Talk to any mindfulness practitioner, and they’ll say, “I wish I had discovered mindfulness sooner!” Increasingly, research shows that mindfulness benefits children just as much as adults — maybe even more. Mindfulness practices teach us many valuable skills including how to pause and observe what we’re feeling, how to concentrate, and how to soothe our emotions. Learn early and you’ve got a real advantage!
Goldie Hawn may be most famous as an actress, but she believes in mindfulness so much she founded the Hawn Foundation in 2003 to create MindUP™, an evidence-based training program for teachers and students. “Mindfulness can help people of any age,” she says. A sixth grader in the program reports, “Being mindful calms me down when I am angry. It helps me not get in a big fight because I don’t want to hurt my friends. It also helps me focus on my work.”
The Mindful Schools initiative trains educators to practice mindfulness themselves and to integrate it into their classrooms. The results have been striking. Studies show that mindfulness can improve a host of outcomes and teach critical life-skills to youngsters. Who wouldn’t want their child to have improved attention and focus, or better grades? How about increased emotional regulation, more empathy, and enhanced social skills? Benefits also include reduced test anxiety, stress, and depression.
Training kids in mindfulness doesn’t have to be difficult. The hardest part might be developing your own mindfulness practice: meditation, yoga, mindful eating. Kids will notice if you tell them to do something you’re not doing yourself! It’s also important to know that mindfulness isn’t going to change your child into a model of good behavior. Kids will still be kids. Mindfulness will help give them the tools they need to work with their emotions more skillfully when they arise.
One popular mindfulness activity for very young children is a “mind jar” — a jar full of glitter suspended in liquid, that your child can shake to reflect their busy mind and then watch the glitter settle as their own thoughts and feelings calm down. A snow globe will also work. Several websites have easy instructions for making a mind jar. [http://www.preschoolinspirations.com/2014/11/13/6-ways-to-make-a-calm-down-jar/]
Kids are naturally curious, so mindfulness practices are a great fit for young minds. One great exercise is eating one raisin mindfully. Ask your child to look at one raisin as if they’d never seen one before. Then guide them to notice the raisin with each one of their other senses, asking them what they notice-— how it feels, smells, tastes, and even the sound of chewing. The inner “aha” that comes from paying close attention to something as simple as a raisin spurs children to see what else they can discover just by paying attention. The Harvard Vanguard blog has a great script for talking your child in mindful eating. [http://blog.harvardvanguard.org/2013/04/smart-kids-practice-mindful-eating/]
Children are very active, so often a movement-based practice works well. Many kids love yoga for its moving and soothing qualities. Mindful walking, especially in nature, can help children connect what’s outside them to what’s inside them. Simply go for a walk and pay attention to the walk itself.
Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, relates the “breathing buddies” exercise. Even very young children can focus mindfully on their breath with help. You and your child can lie on your backs each of you with a stuffed animal on your belly. Focus attention on the movement of the buddy as you breathe in and out. This exercise is great for improving kids’ attention skills and self-management. They learn to associate the soothing qualities of their breathing with their ability to pause, focus, and soothe themselves.
Some people, including kids, can actually become more anxious when they first start practicing mindfulness — if you’ve never paid close attention to yourself before, you may find a sense of worry living inside. If your child experiences this, encourage him or her to continue the practice and try to determine what part of the experience is causing the anxious feeling. If your child is uncomfortable with negative thoughts, help her to practice letting go of thoughts and returning to the feeling of the breath. If your child is uncomfortable with letting go, help him notice how he feels in his body in the present moment. Ask him to breathe kindness into the part of the body that feels anxious. You might also have your child place a hand on the part of the body that feels anxious, feel the warmth of their own soothing touch, and gently repeat a kind word of their choosing like “soft, soft, soft”. If the problem persists, it may be best to find another mindfulness activity, such as yoga, mindful walking, or mindful eating, that don’t cause anxiety. [http://www.gisc.org/gestaltreview/documents/teachingmindfulnesstochildren.pdf]
Sharing mindfulness with your children can be a wonderful way to help them help themselves. Even if your children aren’t attending a school with a mindfulness program, you can teach them to experience the present moment through your own examples and guidance. Mindfulness is a quality that can be strengthened with practice, and teaching them some simple techniques will serve them their entire lives.