From the moment we are born, life presents us with stressful moments. As babies, we stress adjusting to life outside the womb, relying on our parents to keep us alive.
As children, we adjust to a world that makes no sense to us while learning to navigate school and social situations. Then, as we become teenagers, we add in the stress of puberty and impending adulthood. And I don’t even need to begin listing all the pressures we face as adults!
We now know that mindfulness is one of the best tools you can have for looking after your wellbeing.
So why don’t we gift our children this incredible skill to help them navigate the unknown waters of life?
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness, in its easiest terms, is the act of being present in the moment. It teaches you to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgement and just be.
As well as tuning in to your body, it helps you dial into the world around you, noticing your surroundings and how they make you feel. It is a practice derived from Buddhist traditions to find inner peace.
And today, mindfulness is widely praised for its healing capacities for mental wellbeing.
So, why should kids practice mindfulness?
Mindfulness comes in all shapes and sizes, and studies show that mindfulness can be taught from a young age.
Think back to when you were a child. How do you think your coping strategies throughout your life may have differed had you been taught how to live mindfully from a young age?
You probably would have had a lot more self-compassion and been able to confront difficult situations without judgement and knowing you had the resilience to survive tough times.
And that is exactly why we need to teach our children this skill from a young age. So they don’t have to deal with the same struggles we did growing up. So they learn the resilience to cope with challenging times.
Mindfulness is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child.
What are the benefits of mindfulness for kids?
We’ve discussed the fact that mindfulness helps children cope with stress, but the benefits go way beyond this.
Firstly, learning mindfulness at a young age has been scientifically proven to reduce the likelihood of developing mental illnesses like anxiety and depression later on in life due to having positive coping strategies in place.
Secondly, mindfulness is known to improve academic performance. There are a few reasons for this. First, helping combat stress reduces exam performance anxiety, which can lead to lower scores. It also helps children have self-compassion, meaning they don’t beat themselves up over not understanding something in school. Instead, they know how to pick themselves up and dust themselves off and try again.
Mindfulness also increases focus and attention. You see, activities that are mindfulness orientated tend to be predominately tasks that use the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for attention and focus. Engaging this part of the brain from such a young age helps it develop, giving lasting benefits for life.
With that focus and attention also comes an increase in creativity. Mindfulness allows children to explore the world and create solutions to problems that many would consider “outside the box”.
Mindfulness can also improve children's sleep. Practising some of the techniques that we will cover can help to set the stage for a restful night's sleep. Practising mindfulness before bed, can allow the child to process their thoughts, and let go of any negative or stressful thoughts before they settle for the night. Mindfulness can improve the quality of sleep throughout the night. A mindfulness study covered by The New York Academy of Sciences found that mindfulness meditation and exercises can be as effective as other highly recommended and performing insomnia techniques.
Finally, mindfulness promotes happiness. It allows us to stop dwelling on negative thoughts and instead be grateful for the things we have around us. It gives us the confidence to face life head-on and go for our dreams fearlessly.
In short, it is a simple concept, but the benefits are astronomical! So the real question now is, how do I implement mindfulness into my child’s life?
Mindfulness activities for children
Whether you are a parent, carer, family member, or teacher, there is a wide range of mindfulness activities that can be done to help your kids start their journey to a more mindful approach to life.
A great place to start a child’s mindfulness journey is by teaching them how to breathe properly and how to use breath to calm and ground themselves when they feel stressed or worried.
You might be thinking, “teach them how to breathe? They already know how to breathe!” However, most people don’t tend to breathe correctly in their day to day.
Instead of expanding the belly to let the air in, most people default to sucking the stomach and just expanding the chest. Try it now and see if this is you too.
To get the most out of your breath, it is essential to learn how to breathe deeply all the way into the belly during mindfulness. There are two simple techniques to teach your child how to breathe correctly (feel free to join in too!)
- Teddy bear breathing
Have your child lie down on their back and place a teddy bear on their belly. Explain to them that when they breathe in, they have to try and get the air into their stomach so that the teddy bear gets lifted.
Seeing the teddy bear rise and fall helps the child visualise how the breathing should look and feel and gives a comfortable, familiar reference point.
- Balloon breathing
This exercise teaches children the importance of breathing out deeply as well as filling their lungs deeply.
Give each child a balloon and encourage them to fill their balloon with as much air as possible when they breathe out.
Guided meditation allows children to sit still and observe their bodies and sensations. First, get your child to sit on the floor comfortably and close their eyes. Then, slowly guide them through their body, asking them to observe the sensations in each part.
