What is mindfulness and why is it important for kids?
Mindfulness is the ability to focus our attention in the present moment and be fully aware of our thoughts, emotions, senses and surroundings. By being aware of these things, we can choose how we respond to them, rather than just reacting on autopilot.
This is a great skill to have as a parent because it can help us stay calm in stressful moments and be more emotionally intelligent in the way we interact with our kids.
But It’s also a very useful skill to teach our children.
Many schools are now incorporating mindfulness for kids programs into the curriculum and there is a lot of research to show how it can benefit children of all ages.
A large scale meta-review analysed the results of mindfulness for kids in schools across the UK, US, Canada, Taiwan and Australia. It concluded that teaching children mindfulness had helped boost optimism, resilience, self-acceptance, calmness, and general well being. Whilst decreasing stress, anger, and anxiety.
So, there are plenty of good reasons to try and develop mindfulness in our kids.
How to teach mindfulness to kids
By practising mindfulness ourselves, we are modelling this behaviour for our kids, which is always the most effective way of teaching something.
But there are also some other things we can do to help develop mindfulness in our children and bring more awareness to their daily lives.
Now, if you are thinking this means getting kids to sit cross-legged, stay completely silent and meditate, don’t worry – it doesn’t. Clearly, that’s not going to work. Even for most adults, that’s a challenge. But with kids, forget about it!
Fortunately, there are plenty of more accessible ways to incorporate mindfulness into normal child-friendly activities.
It’s interesting because kids are naturally very mindful, particularly when they are calm and relaxed. If you notice the way young children play, they are completely in the moment and their mind is fully present. So in some ways, they can probably teach us how to be a little more mindful at times!
But just like adults, kids minds can get busy and frazzled sometimes. They can experience anxiety, stress and other strong emotions just like we do.
This is when it’s useful to have some techniques that we can use to help calm them down and bring them into the present moment.
Some of these mindfulness exercises will also help kids develop the tools to self regulate and calm themselves down when they are feeling overwhelmed.
And in any case, most of these ideas are great bonding exercises to do with your children anyway.
What you might notice is that some of these suggestions are things parents have been doing with their children for generations. It’s only recently they’ve been labelled as mindfulness exercises.
Basically, anything that helps your kids tune into their feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations is a form of mindfulness. So by using your imagination and instinct, you can probably come up with many other fun ideas to try.
But to get you started, I’ve selected 12 (yes, I added a bonus one) examples of exercises that have been shown to help develop mindfulness in children.
1. Counting Breaths
Focusing on your breathing is one of the most common forms of mindfulness and is used extensively in meditation and yoga.
Your breath serves as the perfect anchor to the present moment. If you are focusing on your current breath it’s almost impossible to be thinking about your last breath or your next breath. You are, by definition, in the moment!
Slow breathing has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce the heart rate as well as causing a reduction in cortisol (the stress hormone).
A very simple exercise for both adults and kids to practice is counting breaths.
To do this, you breathe in and out very slowly, whilst counting each breath in your head. Start at one and work your way up. As soon as you catch your mind wandering, you go back to zero and start again.
To make a game of it, see how far you can get before your mind wanders.
Honestly, if you can get to 10 you are doing extremely well. But over time, you should gradually get better at keeping your mind from wandering for longer periods. You’ll also get quicker at noticing when it has wandered, so you can gently guide it back to the present moment.
This is a good exercise to use with slightly older kids, especially if they are having trouble getting to sleep at night. I guess it’s the modern-day equivalent of counting sheep!
2. Five Finger Candle Technique
This breathing exercise is better suited to younger children and is a good one to use when they are overwhelmed and need some help calming down.
To do this, you can either hold up your hand or encourage them to use their own hand.
Each finger represents a candle.
You then get them to slowly blow out one candle at a time, whilst taking a nice deep breath between each one. As they blow out each candle, your drop that finger to visualise the candle being extinguished.
You can do one round of five candles, or keep repeating as many times as needed.
The visual cue of the fingers helps distract kids from whatever was going on in their mind and brings them back to the present moment. It’s a simple, but effective mindfulness technique.
3. Breathing Buddies
Another popular breathing exercise for younger kids is what’s known as ‘breathing buddies’.
This mindfulness exercise was invented by a group of school teachers in New York, who use it to calm students down before starting a class or an activity that requires concentration. It could also be used to help kids settle before going to sleep.
“This is training of the attentional circuitry. This is the kind of training which helps children not just focus on what the teacher is saying, but it turns out that the same circuitry helps them manage their distressing emotions. So they’re getting a two-for. They’re getting attention training and inner self-management training. “Daniel Goleman
Time needed: 5 minutes.
