How to Improve Focus and Performance with Breathing

How do we harness the energy of our students?

As guides of young children, whether you’re a classroom teacher, a parent, or someone who engages young learners, you have experienced this energy which can sometimes be right on the edge of chaos… albeit joyful! Whatever we do, we don’t want to turn off this energy because that’s exactly what leads to creativity and inspired learning. So, instead I suggest you think about re-directing this energy and simultaneously show young learners how to change their breathig in a play-based context. I know this works because I’ve been doing this since 2000 all over the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

When young learners figure out how they can use breathing to change their emotional state and deal with any unwanted situations, they will then know how to manage their own energy!  In addition, they will also learn how to self-regulate, and that is a BIG deal. Here are some specific strategies which I have used myself. Two things to keep in mind are:

Be authentically playful if you want these strategies to work.

Your goal is to help the learner breathe in through their nose for approximately 2 seconds and out their mouth for 4 seconds


Age Appropriate: PreK - approximately Grade 1

Yes, the tissues we use to wipe our nose! Good news is, you most likely already have these in stock. Just don’t tell any toy companies about this idea because they will find a way to re-label and over price kleenexes!

Demonstrate using a Kleenex to play “peek-a-boo” with very young learners. Hold the kleenex by the top two corners and leave the bottom of it dangling. Breathe in through your nose and out your mouth, thus making the kleenex flutter.  

Younger learners may simply observe, and that’s normal.  Older learners will mimic what you just did.

Another variation is to place the kleenex on your face while looking up. Puffing out air will send the kleenex soaring into the sky, assuming you have decent breath control… lol!

The key here is to remember that you are introducing a young learner to the idea that their breath can move things, and doing so in a play-based way. You can then build on this knowledge.


Age Appropriate: PreK - approximately Grade 1

This strategy is more intentional than the previous one. Here’s what you do:

  • Put your hand out and pretend it’s the ground outside and invite your young learners to mimic you.

  • Demonstrate placing a pretend seed into your ground (in as much or as little detail as you want).

  • Invite the learners to choose their type of seed and to join you in planting their seed in the ground.

  • Ask your learners “What does a seed need to grow?” Eventually, the idea of water/rain will come up.

  • Create the sound of rain by breathing in through your nose and out your mouth.

  • Create the movement of rain with one hand raining on your other hand (the ground!)

  • Demonstrate how your seed is growing and the learners will mimic you in some way.

There are some many hilarious scenarios which have taken place during this strategy, and no matter what happens, I take the learners back to the sound of the rain.  Sometimes it increases in intensity and other times it’s a gentle rain.

Bring your raincoat!


Age Appropriate: PreK - approximately Grade 3

There are many options when it comes to using puppets. I use an elephant named Eddie. No matter the type of puppet, including sock and bag puppets, here is what has worked for me.  Feel free to create your own routine(s):

  • I have my puppet hidden in a small suitcase and ask the learners what they think is inside.

  • I take as long as I can to remove the puppet one foot and tail at a time, each time pausing to ask the learners what they think it is.  I also ask them why they think what they think. I take as long as I can to teach the idea of delayed gratification in the context of play.

  • Once the puppet’s identity is discovered, the puppet becomes visibly shaky and nervous.  The reason varies based on the feedback from the learners.

  • The puppet silently asks me to put on breathing music.

  • The puppet then begins to breathe in through the nose and out the mouth and asks the learners to join along.

  • If time permits, I ask if anyone wants to come up and be the puppet’s teacher and show the puppet how to breathe. There are always some eager learners that come up and this usually leads to most every learner taking a turn. This leads to a lot of breathing. I make sure to congratulate the students who choose to say “no thank you” and choose to observe.

The point is to find play-based ways to have the learners engaged in breathing for as long as possible.


Age Appropriate: PreK - approximately Grade 3

This was my original breathing strategy.  While it’s listed as a PreK - Grade 3 strategy, I have used this with much older learners, depending on the complexity of content.  For example, I have led middle school learners in creating the cycle of water, and it was definitely age appropriate.

  • I begin by asking the learners to show me their version of a tree with their bodies.

  • Many different kinds of trees emerge and I then look for even the smallest amount of movement.

  • When I see the movement of any body part, I say and ask something like...

I see some trees moving! What is making your tree move?

  • They have various responses, and the majority of the responses are usually, “The Wind.”

  • I then ask them to make the sound of the wind, as I demonstrate and play with them (In through the nose and out through the mouth).

How long do I do this?  As long as they let me!

Can you ask them what a tree needs to grow, and create the sound and movement of rain?


Take any of these strategies… and PLEASE… make them your own.


Age Appropriate: PreK - approximately Grade 4

So, here’s the story on how this one came to be!

I was playing the Tree and the Wind with a group of preschool children, and one child came up to me and in a frustrated tone of voice said, “I don’t want to be a tree.” I responded, “You don’t have to be a tree.”  Usually that soothes them and they either observe or choose to play along later. In this case, the child came closer to me and said in a more agitated tone of voice, “I don’t like trees.” I quickly improvised and said, “You can be a forest ranger! That means you get into your truck and drive around the forest to make sure there are no trees.”  I thought it was a great idea. He hated the idea and screamed, “I… HATE… TREEEEEEEEES!” The forest became silent as we all looked at this little boy, who was breathing in an agitated manner and was obvioulsy angry. I gently asked, “What do you want to be? In about 5 seconds he slowed his breathing down and said, “Spiderman”

All that to remind of us that…

  • Children can be our greatest teachers

  • Take the time to ask great questions

  • Leave enough time for a great response

I asked the little boy, “What does spiderman do?” He responded with spiderman hands making a web, AND he included the sound of the web coming out of his spiderman hands. I then led the classroom of learners in making lots of spiderman webs while breathing in through our nose and out through our mouth. I then started making my first letter of my first name with spider web (and breathing!) Every child wanted their turn…

...we breathed for a long time, made letters, and all was good.


Age Appropriate: PreK - approximately Grade 5

Another story…. I was playing the Tree and the Wind with a group of young learners and out of nowhere, a child joyfully screams…

“My tree was cut down!!!”

Half of the forest went with this intriguing idea. The other half watched daddy tree (that would be me) and were confused, not knowing who to follow.  I decided to..

“Stay in the Play”

I got down to the carpet and said, “My tree was also cut down.” The entire forest had been cut down by now, and I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew I had to keep playing and find a way back to breathing.  I said, in a dusty old tree voice, “What do trees need to grow?”

“Raaaaaaiiiinnnnn” said the little boy who had started it all, in his best old tree voice.

From my side position as I lay on the floor, I raised an arm and made the sound and movement of rain. The little boy did it as well, and others joined in. We were all breathing again and before you knew it, the forest had come back to life. We ended talking about the cycle of trees.

We breathed for quite some time as the learners wanted to repeat this cycle, and repeat it we did!

The benefits of engaged, relaxed and intentional breathing are many, including:

  • Improved mindfulness

  • Less stress

  • Better digestion

  • Improved critical thinking

  • And much more!

Maybe I’ll write a blog specifically about the health benefits of breathing…. Hmmmmm

For now, it’s goodbye and I’ll see you soon.

Stay curious and breathe deeply


Luke Hewlett