Mindfulness Exercises for Kids

First things first…

Establish your own practice. You would have trouble teaching your children ballet if you had never danced. To authentically teach mindfulness to your children, you need to practice it yourself. You can read my guide to establishing a meditation practice here, or my popular post 40 Ways to Bring Mindfulness to Your Days here for some ideas to get started. Don’t let this step intimidate you — you’re probably practicing a lot of mindful habits already!

Check your expectations. A core principle of mindfulness is letting go of expectations, and this certainly applies to teaching mindfulness to kids. Are you expecting mindfulness to eliminate tantrums? to make your active child calm? to make your house quiet? If so, you are likely to be disappointed. While feeling calm or being quiet are nice side-effects of mindfulness, they are not the ultimate purpose.

The purpose of teaching mindfulness to our children is to give them skills to develop their awareness of their inner and outer experiences, to recognize their thoughts as “just thoughts,” to understand how emotions manifest in their bodies, to recognize when their attention has wandered, and to provide tools for impulse control. It is not a panacea, and it will not completely get rid of what is, frankly, normal kid behavior, like tantrums and loudness and whining and exuberance and arguing…

Don’t force it. If your kids aren’t interested in your lesson or activity, drop it. This is a good time for you to practice non-attachment to outcomes!

Don’t make mindfulness a punishment. This shouldn’t be, “You hit your sister! Go sit in the mindful corner!” ’nuff said.

Now that we’ve got the preliminaries out of the way, here are my suggestions for how you can begin to introduce mindfulness to your children.

10 Ways to Teach Mindfulness to Kids

1. Keep it simple. With older kids, you can share the widely-used definition from Jon Kabat-Zinn in the image above. But those are a lot of big words for little kids. I prefer to use the words awareness or noticing with my children {ages 5 and 7, for reference}. Mindfulness is noticing our thoughts, what our body feels like, what our ears are hearing, and anything else that is around us and happening right now.


2. Listen to the bell. An easy way for children to practice mindfulness is to focus on paying attention to what they can hear. I’ve used a singing bowl, like the one on the right, for this exercise, but you could use a bell, a set of chimes, or a phone app that has sounds on it. Tell your children that you will make the sound, and they should listen carefully until they can no longer hear the sound (which is usually 30 seconds to a minute). I find that this exercise does have a calming effect on my children, and it’s a fun way to teach them to pay attention to their surroundings.

3. Create a mindful bedtime ritual. Bedtime is a great time to introduce mindfulness to kids. My daughter loves to do a short body-scan meditation before bed — she closes her eyes, and I tell her to bring her attention to her toes, to her feet, to her legs, etc. It is a calming way to return to the body at the end of the day. You can find several downloadable meditation scripts (including body scans) here, and you can read about the bedtime ritual my daughter and I created here.

4. Practice with a breathing buddy. For young children, an instruction to simply “pay attention to the breath” can be hard to follow. In this Edutopia video, Daniel Goleman describes a 2nd-grade classroom that does a “breathing buddy” exercise: each student grabs a stuffed animal, and then lies down on their back with their buddy on their belly. They focus their attention on the rise and fall of the stuffed animal as they breathe in and out. {You should definitely check out the video — it’s less than 2 minutes and explains the exercise and all the good stuff that it teaches kids!}

 

5. Make your walks mindful. One of my children’s favorite things to do in the summer is a “noticing walk.” We stroll through our neighborhood and notice things we haven’t seen before. We’ll designate one minute of the walk where we are completely silent and simply pay attention to all the sounds we can hear — frogs, woodpeckers, a lawnmower. We don’t even call it “mindfulness,” but that’s what it is.

6. Establish a gratitude practice. I believe gratitude is a fundamental component of mindfulness, teaching our children to appreciate the abundance in their lives, as opposed to focusing on all the toys and goodies that they crave. This post describes my family’s nightly gratitude practice — each night at dinner we each share one thing we are thankful for. It is one of my favorite parts of the day.

7. Try the SpiderMan meditation! My five-year-old son is in to all things superheroes, and this SpiderMan meditation is right up his alley. This meditation from Kids Relaxationteaches children to activate their “spidey-senses” and their ability to focus on all they can smell, taste, and hear in the present moment. Such a clever idea!

8. Meditate with your children. I cannot even tell you how many times my meditation sessions have been interrupted by my children. They know by now what mommy is doing when she meditates, so I will try tocontinue with my meditation even as they play around me. Sometimes, my daughter will sit down and join me for a few minutes. It’s beautiful.

9. Check your personal weather report. In Sitting Still Like a Frog, Eline Snel encourages children to “summon the weather report that best describes [their] feelings at the moment.” Sunny, rainy, stormy, calm, windy, tsunami? This activity allows children to observe their present state without overly identifying with their emotions. They can’t change the weather outside, and we can’t change our emotions or feelings either. All we can change is how we relate to them. As Snel describes it, children can recognize, “I am not the downpour, but I notice that it is raining; I am not a scaredy-cat, but I realize that sometimes I have this big scared feeling somewhere near my throat.”

10. Practice mindful eating. The exercise of mindfully eating a raisin or a piece of chocolate is a staple of mindfulness education, and is a great activity for kids. You can find a script for a 7-minute mindful eating exercise for children here. This is a fun way to teach children to pay attention to and savor their food, and by extension, the present moment.

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Above all, remember to have fun and keep it simple. You can provide your children with many opportunities to add helpful practices to their toolkit — some of them will work for them and some won’t. But it’s fun to experiment!

Sarah Rudell Beach

Executive Director at Brilliant Mindfulness

Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.