How To Do The Breathing Buddies Exercise with kids
- Have your child lie down and place a stuffed animal on their belly
- As you count to three, they breathe in through their nose, filling their belly with air.
They should watch their stuffed animal rise as they inhale.
- Count to three while they breathe out.
They watch their stuffed animal gently lower with their exhale (and their belly).
- Continue doing this for as long as you like.
At least 5 to 10 rounds of inhaling and exhaling are recommended.
4. Mindful Eating
As with breathing, eating is something we do every day without giving it much thought.
And just like breathing, slowing down and focusing on the activity of eating delivers many benefits beyond just mindfulness. It can also help aid digestion, prevent overeating and teach kids healthy eating habits for life.
The idea of mindful eating is that you slow down, pay attention to your hunger levels, and engage all your senses while eating. It also teaches you to only eat until you are satisfied (no stuffing yourself silly). Clearly, this is a good one for us adults to practice as well 🙂
Before they start eating, ask your kids to rate their hunger on a scale of 1 to 10. This brings awareness to their appetite.
You then encourage them to go very slowly and describe exactly what they are experiencing as they engage each of their senses.
Here is some step by step guided instructions from ‘Teaching kids the art of mindful eating’.
- Look – what colors and shapes do you see?
- Listen – does your food make a sound?
- Touch – is it smooth, bumpy or rough?
- Smell – what does your food smell like?
- Taste – have them put the food on their tongue but don’t let them chew it just yet. Notice how it feels in your mouth. Do you taste anything yet? Start to chew, does the flavor change? How many different flavors are there?
5. Mindful Colouring
Children have been using colouring books for years, so there is nothing new with this activity.
However, it’s only recently they’ve discovered that colouring can be very beneficial for both kids and adults as a form of mindfulness practice. This has resulted in a worldwide craze of adult mindful colouring books, which you now find on the shelves of all new age bookstores.
Colouring is particularly useful for people who find meditation difficult because it delivers many of the same benefits such as lowering the heart rate, calming a busy mind and focusing your attention in the present moment.
Mindful colouring requires you to block out other thoughts and engage all your senses in the activity. You can do this by concentrating to stay between the lines, paying close attention to the different colours and shades, focussing on the angle of the pencil or crayon, the touch of it in your hand and on the paper, the smells of the paper and the pencil etc.
It’s such an easy activity for kids. And it can become slightly addictive for adults as well. So this is a great one to do together with your children.
6. Mindful Listening
This exercise is designed to bring more awareness to the act of listening. It’s best done when the kids are already calm and relaxed.
Option one: environmental sounds:
You can do this version anywhere and anytime, by getting your kids to close their eyes and observe how many different sounds they can notice in the environment around them.
Ask them to describe each of the different sounds they hear both near and far away. It could be the sounds of nature (such as birds, insects or dogs barking), human sounds (such as people talking outside), or mechanical sounds (such as cars, planes and trains in the distance). Maybe they can even notice sounds in their own body (such as their tummy rumbling or their nostrils whistling as they breath).
Option two: musical sounds.
You can also do this exercise by playing some music.
Ask them to observe how many different instruments they can hear? What different sounds and melodies can they notice? How does the music make them feel? Does the music generate any physical sensations in their body?
Listening is something we do every day but rarely do we focus 100% of our attention on the act of hearing. Try it yourself, you’ll be amazed how much more you can notice when you tune in to just one of your senses at a time.
As always, if you catch your mind wandering, you simply acknowledge it and then gently bring it back to focus on the sounds.
7. Body Scan Exercise
This is a well-known mindfulness exercise that works really well with kids. It can be adopted to suit children of almost any age. And you can do it one-on-one or with a group.
The body scan exercise is designed to bring awareness to different bodily sensations and use the body as a way to focus your attention in the present moment.
Here’s how it works:
Get your kids to lie on their backs and close their eyes. Ask them to squeeze every muscle in their body as tight as they can. For example squish your toes, clench your fists, arch your back, scrunch your face Hold for a few seconds. Then relax.
Now try tensing one muscle or limb at a time e.g. just tense your face muscles, your arms, or your hands. Squeeze and hold for 5 seconds. Then let go and notice the different sensations.
Move onto the next muscle and repeat the process. Paying close attention to the different sensations each time.
This is a great exercise for bringing awareness to how the body is feeling. It can be done very quickly as in the example above, or you can go much slower and spend more time on each muscle.
