You’ve probably read, seen or heard that practicing mindfulness helps reduce stress and anxiety and increases feelings of wellbeing – in adults. It’s also a great tool for parenting, allowing us to stay calm and present through testing times! By definition, mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It might be hard to believe – but mindfulness is now being taught and practiced in primary and pre-schools!
If you’re thinking ‘But aren’t all kids happy? Why would you teach a child mindfulness?’, let’s consider how ‘present’ kids really are. When we’re born, we are truly present. Observing light, sound and smells as they arise. Responding to our need for food, sleeping when we are tired. Then as the years go on, activity load increases, and relationships with various family, friends and teachers develop, our minds are filled with what happened before and what will happen tomorrow. Concepts of good and bad, cause and effect and an ever expanding world can place stress and anxiety on children, and tantrums are their only known way of dealing with it all.
Child psychologists that it’s not until age 5 or so that children can learn empathy and start becoming empathetic towards others. Up until this age, children are very egocentric beings, and are only able to consider their own feelings and needs. When parents and carers explain other people’s feelings and reactions to a child’s actions, they slowly begin to understand that their choices impact others. They will observe this when they play with other kids and interact with adults, and eventually make the ‘right’ choices based on empathy.
So, how young can we start teaching kids how to be mindful? Just as kids are ready to start learning to stand on a coloured spot, line up to play a ball game or mix dough to make scones – they are ready for simple activities that bring them inward, noticing their bodies and bringing them into the present moment.
Think all kids’ activities need to be rowdy and chaotic? Try some of these mindfulness activities with one or more little kids and you might be surprised how quiet learning can be!
Mindfulness Activity 1: Listen in and out.
Start by asking the children to sit comfortably in any room or space with their eyes closed. Ask them to listen to the closest noises around them. It might be their own breath, someone’s cough, a machine outside. Then ask them to ‘notice’ (a great word to replace observe for this age group) the next noise a bit further away. A plane, some traffic, dogs barking. Ask them to try and hear the most far away thing they possibly can. Then come back inward, again by noticing sounds closer and closer in toward them, until you guide them back to noticing the sound of the air moving in and out of their nostrils. People who do this often will have no other thoughts enter their head for this period of time. Ask the kids to open their eyes and discuss what they heard, and ask whether they had any other thoughts while they were doing the activity, there is no wrong answer.
Mindfulness Activity 2: Squish and release.
Lying on the floor (always fun!), ask the kids to squish every muscle in their body really tight. Hands, face, toes, tummy etc. Hold this for a few seconds then ask them to release every muscle and relax like jelly on the floor. It’s important they lie very still once they are comfortable, and you can either get them to notice the feeling within their body, or guide them through each part of the body to notice one by one.
Mindfulness Activity 3: Passing clouds.
This is a good one to start introducing the concept of letting go of thoughts and feelings. Start by getting in to pairs and chatting about what they have been thinking about or are thinking about now. Their new puppy, their upcoming maths test, their fun afterschool sport etc. Now ask them to be quiet and sit or lay comfortably. With eyes closed, ask them to imagine they are looking up at a blank blue sky, with nothing in it. It has no boundaries, and goes on and on into space. There is nothing they need to think about, this time is for resting the brain. Ask them to notice as a new thought comes to them (like the puppy or maths test), imagine it is a white fluffy cloud. The cloud moves across the sky and disappears. That thought is now gone. Remind them every minute of the passing cloud and to move the thought out of the sky and just stare into the blankness.
Mindfulness Activity 4: Mindful walking.
If you want to get the kids out in the real world to practice mindfulness techniques, this is perfect. It’s also useful for teaching kids to be observant so they have the skills to concentrate around say, a busy traffic intersection. Start by walking in a line, with plenty of space. Ask the kids to be silent, but to notice for themselves everything in front of their path. Notice it get closer, then disappear as they walk over it. Turn their attention higher, to the tree branches and plants. Notice any movement, like insects, birds or flowers moving in the wind. Open the senses up to sound, and notice the very small tapping, chirping or croaking sounds, as well as their own footsteps as they crunch or slap the ground over various surfaces. Keep it simple at first, then as the kids get familiar with the practice, start to notice more.
Mindfulness Activity 5: Mindful eating
If you’re eating with children, it’s a great opportunity to slow things down and have some fun being mindful. Invite the children to be mindful of their food – the aroma, the size and the texture of the food, or the feel of the spoon in their hand.
Tell them to take a bite of food and chew slowly. If they’re holding a spoon or fork, ask them to put it down until they finish chewing and swallowing. Have them chew slowly for 20 or 30 seconds, asking them to notice the taste and the texture of what’s in their mouth. Repeat with another bite once they’re done with the first. Talk about the food or their experience when you’re done.
Here are a few extra ways to add mindfulness to your and your child’s day: