Managing Competition in Class

I have always encouraged non-competitive activities in my children’s yoga classes in the belief that games should develop co-operation not competition. Competition creates winners and losers and can cause children to give up trying if they feel that other children are bendier or stronger or calmer than them. I even avoid playing Grandmother’s Trees with children under 8 yrs because I have had children in tears because they didn’t win. But recent events have made me question whether it is good to avoid competition altogether.

The opposite of fostering competition is creating fairness and equality. Children have a strong attachment to fairness, but this can be hard to manage in a yoga class where you want to give children to opportunity to have a turn, tell their story, demonstrate their yoga pose – but don’t have time to hear everyone. We want to treat everyone equally - yet everyone is different.

Earlier this week I brought an inflatable globe to a class of 5 and 6 year olds and asked a child to choose a country to visit for our yoga story. I then spent most of the class managing every child’s need to have a turn with the globe. Should children always be treated equally? Or should we be equipping children with the skills to manage competitive feelings without arguments, tears and fighting.

Recent experiences with my 9 and 11 yr old daughters led me to re-read the amazing book Sibling Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish which suggests treating children uniquely rather than equally, recognising their feelings of competition and giving them skills to move beyond them. 

There is also much to be learnt from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras - written 1600 years ago and still very relevant for children today. Ahimsa (kindness), Tapas (self-dicipline), Santosha (contentment) are all values that we can demonstrate through the games, visualisations and  yoga stories we teach in our classes. Teaching children's yoga is much more than enabling them to touch their toes or lie still in relaxation - we are teaching values, boundaries and emotional resilience. Our job as Children's Yoga Teachers is teaching children how how to navigate their place successfully and peacefully in a competitive world.

As a teacher if you hear and accept a child’s feelings of competitiveness or need for fairness but state a value or guideline, such as ‘I can see you are upset that you didn’t get a turn but today I chose Eleanor as a reward for sitting really quietly in meditation, another week you will get a turn too’ - the child knows that their feelings have been heard and that you reward good behaviour. This approach encourages Santosha in the child – something you can reinforce during the class with affirmations and circle time.

Just like adults, competition drives children to try harder and achieve. This is not a bad thing if it means they try to sit quietly in meditation in yoga rather than get distracted by their friends. Over time they may start meditating simply because it feels good. But while they are still learning we need to understand and be compassionate towards children's need to compare and receive unique praise and attention. So instead of seeing competition as a negative in yoga, we accept its existence and harness the opportunity to reveal life lessons. Yoga gives children skills and values for life if we have the patience to teach them.

Emma Charvet and Siobhan Power from Children’s Yoga Tree are running a workshop on teaching Philosophy to Children on Sat July 21st at Effraspace in London.