Mindfulness is a buzzword these days. From mindful eating to mindful parenting, the idea is catching on. Even CEOs of large companies are setting aside time for mindfulness to increase employee productivity and satisfaction. However, many of us may not know exactly what this trend means and what separates mindfulness from meditation.
Meditation involves four levels of deep concentration with the ultimate goal being to completely silence the mind.
Mindfulness simply means that we are paying close attention to the present moment without critique of our current state. The idea is to be accepting of wherever you are and more aware of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The goal being to minimize stress caused by wanting to change our situation, and to be better connected to our bodies and minds so that we are less reactive and more kind, compassionate, and present with ourselves and others.
While this is a hard concept to grasp for adults, it's even tricker to explain to children. The good news is that we don’t necessarily need to explain it in this way to them, but rather we can show them what it means to be mindful. There is a lot to gain from teaching mindfulness to our young ones. Below are some exercises that parents, teachers, and yoga teachers can try with kids of all ages.
1. Before School Age: Counting the Breath
For kids who are yet to start formal schooling, practicing mindfulness can be a great way to regulate emotions and offer a form of self-soothing. Mindfulness exercises involve breathing — one of the easiest ways to calm down when we’re upset. This is especially useful for kids in the “terrible twos” and beyond who have trouble coming down from a tantrum.
I’ve watched on in amazement as my best friend walked her tantruming two year old through a breathing sequence. Within a minute he was calm and able to articulate what was upsetting him.
This can be as simple as having your child breathe in for three seconds, hold it for three, and breathe out for three. By doing so, they have to consciously slow their breathing, and by extension, calm their body. This creates a space where they can reset and reflect on the situation at hand (or maybe not, they are two after all).
With a little practice, this simple exercise can lead to a few less tears and set a foundation for a childhood with emotional balance and functional coping skills.
2. Ages 5-10: Animal Breathing Exercises
Once in school, most of a child’s day is a structured, even pressured environment that focuses on specific results. There is little attention on the emotional wellbeing of our students. While some schools are becoming more open to mindfulness classes, many students experience stress and anxiety with no learned way to deal with it.
Making mindfulness fun and accessible to kids is as easy introducing different types of breathing. Breathing exercises can be both energizing and calming. Energizing exercises are perfect for the mid-afternoon to bring alertness to the body and mind. Calming exercises are great for teachers to try after recess to bring down the energy level in the classroom.
For a calming exercise, try the “Bumblebee Breath,” by inhaling through the nose and then pursing the lips and humming as you breathe out. By creating a sensation in the mouth, the attention goes to that spot, and the mind becomes quiet.
The “Lion Breath” is an energizing breath. Have the kids breathe in through their mouth and then loudly exhale all their air while sticking out their tongue, as if they are a growling lion. By deeply inhaling and exhaling fully, they are ridding their bodies of stale air and taking in fresh, originated air — which leads to more energy.
3. Pre-teens and Teens: Body Scan
These are the years when stress and anxiety can become severe. There is a lot of pressure on pre-teens and teens to perform well in school, stay out of trouble, and think about the next stage of their lives, all while trying to forge an identity and deal with the changes going on in their bodies. This is one of the most important times to utilize mindfulness.
At this age, kids are less willing to look silly and participate in animal themed breathing, but they do welcome a way to unwind and relax after the school day. One of my favorite actives to do with teens is a body scan.
Have them lay down and relax their body. Then, starting with the feet and working up, bring attention to each body part, encouraging them to send the breath there, and then completely relax it. Include the areas of the body where tension lives like the belly, shoulders, neck, and face.
While this exercise is not technically mindfulness because it is active, it can lead teens to a quiet head space where they can simply lay down and breathe — and that is mindfulness.
4. Pre-teens and Teens: Mindfulness in Daily Life
We can also encourage teens to be more mindful in whatever activities they take part in.
They are able to grasp the idea of being present and how it can help deal with stress. Explain how being mindful at their soccer game, while swimming, or while running can make these actives more enjoyable.
Even if they are doing something unpleasant — like homework — by accepting that moment without daydreaming of hanging out with friends, it becomes more manageable and less stressful.
Introducing a consistent mindfulness practice is an incredible way to set kids up for success in life. The hope is that they will be more connected to themselves, more thoughtful with their actions, and better able to regulate their emotions and behavior.
Mindfulness teaches them to take a step back when things get tough, and deal with life one breath at a time.