Mindfulness as we know it is a newer concept in the world, despite the fact that its roots stem back to Buddhist philosophy over 2500 years ago. Practicing mindfulness meditation can have immense health benefits for both children and adults, which makes it a great and meaningful activity to incorporate into your family life.
What Is Mindfulness?
Depending on where you look, there are many definitions of mindfulness out there. Although they vary slightly, the meaning at their core remains the same. The Mayo Clinic defines mindfulness as "being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment." Some other helpful definitions of mindfulness include:
- Being fully present.
- The state of being conscious or aware of something.
- Maintaining moment-to-moment awareness.
- Bringing your attention to your internal and external experiences, without judgment.
Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness
The benefits of practicing mindfulness, for both kids and adults, are quite profound according to the Mayo Clinic. In addition, these benefits can begin to occur after just one session. Some of the benefits of mindfulness practice include:
- Increased focus
- Improved academic performance
- Decreased levels of stress and anxiety
- Increased emotional regulation
- Improved memory
- Reduced blood pressure
How Does Mindfulness Work?
After learning about its impressive list of benefits, you might be curious as to how mindfulness actually works. Research from the University of Minnesota found that mindfulness meditation changes the production of hormones and other chemicals in the brain, and that brain regions of avid meditators are activated differently. This means that some areas of the brain respond with greater or lesser reactivity than average people.
Why Teach Mindfulness to Kids?
Teaching mindfulness to kids allows your child to start developing skills to improve their memory, better regulate their emotions, and reduce stress in their lives. Kids are not too young to learn about and practice mindfulness to experience the benefits. In fact, one elementary school in Baltimore replaced detention with meditation and found a reduction in behavioral issues.
How Do I Teach My Child Mindfulness?
There are several ways to introduce mindfulness to your child.
Introduce the Word
Introduce the word "mindfulness" to your kids. This can be as simple as saying, "What do you think the word ‘mindfulness’ means?" and seeing where the conversation goes when you listen to their response.
Make the Definition of Mindfulness Kid-Friendly
After you have introduced the word and heard what ideas have come to your child’s mind, it can be helpful to read the definition to them. Note that there are slightly different definitions of mindfulness, which actually might be beneficial for introducing the concept to kids, since they will have access to different interpretations. Maybe try breaking down, "Being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment," into simply "paying attention to what my body is feeling."
Create Opportunities to be Mindful
Once you have broken down the definition of mindfulness with your child, it can be helpful to check their understanding of the new word by having them give examples. You can take this opportunity to write a list and exchange ideas with your child about different ways to be mindful. Some examples are:
Barefoot Exploring – Walking barefoot outside and noticing how the earth feels different on your feet when standing on grass, dirt, or sand. Allow them to dip their toes, stomp their feet, and move through the textures, just noting how they feel.
Water Play – Dipping their hands/feet in the water and noticing the sensation, the temperature of the water, and how each movement creates ripples.
Outdoor Sounds – Try meditating outside and have them listen to the sounds of the wind, birds, rustling trees, and even cars passing while sitting still. After, share what you heard with each other.
Snack Reflection – This is a mindful eating exercise that is often done with individually wrapped chocolate candies, but can be done with fruit, crackers, or any snack. Have your child notice the packaging of the snack, the colors, textures, and sounds. Next, have them unwrap it and reflect further on the smell, new texture, and everything it took for that snack to end up in their hands. Finally, have them try a bite of the snack, allow the snack to sit on their tongue, and notice the taste and how it makes them feel.
Ways to Practice Mindfulness Every Day
Giving your child real-world examples of how mindfulness relates to their everyday life will give them a better understanding of the word, as well as point out its importance and how it’s helpful. Although mindfulness is often thought of as only relating to meditation, it encompasses a lot more. Some examples of practicing mindfulness in everyday life include:
- Noticing when you are full, or mindful eating.
- Paying attention to your body.
- Noting your thoughts.
- Practicing gratitude for things/people you appreciate.
- Paying attention to the person you are talking to.
Explore Why Mindfulness Is Important
Once you have talked to your child about mindfulness and how it relates to their day-to-day life, you may also want to discuss why mindfulness is important. This is an opportunity to explain to your child why you started the conversation, and how it can help them be a good human being. Some examples of why mindfulness is important are:
- It helps you be a better friend by actively listening in conversation.
- It encourages you to stop and think before responding to others.
- It allows you to show more respect for others by taking their feelings into account.
- It helps you practice self-care by allowing you to listen to your body.
Ways for Families to Practice Mindfulness Together
Expecting a child to take up a mindfulness practice on their own is a tall order. Getting your whole family involved is a better way to form a new habit and really commit to starting a mindfulness practice in your home. Setting a time for all of your family to come together to practice a mindfulness meditation exercise is a good way of keeping everyone accountable and creating a supportive environment.
Exercises for Practicing Together
The basics of mindfulness meditation surround just being present in your body, noticing how you feel, and not judging it in any way. This means that it can be done almost anywhere, at any time. The basis of mindfulness exercises looks something like this:
- Sit comfortably with your back straight and your sit bones planted on the floor.
- Close your eyes, or gaze gently downward in front of you.