For example, here is an 11 minute guided body scan exercise for kids from Mindful.org
8. Heartbeat Exercise
This exercise is about tuning into the heartbeat and using it as an anchor to the present moment. It is a good one to use with active kids, especially when you want to help them calm down.
If they are not already active, you can ask them to run on the spot for a minute, or jump up and down to get their heart racing. Then ask them to sit or lie down and put their hand over their heart.
Now ask them to close their eyes and pay close attention to their heartbeat. Feel the up and down movement of the heart on their chest and their hand. Notice how the heart rate is gradually slowing down. Keep breathing slowly and deeply, noticing as the heart rate continues to slow down to its resting speed.
9. Mindful Walking
Our feet can be another great anchor to the present moment. By focusing on your feet you can literally feel more grounded.
The feet are also highly sensitive. So, by removing their shoes and walking in socks (on carpet), or barefoot (on grass), you can encourage children to observe the sensations in their feet.
This Mindful Walking exercise comes from kidsHealth.org. It involves children paying attention to how their body moves as they walk in slow motion.
Instructions for the Slow Walking Exercise
To start, pick up one foot and take a step forward, in slow motion. Pay attention to how you naturally keep your balance.
Now walk in slow motion, step by step. Notice how your arms and legs and feet move. Pay attention to how your knees bend and straighten, as you lift one foot and then the other, nice and slow. Breathe in and out, in time with your steps.
See if you can keep your attention focused on walking slowly, step by step, as you relax and breathe. Whenever your mind wanders, gently guide it back to your slow motion moving.
10. The Weather Report Exercise
This exercise is designed to help kids tune into their emotions and explain what they are feeling in a child-friendly way. It’s appropriate for children of 4+. It comes from a book called ‘Sitting Still like a frog’ by Eline Snel.
You ask kids to describe how they are feeling inside their bodies right now, by associating their feelings with the weather conditions. For example, does it feel sunny and bright? Are there some clouds appearing? Is it raining at the moment? Is a storm brewing?
By associating feelings with the weather, you help kids see their emotions as something normal and not something they can control. They can just observe their emotions like looking out the window at the weather.
And just like the weather, emotions will change at different times throughout the day or the week. So even though they may not like how the weather is right now, that’s okay, they can wait for it to change. For instance, If it’s stormy now, that’s okay, because the storm will pass and the sun will come out again.
11. Staring At Clouds
I had to add this one because it’s a personal favourite of mine and I was amazed to find it listed as a mindfulness exercise.
But if you think about it, it is definitely an easy way to focus your attention in the current moment.
We all know how this one works right? You lie on your back next to your kids and stare at the clouds while encouraging them to identify shapes and objects formed by the clouds.
As it turns out, not only are you encouraging them to use their imagination, you are also helping them develop mindfulness by bringing their awareness to the present moment.
Safety tip – always use sunglasses to avoid damaging sensitive young eyes.
Bonus (number 12): Blowing Bubbles
And for those who made it this far – here’s a bonus idea that I have discovered recently.
Nothing calms an upset two-year-old and brings them back into the moment like blowing bubbles. I swear, it works every time (almost).
Further resources for teaching mindfulness to kids
I hope you found some of those ideas useful. As I say, there are plenty of other ways to use your initiative and incorporate mindfulness practice into child-friendly activities.
Anything that is helping your children calm themselves down and bring their awareness to the present moment is considered a form of mindfulness. So use your imagination and have some fun.
For those who want to dive a bit deeper, there are some great apps and online resources that provide more structured mindfulness exercises for kids.
Here are a few examples:
- Smiling Mind
A not-for-profit organisation developed by psychologists and educators to help children develop mindfulness. Their app, which is available on iTunes and Google, provides daily guided meditations designed specifically for kids.
- Headspace for kids
Headspace is probably the most well known guided meditation apps. It was developed by Andy Puddicombe, a charismatic British man who trained as a Buddhist Monk and now brings mediation to the masses.
- Stop, Breathe & Think:
This site was developed by Tools for Peace, a not-for-profit dedicated to teaching mindfulness and meditation to inner-city teens in the US. Their mission is to help kids, teens and young adults build the emotional strength to tackle life’s ups and downs. They provide different apps for different ages, with age-appropriate mindfulness activities.
Susan Kaiser Greenland is an internationally recognised expert on teaching mindfulness and meditation to children. She has written several books including The Mindful Child and Mindful Games. Her website provides lots of information and resources about mindfulness for kids.
If you are a teacher or a coach, or maybe a parent who wants to learn more about teaching mindfulness, then these guys offer an online training program with Mindfulness Certification for coaches and individuals.