This will help them see where they hold their stress and tension and allow them to free it. If you need help or inspiration on doing a guided mediation, try using the mindfulness apps headspace or calm to show you how it’s done.
Books on mindfulness
There are many books out there on mindfulness, so taking the time to read mindfulness books with your child will help them see how other people use mindfulness to help themselves.
For teachers looking to implement mindfulness in the classroom, reading mindfulness books can be a great use of “carpet time”.
Discuss the book with the child afterwards and see what they take away from the book. Remember, it is crucial to let the child make their own opinions of what they have read rather than spoon-feeding them what you think they should be taking away from it.
There are some excellent mindfulness books available for children. A few of our favourites include:
- The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
- The Lion and the Little Red Bird by Elisa Kleven
- “Alone” from the Days with Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel
Each story features an aspect of being present and using a combination of the five senses to observe the world around them and is a perfect introduction to mindfulness for kids.
Family dinner time is a fantastic place to practice mindfulness and create a positive relationship with food for your children.
Get your children to smell the food before they eat it. Then, get them to take the first bite very slowly and describe all the tastes in their mouth and the textures they can feel.
Encourage them to eat slowly and listen to their hunger cues. This way, they learn to recognise when they need to eat for hunger versus when they feel hungry o cope with emotional cues such as boredom or stress.
Arts and crafts
Arts and crafts are a superb way to keep children in the present.
Allow your child the freedom of expression to experiment with colours, textures, and patterns to engage their creativity and give them the confidence to make choices for themselves.
This mindfulness activity creates a sense of autonomy and encourages children to react non-judgementally to the cues around them.
Yoga for children
Not all mindfulness is about being still. Children can be quite fidgety from time to time, and it is a good idea to show them ways to be mindful while being active.
Yoga is a great way to connect the mind and body as you need to be present and aware of what your body is doing and how it feels.
Younger children who haven’t quite developed their coordination and balance yet may struggle with yoga, so keep the movements simple.
Try moves like warrior pose and downward dog to ease them into it, and keep the focus on the sensations in the body as they move between and hold the various poses.
Building a mind garden
Building a mind garden is a creative way to teach children to be present and that they can choose where to invest their mental energy.
A mind garden is a visualisation of thoughts as flowers or in a garden in the mind.
To create this visualisation, first, have the child imagine creating a garden in their mind. It can look however is most pleasing to them.
Then encourage them to think of all the thoughts in their brain. The good thoughts are the flowers and plants. The bad thoughts are the weeds.
Remind the child that every garden has weeds, and this is ok. We only need to focus on nurturing and watering the plants to keep our garden healthy. Therefore, the child should visualise watering their own good thought plants and allowing the weeds to be without feeling the need to engage with them.
In this way, you are teaching the child to accept that we all have negative thoughts, and we can’t always get rid of them, nor do we have to. Instead, mindfulness is about using our energy to focus on the positive and helpful thoughts that help us (and our mind gardens) thrive.
Hugging is well known for its stress-reducing benefits and promotion of happiness. When it comes to mindfulness, a hug is a good way of being present and connected with the people around you.
Encouraging hugs (when your child is ok with it) promotes a healthy sense of gratitude and living in the moment. It also allows them to bond with their parents and loved ones.
As adults, we are aware of the anxiety-reducing benefits journaling has to offer. And this benefit can be extended to children too.
Although children may not know how to express themselves fully with their words, giving them freedom of expression through doodling and drawing will allow them to work through their problems independently and therapeutically.
Encourage your child to spend a few minutes every day doodling in their journal. You may even want to use open-ended daily prompts to help them along the way.
Tips for Parents and Carers
If you are worried about how to start this incredible mindfulness journey with your child, here are a few tips to help you.
- Build the habit
It is vital to make mindfulness a habit rather than an activity. That is why it is much better to pick a couple of activities and slowly build them into your child’s daily routine, rather than try and do everything at once but sporadically.
- Be present
In today’s fast world, it’s easy to get distracted by your phone, social media, TV… But make sure when you are with your children you are fully present in the moment with them. The best way to teach a child is to model it by being present around them.
- Allow imperfection
You’re going to get it wrong from time to time. It’s not always going to go the way you planned. So be kind to yourself and forgive yourself if you drop the ball.
Not only does this allow you to move on stronger, but it also shows your child that it’s ok to make mistakes and learn from them, rather than striving for impossible perfection.
And most importantly, have fun with it!