Children are Sponges & Mirrors: A calming breath practice for the playground

by | Dec 14, 2021 | School Breathe Blog | 1 comment

Imagine the scene – it’s one most of us know well – two children get involved in some form of conflict: a game goes wrong, one child feels excluded, one of the children finds it hard to accept no, frustration builds until either both (or one of the children) are on the verge of tears or getting physical. At this point a well-meaning adult comes upon what is happening, sees what is going on and the exasperated children plead their case, gabbling out what has happened, each one trying to outdo the other in being heard, their side more important, more relevant. Feeling for both children the adult’s advice is for the children to “calm down”. An abstract outcome, that both children want to achieve, yet one in that moment they have absolutely no idea how to attain. A bit like telling the same children to “Get to Glasgow”. Will the children calm down – unlikely that both do, unlikely that both feel heard, unlikely that the situation is resolved quickly and effectively.

Now imagine the same scene in a playground, with hundreds of children playing, the above scenario happens with a child whose only adult to look for support is trying to manage, and monitor everything that is going on, they’ve had a tough day and their own tolerance for support is dwindling. Chances are their response will be an even curter “Just calm down and sort it out yourself” An even more abstract response than the first scenario, leaving the child confused and totally unaware of what to do or how to self-regulate.

As adults, we can often forget that children need to know how to get somewhere too, the process that they can follow, rather than the outcome or final destination. I’ve been guilty of it myself, when in class forgetting to lay out the path and just asking for what the finished piece of work looks like. Whilst it is helpful to know where you are going, but without knowing the how, this can become meaningless.

In the scenario played out above, where the outcome to calm down is helpful, the use of breath becomes an integral part of helping children reach that place. Imagine now that when the children reach the well-meaning adult, instead of being told to calm down, the adult says “I hear and understand both of you, now copy me, breathe in through your nose (*adult breathes in though their nose) and then whisper from 1 to 10 until you can’t anymore (*adult does this)”
At this point the children become distracted from whatever it was that was upsetting them, they get to copy an adult who they trust, and the counting allows them to extend the exhale, slowing their heart rate, kicking in the parasympathetic calming response, and helping them feel less agitated.

The adult then says – “Great. let’s do one more round.” and repeats the whole process.

Once calm, the adult can then have a more reasoned conversation with the children to help resolve what has caused the problem in the first place.

At its simplest level, this kind of breathwork really works to children’s strengths. Children are sponges and mirrors. They soak up everything around them, and reflect it back. Knowing this is very powerful, as showing them something that works and asking them to copy, is playing into this wonderful child strength. On a physiological level it helps calm the body. By whispering from 1-10, repeatedly until you are out of breath, you invite a longer exhale for the breath. When we exhale our heart slows down (less space for the heart, so the brain signals it to slow down to prevent it from over pumping too much blood) and the nervous system is parasympathetic dominant, enabling a rest and relax state. This method was developed by Carl Stough in the 1960’s to help emphysema patients utilise their entire lung capacity. He then went onto use it to help athletes breathe better. I found it a great and engaging way to let children extend their exhale and calm.

Now imagine that staff in schools are taught this regulation technique, to direct children to manage their stress or anxiety in a playground, better still the children themselves are taught this in class, to help self-regulate, or remind their peers whenever they need it. There is nothing more rewarding than watching one child gently help another breathe to self soothe.

For more information about Kevin McQuaid’s work, please visit