling Like a Ball Picture buttoning your belly button onto your backbone. Visualize yourself curled inside a big ball in a C-Curve shape while rolling down and up. Your back is in the shape of a scared Halloween cat. Teach shoulder girdle organization by asking the children to picture tucking their shirt into their pants. Exhale, visualizing your abs as a plump raisin that shrivels more and more into a dried up raisin.

Pilates, calisthenics, stretches and yoga taught using the essential Pilates principles and visual imagery builds in safety, stamina and success. You may want to end the class with some yoga poses. Children discover an island of calm for the stresses within their lives. Statistics show that yoga improves concentration and test scores. The key is to develop the body’s potential in varied, daring and challenging ways to make fitness a sought-after expressive and functional activity. All of a child’s physical, mental, social and emotional skills help him to fulfill this goal. The result is an ever-broadening cycle of learning.


Larkin Barnett, B.A., M.A., Dance, is an award-winning author, Polestar-certified instructor and founder of the AthleticKinetics System© Pilates teacher trainings. Larkin has been sharing her techniques for 4 decades as a movement therapist and fitness professional. She has been a professor of exercise science and dance at several universities, trained with top modern dance companies and performed at the NYC Laban Center. She was chosen as a President’s Challenge Advocate for the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and helps prepare parents and teachers to help our children get fit through her Pilates-based comprehensive children’s fitness curriculum. For more information, visit Larkin’s website at

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