8 Activities to teach children mindfulness

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Why should I teach my child mindfulness? If you’re a parent who currently practices mindfulness, you already know the answer to this question. If you’re new to the practice, it might surprise you to learn there are many positive aspects of mindfulness.

A daily mindfulness practice is shown to improve the brain’s ability to plan, solve problems, reason effectively, retrieve memories and regulate emotions. It can help with decision-making, socializing, decreasing stress, increasing compassion toward ourselves and others and can help manage pain. Studies show similar benefits for children.

This higher cognitive functioning can help us change our thoughts from “I’m angry” to “I’m someone who is having an angry thought.” It allows us to separate ourselves from the emotion and respond with calm. 

Research shows adults who have practiced mindfulness for many years have less inflammation in their bodies, and their brains do not age as rapidly.

One of the best reasons to teach mindfulness to children—especially those who are five and under—is that their brains are still developing. They can make neural connections that help them develop self-control, regulate their emotions, improve social skills and increase compassion toward themselves and others. 

One study showed fourth and fifth-grade students who received mindfulness training as opposed to social responsibility programming excelled in the areas of attention, memory, emotional regulation, optimism and empathy (Schonert-Reichl & Roeser, 2015)). There are indications that mindfulness in schools helps children and teenagers become more compassionate toward themselves and others, and calmer and more focused on their schoolwork. Learning these valuable skills early could make a significant difference in these children’s futures.

The origins of mindfulness lie primarily in ancient Eastern spiritual practices, and in 1979, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn adapted the practice as he developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program initially focusing on pain management for adults. He describes mindfulness as “an awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.” 

Anyone can practice mindfulness. You don’t need to be religious to experience the benefits. It typically involves focusing on the present and being aware of the environment as well as your thoughts, feelings and body sensations and accepting all of these things without judgment.

You can practice for brief periods—five or 10 minutes occasionally—or for longer periods of time more regularly. Even brief practice is shown to be helpful, but a more regular practice leads to more significant benefits.

Young children benefit tremendously from seeing adults practice mindfulness on a regular basis, so the first step for adults teaching it to children is to practice it themselves. After all, they are children’s first role models! Here are eight activities to get you started:

  1. Give them time of their own. Children under five are naturally mindful most of the time, but routines and schedules can pull them away from this tendency. Throughout the day, give them time to explore and play at their own pace.  
  2. Blow bubbles. Show your child how make big, gentle, deep breaths in and out as they blow bubbles. Even for young children, this will naturally calm their bodies and they’ll get bigger bubbles. Have fun!
  3. Practice belly breathing. This is a good exercise for calming anytime and especially at bedtime. Lay on your backs with your hands on your stomachs so you can feel your bellies fill up with air when you breathe in and then feel it go down when you breathe out. Work on breathing in and out slowly, but make sure it’s comfortable for both of you.  You don’t need to lay down to do it, but it’s easier to feel belly rising and falling when you do.
  4. Eat with all your senses. Make a healthy snack and spend a few minutes observing it. Talk about its color and smell, how it was grown or cooked and even how it ended up in your house. Then taste it and talk about its flavors and texture. Eat it and enjoy!
  5. You can explore the outdoors. Take a walk and talk about how the sun or breeze feels, for instance. Does it feel any different when you’re on a sidewalk or pavement as opposed to grass? Compare the textures of tree bark or the smell of leaves, and so on.
  6. Find cloud shapes. Go outside when the weather is good and there are clouds in the sky. Look up and observe the shapes of the clouds. What do they look like to you and your child? It may take a while to figure out the shapes but hopefully you are both enjoying yourselves and the nature around you.
  7. Talk about feelings. It’s important to teach children to label their feelings so they can develop some ways to manage them. Most young children are pretty familiar with happy, sad and mad but this is a good time to start introducing other emotions too. You may notice your child is distressed in some way. Help them describe what is going on and how their body feels. It might be helpful to describe your own feelings when you are upset and even how you are working through them. Remember any feeling is valid.
  8. Send kind thoughts. Talk to your child about kind thoughts. Ask them who they might like to send kind thoughts to, and have them picture that while they think kind thoughts. They can even send kind thoughts to themselves.
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