What exactly is mindfulness, and why is it relevant for children? Mindfulness enables you to concentrate on the moment, in body, mind, and environment. Through its beginnings in Buddhism, it has developed to help to increase self-awareness, to be in control of your thoughts and negative feelings, to feel calmer, and to be kinder and more at peace with yourself.
There are lots of ways of achieving this, and it has numerous benefits for any age group. Getting young minds into the habit of thinking this way will help them to deal with stressful situations, both now and later, and will enable them to make judgements and decisions with confidence. It will aid their concentration and encourage calmness, too – but how do you teach mindfulness to children?
Breathing is something we all do constantly, and yet we don’t really stop to think about it. So you can create mindful moments for kids with the introduction of breathing exercises, making them aware of each breath. A child needs to pause and give the sensation full attention, experiencing the rise and fall of the chest and stomach. She or he should hear and feel the air as it enters and leaves their lungs, placing a hand on the body to feel the movement, and shutting out all distractions within close range. This will be important when it comes to practising meditation, so it’s a good discipline to acquire, and the younger the better.
Meditation is one of the best ways, and getting a child to meditate isn’t as difficult as you might think – children love games and challenges, and there are lots of mindfulness activities in which they can be involved. These will improve their attention span and will help them to assess situations and make decisions, so there are long-term benefits. Get them absorbed in their tasks, and they are more than half-way to tackling meditation on a simple level. This is best done with a guide at first, for short periods, and preceded with exercises, such as breathing. In this age of technology, they might benefit from using an app that would give them something to aim for, and the opportunity to go over the routine later.
Encouraging children to meditate at an early age will serve them well as they grow older. Being able to sit still is always a useful skill, and like breathing exercises, it will prepare them for the discipline of meditation. One exercise often used when teaching mindfulness in the classroom is that of pretending to be a frog or something similar. The pupils imagine that they are a frog, balancing on a water lily leaf that could easily tip with the slightest movement. Frogs sit still for hours, appearing to have switched off as they wait for prey to appear, at which point they will suddenly spring up, but remain perfectly balanced – an admirable example of experienced mindfulness.
Pilates & Yoga
Pilates and yoga can provide fantastic ways to teach children about mindfulness as well as the benefits of stretching and pushing their bodies to its limits. There is no competition element involved and this can lead to children focussing solely on themselves and not concerning themselves with what others are doing. As their skill set improves, naturally so does their self-esteem and confidence and these key feelings and beliefs have a huge effect when it comes to mindfulness. There is a lot of focus on breathing and how to do so effectively. Improving a child’s knowledge about their breathing and how important it is in all walks of life can be hugely beneficial. Pilates and yoga are fantastic tools to allow children to expend excess energy and therefore increase their concentration and focus.
Coax them into something that is already part of their daily lives, and that parents can easily join in with – walking. However, these walks will be a little different. In this instance, you’re not in rush to get anywhere but are intent on pointing out everything you encounter, and getting them to note the sights and sounds around them. It could be anything from the whine of machinery to the beauty of bird song. You will all be thrilled with how much nature you can find in your own neighbourhood, and you’ll be creating simple mindful moments for kids close to their home on a regular basis. Atmospheric conditions will affect skies, clouds, vegetation, and the earth, too, and they will learn to recognise the changes in the air that mean a shift in the weather. Of course, they can do something similar in any environment, once it becomes a habit.
Alternatively, you could focus on the act of walking itself. As they go along, get your family or class to focus on breathing, and then to note what stepping on different surfaces feels like. Encourage them to be conscious of the motion itself, and of how their bodies feel. Are they tired and out of breath, or are they stimulated and alert? Noticing movements could include the feel of clothing against their bodies, and of how it sounds if it swishes and so on. Varying weather would make them aware of hair blowing, getting wet, sweating in warm or humid conditions, the smell of sun-touched skin, and of tingling hands on a frosty day.
Eating is another occupation that everyone is familiar with, but we don’t stop to appreciate the ritual on a regular basis. All too often, we’re in a rush to get somewhere, prefer to eat in front of the television or want to read the next chapter of a book. Even if we do the social thing and sit at a table as a family, there is, quite rightly, conversation and discussion, so that we don’t focus on the action of eating. The child first needs to look at the food item, turning it over, touching it and smelling it. Having examined it with all senses and bring an appetite to the fore, the food can be chewed and tasted slowly, giving it the full attention that it deserves.
Sounds are something else that we don’t always notice because they are constantly around us. Children, in particular, are surrounded by noise (as any parent or teacher will tell you), so it is really important for their development that they learn to distance themselves from all distractions for a while. After a breathing game, play a sound of the kind that can fade away gradually, such as a bell or a musical instrument, and ask them to indicate when they can no longer hear it. This can be repeated between bouts of the breathing exercises, to help the children to increase their attention span.
Music is a series of sounds that we can all connect with, and it has many uses and interpretations. It has a calming influence, will help children to recognise and express emotions, and encourages them to inhabit their own space, lost in their own thoughts. As an aid to concentration, go for finger exercises and interactive chants with younger kids and introduce songs for older ones. Get your young listeners to lose themselves in the melodies, and then ask them to describe how it makes them feel, or to express it by way of drawings.
The obvious way to develop this musical theme is to expand it to include dance, which will require concentration, as with meditation and will keep them very much in the present. Children love to dance or just to move, so this suggestion should be met with enthusiasm. It also encourages them to express themselves, and to release their emotions, just as music does.
Imagination is a big part of play for children, so you could get them to strike poses, as superheroes, for example, or whatever interests them. Then discuss with them how it makes them feel. If you’re teaching mindfulness in the classroom, this has obvious advantages as a group lesson.
Mindfulness activities can be used to encourage kids to get to know their physical selves and to see how their feelings can affect their bodies at any given time. They may be nervous in a certain situation, or about one that will occur later. They might feel happy about what they are doing, or sad about something. Getting to know, and to understand, their mental and physical state can help them to respond in positive ways as they grow up, when they may have more serious issues to deal with.
Use a similar approach to study the body itself, moving and stretching to get to know and understand how it works, and to recognise its limitations. This is a great way to gain isolation from our surroundings and to be at one with our physical selves, which children will love to do as a learning exercise.
Play and creativity are closely linked for the young, who are capable of giving them full attention for long periods. If you want to teach mindfulness to children, this is one of the easiest and most satisfying ways. Materials like paint or sand will allow them to fully immerse themselves in the game, and then when they are ready, you can suggest that they examine how the sand or water feels in their hands. Encourage them to think about the colours they have chosen, and to use brush strokes slowly and deliberately, as a form of therapy. This is a big part of teaching mindfulness in the classroom, where books and other resources are readily available.
In the Moment
A simple way to introduce mindfulness activities is to let the little ones just “be” in the moment. It may take longer to get somewhere or to do something, but they will be exploring procedures, weighing up options, and experiencing and enjoying all the sensations that a new experience or familiar routine can bring. They will learn from that and will gain confidence.
Some of these simple mindful moments for kids are particularly useful in the evenings and will help them to let go of the events of the day, as it draws to an end. Just “being” is appropriate for bedtime, too, and brings back body awareness. Get them to go over the parts of their bodies, naming and touching them. In turn, this ritual will help them to relax and to sleep better, because they are at peace with themselves, and left with a feeling of confidence that all is well with their world. They will be able to let go of any issues and worries, having dealt with them before bedtime.
Learning by Example
Don’t forget that your young charges will learn by your example, even if neither you nor they realise it’s happening. So the final suggestion for anyone who wants to teach mindfulness to children is to brush up on their own awareness and approach to situations. Seeing your responses over time will benefit them, making for a kinder and less stressful environment. And do share in the activies whenever possible and appropriate. You’ll be surprised at how much fun you have, and the children will get the hang of things much more quickly. You can develop your ideas and your expertise within a group setting, to the advantage of all. If they later want to continue independently of you, you’ll know you have set them on the right path – and you will then be well-equipped to continue working on your own mindfulness and meditation skills!