- Focus on your breathing. Think, or softly whisper to yourself "one" on the in-breath and "two" on the out-breath. Repeat this as you breathe.
- Notice how it feels to breathe. Maybe you notice your stomach or chest expanding and retracting.
- If your mind wanders, that’s okay. Just note that you are thinking, and return your attention to your breath.
- When your timer goes off, gently return your focus back to the room.
Fun Breathing Exercises for Kids
The idea of breathing may not seem like the most fun for a child when they know the joys of swing sets and coloring books, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring a sense of playfulness into their mindfulness practice. Some ways to make breathing exercises fun for kids are:
Lion’s Breath – This is a breathing exercise that is meant to mimic the yawns and roars of a lion. Tell your child that you are both going to pretend to breathe like lions, with big inhales that fill your belly, and a big exhale with your tongue sticking out of your mouth. You can both even roar while you exhale.
Teddy Bear Breathing – For this exercise, you and your child will need a stuffed animal, maybe your child’s favorite, which will be a breathing buddy. Lay down on your back on the floor or bed, and place the stuffed animal on your bellies. Focus on breathing deeply into your lower belly, and watch the stuffed animal rise and fall as you breathe. This is a good way of teaching your child about deep breathing, instead of breathing into their upper chest.
Bubble Breaths – With one jar of bubbles, you can practice mindful breathing with your child. Have them take a deep breath in while holding the bubble wand in front of them and then have them exhale and see all the bubbles they have made. You can count the bubbles with each other as a way of noting how deep your breath was.
Dandelion Breathing – You do not necessarily need a dandelion for this exercise, but it may be more fun for you and your child if you have one. Imagine that you are holding a dandelion in your hand (or hold your real one). Then, take a deep breath in and exhale completely so that all of the seeds of your dandelion fly off. This may be fun to do at a park, as you and your child can collect some dandelions together beforehand.
Kid-Friendly Ways of Counting Down
Many mindfulness exercises simply use "one" and "two" for counting breaths when practicing mindfulness, but that’s not the only way to count them. Finding a counting method that works for your child and that helps keep them engaged will make them more likely to keep practicing. Some fun ways to count are:
Use colors – Your child may want to use their favorite colors as their counting mantras, especially if they like the sound of the word and they want to try to visualize it while they practice. This can be as simple as swapping out "one and "two" for "red’ and "blue" on inhales and exhales.
Temperature – Your child may like the way their in-breath and out-breath feel when they start to focus. They may notice a cooling feeling as air enters through their nose and a warm feeling as it exits through their mouth. They can use "hot" and "cold" as ways of noting their breath.
Motion – Some kids may focus more on the way their body moves with their breath when they start to meditate. They can note their breath by using "in" and "out or "up" and "down" when thinking about how their stomachs are filling and releasing air.
Visualizations for Kids When Tracking Thoughts
It’s normal for thoughts to arise when practicing mindful meditations. What’s important is that your child notes the thought, tries not to judge it or themselves, and then brings their attention back to their breath. Some fun ways kids can note their thoughts are:
Stream and Leaves – Whenever your child has a thought arise during their practice, they can visualize a stream passing by that is filled with floating leaves. Have them note that they are thinking, place their thought on a leaf, and watch it float away down the river. They can do this whenever a thought arises and then bring their attention back to their breath.
Snowflakes – When your child notices that their mind has wandered during their practice, have them note that they are thinking, and visualize their thoughts as snowflakes. They can watch the snowflake land on the palm of their hand, and let it melt away with their thought before returning their attention to their breath.
Bird Feeding – If your child starts to become distracted by thoughts during a practice, they can visualize their thought in the palm of their hand as pieces of bread or paper. Then, after they note they are thinking, they can picture a bird swooping in to fly the thought away before returning their breath.
Children’s Books on Mindfulness
One way to get your child involved with mindfulness is through children’s literature. There are a lot of books aimed at teaching kids mindfulness, meditation, and breathing techniques. Some children’s book titles include:
- Alphabreaths – The ABCs of Mindful Breathing by Christopher Willard, PsyD and Daniel Rechtschaffen, MA
- Here and Now by Julia Denos
- Meditation Station by Susan B. Katz
- Your Mind Is Like the Sky by Bronwen Ballard
Media for Kid’s Mindfulness Practice
In addition to books, there are several sites online that offer guided meditations geared toward children. Exploring one of these options as a family may be a good way of supplementing their understanding of mindfulness by putting it into practice.
Provide Support and Encouragement
As anyone who has tried to pick up a new hobby knows, it’s no simple task. Mindfulness meditation is difficult for adults, so it’s important to reassure your child that it’s normal for them to find practicing mindfulness difficult at the beginning. Kids have such active imaginations, and their minds may wander as soon as they close their eyes, and that’s okay. Reinforce the idea that it’s good to note those thoughts, and then encourage your child to let them pass.
Explaining Mindfulness to a Child
Mindfulness practices have great health benefits for both adults and children alike, which is why introducing mindfulness into your household can be a fun and healthy family activity. Introducing a new concept to your child can be daunting, especially when mindfulness can seem so abstract. By exploring different interpretations of the word, providing real-life examples, and making the commitment to practice together, you and your family will be on track to becoming mindfulness explorers.