I recently attended a workshop led by the fantastic Louise Shanagher, which was all about how we can teach mindfulness techniques to children.
Put simply, mindfulness is a practice of focusing on being in the present moment and setting aside mental distractions. There are many benefits associated with the practice of mindfulness, ranging from improved sleep patterns, reduced anxiety, and improved interpersonal relationships. But what are the benefits for children?
Research has shown that children who practice mindfulness experience the following benefits, among others:
- Improved attention span (great for school and homework)
- Greater compassion for themselves and others
- More capable of regulating their emotions
- Calmer in stressful situations
- Reduced anxiety or stress
You're probably thinking "how do you expect me to possibly get my child to sit still and focus on being present, silently?" I hear you. But it is possible and I'll explain a few techniques for how you can do just that.
1. Watch the clouds together
Lying in the grass watching the clouds float by is something we've all done at some stage in our lives and is a great opportunity to have a mindful moment with your child. While you're observing the different shapes and animals that the clouds are forming into, mention gently to your child "notice how the clouds disappear after a short amount of time. This is like the thoughts in our minds, they're always floating by but they never stick around too long."
This teaches them that even when the most stressful or negative thoughts enter our minds, they do not define us and they will fade away eventually.
2. Teach them (don't tell them) to pay attention
As a parent or guardian, we know our children need to pay attention in order to learn. They need to listen, stop what they're doing, avoid distractions, and really focus. But have you ever taught them how to do that? Are you yourself distracted most of the time? Don't forget, children are imitating everything they see us do so if you're constantly distracted by your phone, running errands, cleaning the house or stressing about work, you're not showing them what paying attention looks like.
The next time they're not focused enough to pay attention to their homework, stop what you're doing and show them how to remove distractions. Take a few deep breaths together, put on some concentration music, take all devices out of the room, and sit still while they are.
3. Use all 5 of our senses to get into the present
49% of the time our minds are wandering so it's no surprise that it's extremely challenging for us to bring ourselves into the present. This is probably even higher for children who are curious and many things are brand new for. A great technique for bringing your mind into the here and now is to use your five senses: smell, touch, sight, hearing, and taste.
Ask your child to find something to stimulate all five of their senses. What can they hear? What can they smell? Have them pick up something and feel all the textures. Give them a piece of food and tell them to hold it on their tongue for 5 seconds. Talk to them about each sense and ask them what their experience was like with each one. Did anything surprise them?
4. Draw what's in your mind
I thought this was an eye-opening exercise that adults could also benefit from. Simply ask the child to draw what they see inside their mind. When they've completed that, get them to look up and draw what they can physically see in the room or space they're in. Then ask them to spot the difference. They will likely end up with two very different drawings which gives you the opportunity to talk about all the things they're missing out on because they're living inside their mind and not paying attention to the here and now.
5. Hot Chocolate Breath
I purchased a beautiful little book at the workshop which is called The Alphabreaths and is an illustrated book that teaches children different kinds of mindful breaths. One that Louise mentioned that wasn't in the book was the hot chocolate breath which I really liked because my nine year old niece adores hot chocolate and I could see this one working really well for her.
It's based on the premise that slowing our breath down to 4-6 breaths per minute is proven to switch off the amygdala part of the brain which triggers the fight or flight reaction. When this is firing, we can't see logic and so calming a child who's amygdala is on fire is pretty much impossible.
With the hot chocolate breath, which you can either do using an imaginary cup or with an actual cup of hot chocolate, the goal is to take a breath in and then blow out to cool down the hot chocolate. Tell your child that this is very hot hot chocolate so will need several big long blows before they can drink it.
This should get their breath to slow down just about enough to relax the amygdala and allow the part of their brain that can see logic and reason to kick into gear. Now, you'll have more success getting through to them.
6. The Ninja Walk
This one might work particularly well for active boys who don't want to draw or watch the clouds with you. A ninja's super power is the ability to get passed anyone without being heard or seen. Challenge your child to ninja walk through a room without being noticed by you or anyone else. Without realising it, they'll be mindful walking, aware of every step they take, every obstacle in their way, and every sound they make.
7. Play Simon Says
I used to love this game and was delighted to hear that it's actually a really beneficial game for children to practice their active listening, controlling impulses, and reading social cues. If you're not familiar with the rules of the game read about it here.
8. Have them pick an instrument in their favourite song
If you have older children who listen to music all day long, this one could resonate well with them. Many of us have our favourite songs that we've listened to hundreds of times and teenagers are great for that too. To make it a mindful moment, ask the child to pick out one instrument in the song and focus on it throughout the entire song.
Ask them if they had noticed that instrument in the song before? Did it change how the song sounded to them? Is there another instrument they picked up along the way and want to go back and focus on the next time? It's a fun exercise and a great way to get them to focus only on the present for the duration of the song. And that's a welcome break for any teenager!
9. When you see a stop sign, stop everything.
This is another one that can be done together with the child on the way to school for example, or individually (yes, adults too). It's a simple yet effective one. When you see a stop sign, stop everything. Point it out to the child and say "oh look, a stop sign, let's stop everything and just focus on our breathing". Eventually the child will start letting you know when there's a stop sign nearby and you can take the opportunity to relax, come back to the present, put aside the distractions in your head and just take a deep breath.
Those are some of the best techniques I learned at the workshop for teaching mindfulness to children. If you liked this article, please share it with anyone else you think would benefit from it and subscribe to our mailing list to be notified of more articles like this one!