When I bring out the Hoberman Sphere (aka the Breathing Ball), all eyes (and sometimes hands) gravitate my way.... this large collapsing sphere is a fantastic tool for illustrating how we open our insides for breath, then constrict our muscles to release. It's almost natural to start breathing IN and OUT as the sphere opens and closes.
We sing the song "Breath IN through your nose...Breath OUT through your nose...." slowing down or speeding up as needed.
Even little Eli (who was the first in class to crawl INTO the sphere!) understands the connection between the ball and the breath, even at 25 months. Often when he's upset I'll just sing the "breath in" song and depending on his mood he'll follow along with the breath. Sometimes, if he just wants to be upset (and, heaven knows, we all have that feeling sometime) as soon as I start to sing, he wails "Noooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!"
But I know the simple trick is to just say "okay, let's just take a deep breath" and sure enough, he'll inhale through his nose, then actually do an energy releasing mouth exhale. And voila, the crying is abated even just for a moment. People have looked at me slack jawed when they see this little boy doing a deep breathing exercise, long before the notion of what "breathing in and out" really means....
I'd like to think that all that yoga I did while pregnant has ingrained some things into his little spirit. But truth be told, it's me RE-learning that taking a deep breath is a sure fire way to break the stress cycle, and passing that on actively to my little punkin' that has worked.
For classes where passing around a $40 "toy" is not possible, I like to do the pretend breathing ball exercise. I show them how it works, and ask them to imagine that they have one inside of them. Then we put our hands in front of us, cupped with fingers wide, making our OWN little breathing ball, that we can open and close on our own. We can close our eyes and REALLY imagine we are holding a ball. We can go around the room and ask "what color is YOUR breathing ball?" - we can open it just a a little, for puppy breaths, or a LOT for big balloon breaths (check out YogaKids for more on Balloon Breath).
And, not surprisingly, after giong through any breathing exercise with the families and children, I too always feel a sense of calm, groundedness, and health. Brain, Body, Breath - united.