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Teaching Pilates to Children and Adolescents

Dawn-Marie Ickes MPT, PMA®-CPT, CNT, VMP, CST, NASM®-YES shares her experience of Pilates from receiving Pilates treatment as a 13 year old, through learning to enjoy and value Pilates, onto developing a fully fledged program for teaching Pilates to children and young people, and culminating in co-authoring Pilates for Children and Adolescents: Manual of Guidelines and Curriculum with Celeste Corey-Zopich and Brett Howard. We hope you enjoy this heartfelt account of her personal journey with Pilates.

In my many years as both a teacher of Pilates and a physical therapist, I have seen the extraordinary benefits of Pilates in the lives of people of all ages, and have had the privilege of introducing the work to many young people.

I was first introduced to Pilates at the age of 13 after sustaining a back injury, which ended my short-lived aspiration to be a figure skater. My doctor, knowing my love of dance and figure skating, recommended physical therapy at a facility that used Pilates, a term which I had never heard before. This marked the beginning of a wonderful journey, in which Joseph Pilates’ work has guided me with each twist and turn to where I have landed today. It would be easy to say that I knew from the start that Pilates was the movement practice for me, but, to the contrary, I had quite the opposite response. I didn’t like it at all, even after six months of instruction, two to three times a week. I recall feeling confused and inept, constantly having my neck position corrected by my instructor while on the Reformer, and wondering if I would ever understand the complex words and ideas being shared with me. I rarely felt a sense of success, and, being a freshly minted teenager, I did what most intimidated teens do: I decided that I would rather be at the mall, and stopped going to Pilates once my back was strong enough for me to return to dance class.

It wasn’t until years later, in college and graduate school, that I was reintroduced to the Mat work.  Each exposure brought me closer to a true understanding of the integration of mind and body, and I was now able to enjoy Pilates truly as a practice.  I enjoyed the challenge of the Mat work and loved how graceful my body felt. I had not yet even considered learning to teach it or how it might apply to my future as a physical therapist.  The turning point for me came after a car accident, when I was once again told that I should do Pilates regularly to keep my back strong.  I took a Mat class for the next four months and quickly realized that, of all of the back stabilization exercises I had done over the years, Pilates harmonized my mind and body in a way that forever changed how my back felt and how my body moved.  I was hooked.

By bringing the principles of Pilates to bear in all aspects of my professional and personal life, I reached a new level of self-awareness. I decided to study it in depth and eventually became a teacher. As a result of my work with Pilates, I began looking at teaching my pediatric patients from a whole-body movement perspective, while honoring my own body and embracing its challenges and using breath to calm my stressed nervous system. The empowerment of energized and effortless movement in my day-to-day life took me to a new level of freedom in all my physical activities.

Based on my own difficult early experience with Pilates, coupled with a growing number of stories from clients who had been introduced to the work at a young age, I felt a burning desire to find a more accessible and enjoyable way to introduce Pilates to young people. I realized that, in working with children and adolescents, a teacher is only as good as their ability to communicate effectively to the mind and body receiving the work, and that it is important to understand how young people learn in order to bring about awareness and change.

In 2002, at a PMA board meeting in Florida on the future of Pilates education and Joseph Pilates’ vision, I found myself reflecting deeply on my purpose in being there, and what I might be able to contribute.  Surrounded by leaders in the Pilates world, each inspiring me in their own way, I realized that with a background in pediatric development and rehabilitation, it was important to me to demonstrate that Pilates helps children.

My first program pilot was launched in 2004 at my daughter’s school, and the outcome was truly astonishing. I knew what the results of Pilates had been for many adults I’d worked with, but I had no idea how profound the effect of this work could be for children.

The response from the participants of the first pilot was heartwarming. I remember the flood of emotion that overcame me and the other three adults in the room as we stood in the cafeteria listening to the children describe how they felt different after doing Pilates. We heard numerous statements such as, “It (Pilates) is helping me with my studies because I am more relaxed, because I know that I am breathing and I am not going to tighten up,” and, “It’s helped me concentrate and relax more, and I’m not like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have another test’ and I can’t really breathe. Pilates helps me relax.” There were certainly many physical changes involved, but the theme of the children’s unplanned, unscripted responses was one of whole-body health, decreased stress and improved ability to manage challenges.

The PMA developed what is now called the Pilates 4 Youth initiative in an effort to create the opportunity for children around the world to experience the mental, physical, and emotional health benefits inherent in the Pilates Method.  The absence of research in Pilates at the time drove the PMA to establish standards and guidelines for safe and appropriate applications of Pilates for individuals of all ages, backgrounds and experience levels. Subsequently, a wonderful collaboration has resulted in the preparation and publication in March 2014 of the book Pilates for Children and Adolescents: Manual of Guidelines and Curriculum, of which I am very proud to be co-author.

Corey-Zopich  Cover Website

I am extremely grateful to my passionate colleagues in the Pilates community, fellow board members, Pilates for children enthusiasts, and health care professionals with whom I have had the privilege to travel this road of exploration and application of Joseph Pilates’ concepts and pedagogy.

Dawn-Marie Ickes MPT, PMA®-CPT, CNT, VMP, CST, NASM®-YES is Adjunct DPT faculty CSUN, MSMC, Owner of Evolve Integrative Wellness, PT and Pilates, Orange County, CA; Co-author of Pilates for Children and Adolescents (Handspring Publishing 2014)