In our practice, we’ve noticed how more and more adults are becoming familiar with the concept of mindfulness.
We know that mindfulness benefits us and improves our ability to be present and successful in our daily roles as parent, spouse, friend, and employee. It helps with our emotional regulation and improves our distress tolerance. It increases our overall happiness. It improves our focus. Basically, it has endless benefits. So why wouldn’t we carry this over to children?
After all, who needs emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and focus more than children? Children long for these skills and are actually the ideal candidates for mindfulness training. If taught correctly it can decrease bullying, increase empathy, and improve optimism and happiness in the home, classroom, and extra-curricular activities.
By definition mindfulness is a mental state that can be achieved by focusing awareness on the present moment, while acknowledging and accepting feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations calmly. This concept is a bit above most children’s ability to understand, but the basic concept can be explained so that they not only understand it, but embrace it as well.
You may find that the core focus of “Being in the here and now” is much easier children to understand. So is accepting feelings and thoughts without judgment. Teaching them about relaxing, breathing, and enjoying a fun activity or sensory experience to the fullest makes mindfulness a concept that they will actually enjoy learning.
Making mindfulness fun not only motivates children to learn it, but teaches it in a way that they can best understand and master it. Then gradually, as they see the results, the intrinsic motivation will be there to continue to work on these skills and build a variety of techniques.
Here are a few things to remember when teaching children mindfulness.
- Keep It Simple: Make sure that you do not overwhelm them with words and concepts that they cannot understand! Teach them from the very basics and build on concepts in a way that makes sense and has a logical progression. Start with simple skills: notice your thoughts, notice your feelings, notice what you feel in your body, notice what is happening right now and right here, describe what you see or feel or hear, etc. Use one key focus at a time that brings them to the here and now.
- Don’t Force It: Do not make a child who is unwilling, uncomfortable, or unable to participate. Forcing them will work against the concept you are teaching. When possible, let them join in willingly and guide them at a pace that matches their readiness.
- Be Confident in Your Skills: To teach mindfulness successfully it is best to know what you are doing and to be able to model techniques. You do not have to be a master, but a child will be the first to notice when you are struggling. Being confident and knowledgeable will help the child to trust in what you are teaching them. Seeing success leads to them wanting to be successful. Maintaining your own mindfulness practices daily, even when not teaching, will help build a confidence that will show through to the children and encourage them to try what you are teaching.
- Be Realistic with Expectations: Expecting full and perfect participation right away is unreasonable. Expecting them to master even small tasks right away is unrealistic. Mindfulness is a skill that takes much practice and patience. Remembering this will improve the experience for both you and the child that you are teaching, allowing you to remain calm and reducing frustration.
Here are some fun mindfulness activities that you can do with children of all ages:
- Tummy Breathing: Healthy breathing techniques for relaxation and mindfulness involve breathing with your diaphragm. This causes your belly to rise up and down. Have a child either lay on their back or relax in their chair. Have them place their hands on their bellies and focus on moving them up and down with each breath. Have them drag each breath out by counting to four on both the inhale and exhale. If they need further motivation or for especially young children, having them balance a stuffed animal on their tummy and watching it move up and down provides extra stimulation and motivation.
- Listening: Focusing on the sounds in the room, on a specific sound like a bell, on a song, on the rain, or on some other sound is a great way to teach them to be present, aware, and observant.
- Mindful Walking: In other words, taking a nature walk to the next level. Focus on noticing things as they go for a walk. Pay attention to the little details that they would normally miss. What can they hear, see, smell, feel? Take the focus away from talking or playing games.
- Sensory Bottles: Take an empty water bottle and fill it with water, food coloring, and glitter. You can add soap for more texture. Then have the child shake it up and watch it go. Spending some time in silence, watching and observing the happenings in the bottle while waiting for its contents to settle. This takes their focus and puts it on one sense and one object. It allows them to practice shutting out the random thoughts and being present in the moment by observing and focusing on just one visual focal point.
- Chocolate Mindfulness: Enjoy a snack or treat and savor it mindfully. A piece of plain chocolate is perfect (as long as there are no allergies). Have them place it on their tongue and let it melt. Have them pay attention to how it tastes and how it feels. Have them note how it changes as it melts. Then have them share their observations.
- Book Balancing: Have them stand with one arm raised, hand with its palm facing up. Place a book on it. Have them hold it for a minute or two. Have them pay attention to the physical sensations of holding the book, the muscle strain, how the book appears to get heavier, etc.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: With a focus on individual body parts, have them tense a body part for ten seconds and then release for ten seconds while working through the body. For example, start with the feet and move up to the head.
- Sensory Boxes: Have a number of boxes with things for children to smell or feel and have them guess what they are. If they cannot guess have them, describe it in detail, focusing on description words rather than identifying the object.