Have you ever watched a baby or toddler eat their food?
You may have noticed that, sometimes, they will pick up their food and thoroughly examine it before eating it.
They smell it, squeeze it, watch it and observe every sensation imaginable from one small piece of food.
In this moment, these babies are exercising their natural state of mindfulness.
As adults, we think of mindfulness as a desired state that takes practice and effort to achieve.
The effort doesn’t come because mindfulness is unnatural to us; it’s difficult to achieve mindfulness because we have to work to shed away all the preconceived notions and fears that block us from the very natural state of awareness.
Children are much closer to this natural state and they have less barriers and biases that prevent them from experiencing true mindfulness.
It may seem odd to think of a calm, nonjudgmental, mindful child, but the reality is, children can achieve mindfulness much easier than adults can.
The Benefits of Mindfulness for Children
While mindfulness may provide adults with less stress and better decision-making skills, children get a different set of benefits from the practice.
The mind of the child is constantly observing, questioning, discovering and building assumptions.
Mindfulness can help kids tune into this process and assist them with learning emotional regulation and achieving cognitive growth.
Children’s worlds are constantly refreshing, moving from one new experience and discovery to another.
You can observe this by watching a child have a tantrum and then suddenly get up and move on to something else, having completely let go of their emotional pain.
Kids naturally live in the moment, but they may not be aware of it.
By teaching mindfulness to children, you can help them become aware of this natural state and consequently help them to:
- Become better listeners
- Regulate their emotions
- Communicate effectively
- Focus better
- Become more compassionate and empathetic
- Resolve conflicts with themselves and others.
Does Age Make a Difference?
Younger children are simply easier to teach.
Their brains are hardwired for learning and following direction, so as long as a child can communicate with you in some way, you can easily teach mindfulness to them.
As the child gets older, they begin to test the boundaries of their own decision-making.
As they reach this age, it may be more challenging to encourage them to practice mindfulness.
Every kid is different, but by the time they become a teenager, mindfulness may not be something they want to work into their schedule.
For older children that seem resistant to the idea, don’t push it.
Instead, model the behavior you wish to see in them and explain the benefits they’ll get from the practice. Mindfulness can help kids do better in school, improve their social relationships and cope with hormones, peer pressure, academic pressure and simply the stress of growing up.
Explain the benefits to your child in a concrete way that they can really relate to.
Mindfulness Exercises for Children
The following exercises were designed with younger children in mind, but you can adjust them to be suitable for any age.
Mindfulness with Art
- Have the child choose an object that they want to draw. Let them choose whatever they want, no matter how complicated or simple.
- Give them 5-10 minutes to draw the object. If they feel insecure about drawing, let them know that this exercise isn’t about learning how to draw. It should be fun and easy. Their level of art skill does not make a difference here. If they finish the drawing quickly, that’s fine. Let them dictate how long they should draw for. If your child is quite the perfectionist, set a timer so they don’t get caught up on “doing it right.”
- Take the drawing and set it aside for now.
- Now, give them 5-10 minutes to observe the object. Ask them to really look at every piece of it. Hold it up close and far away. Use other senses like smell and touch to really explore the object in as much depth as they are capable of for their age.
- Give them as much time as they want now to draw another image of the object on another sheet of paper. Let them get into their own space and take as much time as they desire.
- When they are done, give the original drawing back to them and ask them to spot the differences between them.
- Open up a discussion with them about why the drawings look different. Encourage them to explore how being mindful changed what they observed and what they drew.
Mindfulness of Their Breath
- Have your child lay down on the floor quietly for a couple minutes.
- Now, tell them to focus on their breath. Younger children may need an object like a stuffed animal or pillow on their stomach to help them visualize their breath. Tell them to notice how the air feels cold going through their nose when they breathe in and warm as it leaves through their mouth when they breathe out.
- Give them a minute or so to realize this and bring their attention to it. Then, tell them to count each time they breathe. Whether they count out loud or in their heads depends on the child. Ask them to count “one” as they breathe in and “one” as they breathe out and then to count “two” and “two” on the next breath. Once they reach the number 5, they should start over.
- Let the child know that even though they are focused on their breath, thoughts and feelings may come into their mind that don’t have anything to do with their breath. Reassure them that this is ok and that once they notice it, they should simply bring their attention back to their breath. If they find it challenging, encourage them to stick with it and practice, but don’t let them become so frustrated that the exercise loses its benefit.
- Close with a discussion about what they felt during the exercise. Let them lead the discussion with their thoughts and feelings. It’s important that they take the time to reflect without searching for a right or wrong answer.
Mindfulness of Their Thoughts
- This exercise is fun for anyone and can be performed at any time. Once your child has practiced it a few times, you can encourage them to do it anytime they feel an uncomfortable emotion like fear, sadness or pain.
- Keep in mind the child’s age when helping them with this exercise. Children who have practiced the other mindfulness exercises will have an easier time with this guided meditation. It’s a great way to help them focus on their thoughts and realize that they don’t have to believe their thoughts or judge them as good or bad; they can simply observe the passing of their thoughts in their mind.
- Have them sit up or lie down with their eyes closed. Let them quiet down and relax for a moment.
- Now tell them to imagine that inside their heads there is a mouse. You can change this metaphor to suit the child’s interests. This mouse lives in a little house. Ask them to imagine the inside of this house and to see a door on the left and a door on the right.
- Tell them that the mouse comes in through the left door and leaves out of the right door. Every time he does so, he carries a thought with him. Explain that as they are sitting or lying down comfortably, their mind will come up with thoughts. Give concrete examples like, “Your mind might think about what you had for breakfast or your mind might think about something scary.” (be specific if you can) Tell them that each time they have a thought, the mouse will run in through the left door, carrying the thought and leave through the right door, still carrying the thought.
- Explain that once the mouse leaves, the thought will be gone too. If it isn’t, the mouse will run back in with the thought.
Tips for Teaching Mindfulness to Children
There are some things you can do to make teaching mindfulness to kids much easier.
- Practice mindfulness yourself: You can’t teach what you do not know. Starting your own mindfulness practice is an important first step to teaching a child how to be mindful. Doing a mindfulness meditation for 15 minutes each day can drastically improve your ability to be mindful throughout the day.
- Start slow: Kids naturally have a short attention span, so keep that in mind and don’t force them to practice for too long. Starting with even just 5 minutes can help children see the benefits and create a desire to practice for longer periods of time.
- Keep it fun: Don’t make it feel like work! Be calm and relaxed when helping them get into a mindful state, but don’t make it boring. Always keep in mind how much more enjoyable li life can be when you are mindful.