By Amy Leibrock
Whether you get involved with Pilates in the Schools or want to teach Pilates to kids at your local YMCA, getting children started in Pilates can be a rewarding and inspiring experience. Just ask Kim Carruthers. After 10 years teaching Pilates, she had a thriving studio, Physical Perfection, in Los Angeles and star clients like Tyra Banks and Patricia Arquette, but she was looking for something new to excite her, something, she says, “to bring the benefits of Pilates outside the walls of my studio.”
Carruthers found what she was looking for when she volunteered to teach Pilates to children who were financially less fortunate in 2005. It was so successful, both for the kids and for her, that now, on top of her fulltime studio, she teaches six classes per week to kids and teens through her Pilates in the ‘Hood program. Carruthers sees her students get fitter, but they also tell her it helps them focus on their schoolwork and relax when they’re stressed—and many practice at home or teach moves to their families. “Part of my goal is that later on in life, no matter what, this will be a foundation for them,” she says.
It sounds great, right? After all, wasn’t this also Joseph Pilates’ goal? For everyone to do Pilates? Yes, but if you’re ready to bring Pilates to the children and have never worked with kids, you might have some questions. Like, how do you explain the Powerhouse to a 7-year-old? Or how do you find the kids in the first place?
To answer these questions and more, we sought Carruthers’ advice. In this first part of our 2-part series, she shares her tips for teaching kids and teens. In Part 2, she’ll offer up ideas for starting a program in your own area.
1. Keep it fun!
Teaching children is much different than teaching adults, says Carruthers. “With children you have to focus on helping them focus and understand the benefits of Pilates and at the same time make Pilates fun.” She noticed that kids really responded to exercises with animal names, so now she renames a lot of them. “We do a lot of happy things. We have exercises like the Happy Cat or the Pretty Cat.” And since you need a Reformer to do the Elephant, she teaches them a standing Roll Down, calling it an “elephant with a trunk.” Sometimes she lets the kids name the exercises. “It might be one name in one class, but in a different program, the kids call it something different.”
2. Trust your instincts
Even though children are different than adults, the fundamentals of teaching Pilates are still the same, says Carruthers. Just like with adults, some children are stronger, more fit or more flexible than others. “It’s the basic things that you’ve learned as an instructor—you use those same principles with children,” she says. Carruthers starts with a basic fitness test to assess what level her students are at. She looks at how many can do the Hundred with their knees bent or head up. “I break my class down that way. That will tell me where they are,” she says. “We all try to work together, but I also teach modified versions of almost every exercise.” She does suggest staying away from exercises involving inversions, like the Jackknife, with kids, unless you’re working with them one-on-one.
3. Keep classes small
Carruthers likes to limit her childrens classes to 10 students, especially with the younger children, so she can give them individual attention. “I’d rather teach two classes than 20 kids at one time,” she says. She’ll make an exception for teens who have Pilates experience: in that case she’ll allow 15 at a time.
4. Talk about all the benefits of fitness
“In my class, we don’t talk about weight,” says Carruthers. Instead, she stresses the other benefits you get from Pilates and fitness in general: centering, concentration, posture, alignment, flexibility. She often starts a class by breaking down the letters in the word Pilates and assigning a different word to each letter. (P stands for posture…) “Kids want to become more flexible, they want to be stronger, they want to be like whatever athlete that they love…but then I always go back to how it will help them with their studies,” she says. “It’s amazing when children can say that ‘before the test I was really stressed out and then I took your class and I was able to focus and did better.’”
5. Let the kids teach each other
Carruthers has found that a lecture-and-demonstration format works well with kids classes, meaning she demonstrates an exercise and then they all do it together. She also chooses a student to be a “guest teacher” every week to teach the class an exercise he or she has mastered. “It’s a great way for children to learn—from their peers—because they’re so impressionable on each other anyway,” she says. At first, the kids were shy about teaching the class. “But now, that’s the main focus—who’s going to teach today?” Carruthers also likes for her students to call out the names of the exercises before they do them, especially for her “Pilates babies,” as she calls her group of five-year-olds. “They know the names of the exercises when I get in to the positions!”
6. Use language children can relate to
“Younger kids have no clue what the core is. It takes a long time to get to that level,” says Carruthers. She finds that kids understand the navel-to-spine connection when she says things like, “Pull your belly button in,” or “Bring your belly button to your back.” “My belief is that if they’re focusing and trying to do some of it, they’re going to receive the benefits from it, and eventually they will move on to the next phase,” she says. To explain “inhale” and “exhale,” Carruthers tells them to fill up their lungs with air and let the air out of their lungs and asks them what that feels like. What does a belly button that’s not pulled in look like in Carruthers’ class? Santa Claus! “You’re always drawing from a childlike mind when you’re teaching,” she say. “And believe it or not, you can come up with a thousand things that you didn’t know you had.”