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Yoga and Physical Therapy

Build strength and flexibility through yoga for kids!

Our guest today is Leslie Nilsen, who works as a physical therapist (PT) in public schools. She’s passionate about sharing the benefits of yoga and physical therapy to build both strength (physical) and self-awareness (mental and emotional).

Why do children attend physical therapy sessions in schools?

Leslie works primarily in a public school setting, where PTs help students with disabilities to access the curriculum and negotiate the school environment at or as close to the same level as their peers, depending on the nature of the disability. PTs work with children on core strength (using a lot of yoga!) so they can sit upright throughout the day without slouching at their desks, as well as sitting on the rug with their classmates. Physical therapy also exposes these students to ball skills and gross motor skills involved in games played at recess and in PE, with the ultimate goal of independent participation with peers.

What are the benefits of integrating yoga into a physical therapy session?

After Leslie began integrating yoga into physical therapy sessions, her patients improved in many areas:

  • Stability, balance, coordination, flexibility
  • Body awareness
  • Attention, concentration, and focus
  • Attitude/positive thinking
  • Energy level (energizes or calms when needed)
  • Motor planning (students string together poses to follow a sequence)
  • Communication skills

Yoga provides a connection for children to build upon and create a community within their classroom, where they can develop positive attitudes and practice loving-kindness thinking. As the kids learn mindfulness and breath awareness, they become calmer and more self-assured.

What are some ways that we can integrate yoga and Physical Therapy?

Leslie says that she likes to use a multi-media/multi-sensory approach when she designs her yoga and physical therapy lesson plans. To engage her children, she incorporates visuals, kid-friendly YouTube videos, yoga cards for kids, chimes, lavender mist spray, and music. She also uses a computer-based tool called Lesson Pix to create her own yoga pose visuals and games with spinners, paper fortune tellers, and treasure maps.

Leslie works closely with the classroom teachers to create themed PT sessions that complement the classroom learning. Some of her themes have been seasons, non-religious holidays, special days (like Dr. Seuss’s birthday), animals, circus, space, construction zone, and Star Wars.

Leslie works both with small groups and large groups. And she creates individualized yoga worksheets for students to follow and check off each instruction independently.

Below are a few of the yoga activities that Leslie offers the children in her physical therapy classes:

1. Yoga Pose Obstacle Courses:

Leslie’s children love the construction zone-themed obstacle course. If you look closely at the picture below, you can see the cards lying on the mat, describing the skill at each point in the obstacle course (for example, push like a bulldozer, dig like a backhoe, spin like a cement mixer, and tip like a dump truck).

construction zone themed obstacle course for Physical Therapy | Kids Yoga Stories

Construction Zone-Themed Obstacle Course

2. Triangle Tag:

Everybody gets in a crab-walking position (Reverse Table Top Pose). If they are tagged, they stand up in a Triangle Pose. To be set free, someone has to Crab Walk under your legs. To change it up, you could do a Frog Walk (Jumping Squat Pose) or Bear Walk (moving Downward-Facing Dog Pose) instead of a Crab Walk.

3. Popsicle Stick Poses:

The popsicle sticks are a fun activity to incorporate yoga into treatment sessions. She makes a rainbow with the sticks. Each child first picks a red stick and then does the pose on that chosen stick. Then the children all pick orange sticks and practice the poses. They continue like this, picking sticks and practicing the poses until they finish each color of the rainbow. Then they place the sticks together in a rainbow. Leslie color-coordinates the sticks with the poses. For example, the red sticks are the mat yoga poses, purple sticks are the breathing poses, and orange sticks are the balance poses.

Popsicle Sticks Yoga Poses | Kids Yoga Stories

Popsicle Stick Poses

4. Yoga Mat Game:

Pretend that the yoga mat is “land” and off the mat is “sea.” Practice sequencing and motor-planning by calling out “land” and “sea,” and the children will jump on and off the mat. Continue with more challenging directions like “land, sea, land, land, sea.” Have the child take turns in calling out different patterns. Add other “locations.”

5. Beach Ball Yoga Games:

The big beach ball has different exercises written on each color panel. The red panel shows all the static yoga poses. The green has all the animal walks, and white has the locomotion activities. They play music and toss the beach ball around. When the music stops, someone is holding the ball. The class does the activity that is covered by that child’s hand. Then she starts the music again, and they play again.

The smaller beach ball has a yoga pose in each color panel. Leslie lines up the color target discs and the student stands five to seven feet away and rolls the ball into the discs. Whatever color disc the ball lands in is the pose they do. This game is great since it involves working on ball skills and aiming at the same time!

Beach Ball Yoga Games | Kids Yoga Stories

Beach Ball Yoga Games

6. Yoga Stories:

Leslie makes up her own simple yoga stories for her students to act out in class. An easy idea to start with is to ask the children to act like a mouse (Child’s Pose), who then meets a cat (Cat Pose), and they walk down the road together and run into a dog (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Her students help to add more characters with matching yoga poses to the story. Making up yoga stories is a great way to encourage their creativity while developing their listening skills, all while moving into different positions.

7. Paper Fortune Tellers:

Her older students help to make paper fortune tellers using Lesson Pix with yoga poses on the opening pieces. They use this origami game to work together to practice various poses. The leader opens and closes the fortune teller based on the choices made by the player, and then finally, the secret yoga poses are revealed.

Paper Fortune Tellers with Yoga Poses | Kids Yoga Stories

Paper Fortune Teller with Yoga Poses

What are some resources that you recommend for the yoga and physical therapy class?

Some resources that Leslie uses in her yoga and physical therapy classes (Amazon affiliate links):

Do you combine yoga and physical therapy, as well? We’d love to hear your ideas! Please add your comments below.


Join Giselle Shardlow (founder of Kids Yoga Stories) and Deirdre Drombolis (Physical Therapist) as we talk about a popular topic that we hear from our community: How do we best incorporate yoga and mindfulness into our PT sessions? What are the benefits of combining yoga and physical therapy?

YouTube video


Yoga and Physical Therapy: Build strength and Flexibility through Yoga for Kids | Kids Yoga Stories

Yoga and Physical Therapy for Kids

About our Featured Physical Therapist

Leslie Nilsen Physical Therapist

Leslie Nilsen has been a physical therapist for over sixteen years, and she’s had the opportunity to work in many different settings from acute care to rehab to outpatient. She has worked in the public schools for the past eight years, helping students with disabilities get strong. One of her favorite things to do with them is yoga. She has practiced yoga on and off for over twenty years, and she recently became a Childlight Yoga certified Kids Yoga Teacher. Bringing yoga into the schools is something that she is passionate about, and Leslie is excited to be doing it at a time when more and more research is out there to support its wonderful effects. Outside of yoga and PT, she enjoys hiking, biking, and camping with her family.

Other Related Links

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Yoga and Speech Therapy

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Therapeutic Benefits of Yoga for Kids

Fun yoga games for kids in large groups | Kids Yoga Stories

Yoga Games for Kids

Yoga for Children with Autism and Special Needs | Kids Yoga Stories

Yoga for Children with Autism

How to Teach Mindfulness and Yoga Practices to Children with Hearing Loss | Kids Yoga Stories

Yoga for Children with Hearing Loss



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